An American Editor

May 14, 2014

Are University Presses Missing Out on Sales?

I recently bought a half-dozen hardcover books published by university presses, such as The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 by Lisa Tetrault (University of North Carolina Press) and Confronting the Good Death: Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945-1953 by Michael S. Bryant (University Press of Colorado). I considered buying several more books published by university presses but didn’t, and it is the reason why I didn’t and the reason why I didn’t buy the books I did buy directly from the presses that is the topic of this article.

(On the off-chance someone from a university press is reading this essay, let me say that the way I found some of the books — both those bought and those I thought about buying — is from ads in the New York Review of Books or their being reviewed or mentioned in a review in the NYRB.)

What would have induced me to buy the additional books even though the cost was high?

As is typically the case with university press books, they are expensive and only slightly discounted (usually 5% to 10%) by booksellers. Consequently, I think carefully about whether to buy a book. The other problem is that although I want to buy the hardcover for my library, I would prefer, in many cases, to read the book as an ebook. Some of the books, like the two I identified above, are not available in ebook form; others that I did consider buying but didn’t buy are available in both print and ebook formats.

And that is where the university presses are failing in their sales pitch. Why not make their books more attractive by including a free ebook version to anyone who pays list price? I know that rather than save 5% on a book, I would rather have a free ebook version, and I am confident that there is a group of consumers who think the same.

I grant that many of the books published by university presses are of interest only to academics. I own several that I would be surprised even if fellow academics found comprehensible, but which I bought because I am interested in the topic. (Alas, these books are so dense that years later they are still unfinished, although they do look nice on my library shelves.)

I understand that an ebook is not cheap to produce. However, if properly planned for during the production stages of the print book, the cost is significantly less than if the job had to be tackled from the beginning. If done simultaneously with the print version, the cost is very minimal today.

The idea of buying the hardcover version and getting a free ebook version is not new but it is an idea that has yet to be implemented fully by university presses.

The logistics are not all that difficult. More difficult is getting people to part with $60 for a book, even with a free ebook. University presses charge such high prices because sales are expected to be very limited, in some instances at most a few hundred books. But I suspect that their books would have increased sales with the ebook sweetener. Perhaps not lifting a book into six-figure sales, but perhaps into five-figure sales.

Yet it is not enough to have such a program in place; it has to be advertised. If I were running the university press, I would start by advertising that for a limited time, if a reader buys the book directly from the press, the reader will also receive the free ebook. Eventually I would expand the program so that booksellers could also offer the free ebook.

Once I started advertising the buy-with-free-ebook scheme, I would be certain that I did at least two things: First, I would be sure to add purchaser names and addresses to my mailing list so I could notify them of new releases and deals. Second, I would track sales carefully to try to determine whether the bonus ebook increases nonacademic sales.

University presses serve a very important function in publishing. The question is for how much longer will they be able to survive and fulfill that function in the absence of increased sales. Because their function is to publish academically worthy books rather than “bestsellers,” profits and sales numbers — although important — are secondary considerations. But at some point, as some university presses have already discovered, they become primary considerations.

Few university presses are prepared for that moment when profits and sales numbers become primary considerations; it goes against the primary purpose of the press. But thinking about how to increase sales, making plans to do so, and implementing those plans is something every university press should do. For buyers of university press books like me, one answer to how to increase sales is to include a free ebook version of the hardcover book. I know that had at least several, if not all, of the books I considered buying but decided not to buy had included the free ebook, I would have bought the books.

Would a free ebook version induce you to buy a book?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 13, 2011

On Books: Wondering Why Stieg Larsson

Sometimes one has to go with the flow because there is some unknown force that pushes you along that path. I find that most frequently happens when I am “pushed” toward the local Dairy Queen for soft-serve ice cream — for our dog! Yes, our Lily, a 12-year-old cocker spaniel, loves ice cream and Dairy Queen’s in particular.

Unfortunately, that push also sometimes shoves me toward a particular book: Because millions are reading it, I sometimes get “pushed” toward the need to read this book of millions to discover why. Usually finding out why simply reinforces my belief that bestsellers too often fail the discerning reader test (i.e., no discerning reader would ever read this book!), which is why I rarely buy or read books on the bestseller lists.

Well this unknown force pushed me to read the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Thankfully, there will be no followup books to this trilogy.

I read the trilogy a couple of months ago and thought it deserved a rating of 2 stars maximum in my system (see On Books: Indie eBooks Worth Reading (I)) except that my system’s 2-star rating doesn’t seem to cover a book that has nearly no spelling errors, few grammar errors, is published by a traditional publisher, but is atrociously bad reading. That’s because my rating system was designed for indie books, not traditional books. So, we’ll just have to temporarily adapt.

The Millennium Trilogy is a 1.5- to 2-star series on almost any 1 to 5 rating scale. Whatever compelled people to buy the books is elusive — except that the lead character, Lisbeth Salander, is an interesting, albeit unbelievable, character who tends to rope you into wondering what next will happen in her world (in a way these books demonstrate the value of character-driven books; see On Books: Plot-Driven, Character-Driven, Hybrid? and On Books: Plot, Character, Hybrid & the Long Tail). To me, these books are like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code — superficial quick reads that help pass time without taxing any cognitive processes whatsoever. Perhaps the books are better in their original language (Swedish) than in the translation; one can only hope.

Okay, you have the picture — I don’t think the books are worth buying let alone reading (50 million buyers worldwide say contrariwise) so why am I writing a “review”? I wouldn’t have in the normal course of events. My general policy is not even to mention, except in the On Today’s Bookshelf articles, books that I think so little of. What made me write this article (anybody remember comedian Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine and her line “The devil made me do it!”?) was a review of these books in The New York Review of Books (NYRB) a couple of weeks ago that I just got around to reading.

The Moralist by Tim Parks, is a NYRB review well worth reading by those who have bought the Trilogy but not yet read it; those who have bought the Trilogy and have read it; those who are thinking of plunking down hard-earned money to buy the Trilogy but haven’t yet done so; and those who have no intention of either buying or reading the Trilogy because the article is well worth reading in its own right. It is also a good article to read by anyone who is interested in getting a feel for the types of articles and reviews that NYRB publishes.

My commentary here is really less about Larsson’s Trilogy than about encouraging those who are interested in books and culture to read NYRB, and perhaps subscribe to it. Articles in NYRB are significantly different from reviews one reads in, for example, the New York Times Book Review (NYTBR). There was a time when I read the NYTBR faithfully every week. When I first discovered NYRB years ago, I faithfully read both the NYRB and the NYTBR but soon discovered that the NYTBR was not of the same quality caliber as NYRB, with the result that my faithfulness to the NYTBR began to wane and today I barely look at the NYTBR. Instead, I eagerly await the next issue of NYRB.

One of the problems with book buying today is that there are so many books published and so few trustworthy reviews of them. No magazine, no online site can put a true dent into the numbers — the number of reviews will always be an infinitesimal fraction of the number of books published, which problem is exacerbated by the easiness of self-publishing ebooks. But I seek some guidance from somewhere that is reliable and I have no faith whatsoever in the anonymous reviews at places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Although I have high praise for NYRB, it does have its faults. For example, it has yet to introduce to the print version a “column” devoted to ebooks. It needs to do so and it needs to begin reviewing books that are available only as ebooks, as well as books that are available in both p and e versions. NYRB also fails to identify the formats that the books it does review are available in and whether there are problems with the production. But for content review, NYRB can’t be beat.

I hope some of you will take the time to read  The Moralist by Tim Parks and take a look at NYRB with an eye toward making it a regular stop for interesting commentary and reviews, and perhaps even becoming a subscriber. (For those of you who wonder about the ideological slant of NYRB, it is a liberal/left-leaning publication, but I have only found that evident in its commentaries, not in its book reviews.)

Disclosure: I am not now and never have been associated with NYRB in any fashion, manner, way other than being a long-term subscriber to the print edition. I receive no compensation from NYRB, not even a calendar or a T-shirt. FWIW, my current subscription, for which I duly paid the full subscription price, expires in 2015 and I will extend it as soon as NYRB permits. (They are unwilling to take more than one 3-year extension at a time or I would have extended my subscription into the 2020s already.)

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