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

April 8, 2010

Can eBooks Save University Presses?

University presses are very important in the world of scholarly nonfiction publishing. Like many other small businesses, they are suffering in today’s economy — and have been suffering even when economic times have been good. University presses (UPs) bring prestige to a university and publish work that the for-profit commercial publishers, like Hachette and Random House, often will not publish because expected sales are so low and the reading audience so narrow and/or small.

UPs are generally subsidized by their schools. Absent the subsidies, there would be few, if any, UPs (excluding the giants like Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). But when university budgets need reducing, UP budgets are often among the first to get sliced.

One problem that UPs face is that of book pricing. To make a book potentially profitable, the UPs have to list their books at high prices, much higher than the commercial presses. It is rare for a UP to have a runaway bestseller that is able to carry several other titles with it. And as we book buyers know, the higher the price, the less likely the book is to have mass appeal and sell in significant numbers. I suspect, but do not know for certain, that the largest number of UP sales are to libraries, the repositories of knowledge in a community, whose own budgets are being squeezed. As always, there is a ripple effect.

So that raises the question of the role of ebooks in the future of UPs. There are lots of hurdles that need to be overcome, not least of which is establishing an authoritative version (see Will eBooks Return Us to the Days of the Scribe? and eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite for a discussion of the problems of constant revising). The printed book is a resource to which all readers can look and see exactly the same content; the ebook is a resource that has the potential to never be settled thus even readers who look at an ebook have no assurance that they are seeing the same content.

We know that distribution and production costs are reduced with ebooks. Other costs remain the same as compared to a print version. If only an ebook version is produced, composition costs can be significantly reduced because a single template can be created into which content can be flowed — or so one would think. The reality is different, unfortunately. There may well be a change in composition costs, but it might not be less than for a print book, at least not under the current standards. As standards improve and become more nonfiction centric (as opposed to the current fiction centric), composition costs may well be reduced.

But there are advantages to an ebook that do not exist with a pbook. The obvious one is ease of delivery. It costs virtually nothing to deliver an ebook over the Internet. Perhaps the most important advantage for UPs, however, is the ease with which new editions can be created as new information is discovered. Modifying an electronic file is significantly easier than recreating a print version. And this might be the way for UPs to capitalize on ebooks: encouraging authors to continue with their research and update their books.

In fact, UPs should consider selling books as subscriptions rather than as final sales. Today, when I buy a UP published book, I get today’s offering and nothing more. Perhaps the author is continuing to work on the project or perhaps other scholars are using the particular book as the basis for their own enhancements to it. If so, I do not get the benefit of that work for many years, until a new edition is published or another author publishes a followup work, if ever.

A subscription, on the other hand, could serve me, the UP, and the author well. The UP would get a constant stream of revenue; the author would receive a constant stream of royalty as an incentive to continue research in the subject matter; I would get a constantly updated book. Granted this wouldn’t work with all UP offerings, but it shouldn’t be difficult to isolate those offerings for which it would.

A scheme such as this would also allow the UP the option of not offering a pbook version. Or it could offer a pbook and ebook in tandem (see eBooks & pBooks in Tandem), with the ebook being a subscription. The pbook would serve as the base, authoritative, original version of the work and the ebook would serve as a planned update service to the original research, whether by the original author or by other scholars in the field. This in-tandem combination would allow an initial sales capture (with its revenue) and an ongoing subscription sale (with its revenue).

Once this concept took root, there would be nothing to prevent UPs from creating packages of related books and ebooks that could include backlist titles and even forthcoming titles. For example, if the UP created a series on the history of the Tennessee Army in the Civil War, it could offer a subscription ebook series that included the first title in the series and the next 5 titles. By buying a subscription, the reader would be assured of getting the information and the UP would know sales in advance and revenues in advance. The subscriptions would encourage authors to continue their research and to share it with others via this model. The UP could even follow the Baen model of offering forthcoming manuscript in various stages and inviting readers to give the author feedback on everything from content to composition.

Perhaps not a perfect model, and really more just a collection of thoughts, but the UPs need to be forward thinking if for no other reason than we rely on UPs to preserve knowledge as nonprofit presses. The subscription concept could be a win-win-win — for readers, authors, and UPs.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: