Surveying (Photo credit: Wessex Archaeology)

As I announced on the Kitchen a while back, I have been working on a research project in the university press area. Specifically, I have been trying to determine how university presses could sell more books, both print and electronic, directly from their Web sites. There may be several posts to come from this research, but for now I want simply to report what the participating presses had to say about their operations and their aspirations for direct-to-consumer (D2C) sales.

The survey was put into a Web form, which the presses were invited to fill out. Sixty-nine did so, which is a considerable portion of the total press community. The aim of the online survey was to capture specific data; I have been following up with telephone interviews with many of the respondents in order to get at more qualitative information. On the forms I gathered the name, title, and institution of each respondent; the press’s total book sales last year; the percentage of those sales that took place on the Web site; and a few other questions that invited interpretation (how big do you think the opportunity is for D2C marketing?).

Most presses reported that they do indeed sell books from their Web sites. Indeed, every press has a complete catalogue of their books online, no doubt the only place you can see a press’s entire set of offerings in one place. (Is it not odd that you cannot go to Amazon and request: “Show me a complete catalogue of all books published by The University of Michigan Press”–or Harvard, or Stanford, or NYU?) Not surprisingly, many presses had not yet begun to sell ebooks from their site, and many of those who do sell ebooks are restricted to PDFs, which are difficult to read on mobile devices. The press world at this time is principally a print world, though that is changing. A lack of technical resources is the principal reason that presses don’t sell ebooks, but some presses also cite discomfort with piracy and a desire not to compete with bookstores.

If I may editorialize here, another reason is the vexed problem of ebook platforms. Getting books onto the Kindle or into the Apple iBookstore is one thing (Apple is exceedingly difficult to work with, though I am hearing rumors of a thaw), but any publisher that wishes to sell its own ebooks directly from their Web site has to wrestle with the problem of making an appropriate ereader available, whether that ereader is a physical device or a software application. And that question in turn brings us back to technical proficiency and resources for such things as customer service.

In order to sell things, you have to bring people into the store. This translates into Web traffic: How many people come to my Web site, are they the right profile for prospective purchasers, and how can I increase their numbers?  On this point the presses had a range of responses. Some presses are diligent about monitoring their Web traffic and have a staff member who puts in at least some time into enhancing the site and promoting books and authors through social media, but others do not. Some presses say they are implementing a plan to improve their Web traffic or that they are considering the creation of such a plan, but others are not focused on their Web sites. Since Web traffic is essential for selling D2C, for those presses without strong Web marketing programs, the opportunity to increase Web site sales is small or nonexistent.

Despite what I would characterize as an underappreciation of the role of Web traffic by a large proportion of the press community, the presses’ responses to another of the questions was at times surprising, even aggressive. The question was, How big an opportunity do you see in D2C sales? This was a multiple choice question: Do you see a big opportunity, a modest opportunity, or only a very small opportunity? I defined a big opportunity as a situation in which the sales through D2C marketing comprised 10% or more of a press’s total sales volume–my reasoning being that 10% was a number that was simply too big to ignore, but it presupposes a robust marketing effort in other channels such as libraries and bookstores. The answers were all over the place: some said big opportunity, some said modest, some said there was only a small opportunity.

What to make of this?  The idea that there could be an opportunity at 10% or more of total volume has to be contrasted with the actual D2C sales that the presses are reporting, figures which mostly hover around 1% of total sales. Is there an opportunity for a ten-fold increase? Interestingly, a small number of presses reported D2C sales of around 3% of total volume. These are presses that have spent some time on their Web sites, have carefully developed their online catalogues (and don’t bury them a dozen clicks below the home page), and offer both print and electronic books. It seems reasonable to me to set a target of 3% for any press that is not achieving that level of D2C sales now, reasonable because other presses are already doing this, so this is not a wild fantasy. But to get to 10% is another matter. We don’t yet have the idea for how to take a university press up to that level. (Yes, that could be the subject of another post.)

There was one add-on question that did not directly concern D2C sales: What percentage of your business, measured in dollars, was through Amazon for both print and electronic books? Note that this question did not address indirect sales through Amazon, as when a press sells a book to a wholesaler who then resells it to Amazon; Amazon’s sales, in other words, are almost certainly higher than the presses are reporting. Most presses reported sales of over 30%; no one reported sales of 50%. But a number of presses had sales in the single digits, which implies that they mostly service Amazon through wholesalers. I suspect, but cannot prove, that when wholesalers that service Amazon are taken into account, Amazon constitutes about 40% of university press sales volume, a figure that is growing. In light of this, trying to get to 10% for D2C sales does not seem terribly ambitious.

The overall impression I am left with from this survey is that D2C sales for university presses are mostly aspirational. On the other hand, with some presses already achieving 3% of sales from their Web sites, that aspiration can be placed into a practical context; 3% is tangible. What will be necessary for the press world to increase that percentage has much to do with a rethinking of one aspect of their programs: they are not just book publishers now; they also have to be Web publishers.

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


35 Thoughts on "A Survey of University Presses"

Reblogged this on Progressive Geographies and commented:
Some interesting information on university presses, including the revelation that for many presses their own websites account for only 1% of sales…

“Is it not odd that you cannot go to Amazon and request: “Show me a complete catalogue of all books published by The University of Michigan Press”–or Harvard, or Stanford, or NYU?”

Is it odd? Surely it just reflects that Amazon is set up to meet buyers’ needs, not those of publishers? I can honestly say I’ve never in my life bought a book or not based on who the publishers is. That’s just not of interest to most (all?) readers.

Sorting by publisher might be a useful discovery tool, just as sorting by author is, so I am surprised that Amazon does not do this. Is the publisher not part of their metadata?

Amazon has the publishers’ names. If you go to any book entry on Amazon and scroll down, you will find the publisher’s name near the bottom, generally buried under amateur reviews. I believe the downgrading of the publisher’s name is a deliberate strategy of Amazon’s.

“I believe the downgrading of the publisher’s name is a deliberate strategy of Amazon’s.”

I agree in so far as I’m sure it’s not an accidental oversight. The question is what goal are they deliberately aiming towards in omitting sort-by-publisher? I think you may be implying that it’s a deliberate slight to publishers; I think it’s much more likely to be a matter of providing the tools that their users want, and not complicating the UI with tools that they don’t want. If I search for a book by title — The Last Man Who Knew Everything, say — and find that there are several books of that name, I am much more likely to respond “I want the one by Leonard Warren” than “I want the one published by Yale University Press. Isn’t everyone?

Of course you can search Amazon by publisher; I do it all the time. Simply go to the book section and click “Advanced Search.” There will be a field for “publisher.”

The problem is that I would never search for a specific university press; their offerings are way too diverse. But for small publishers who specialize in a specific type of book, it is quite useful.

The way forward for small independent publishers is direct sales; however, they must be at least somewhat competitive on price but more importantly, competitive on convenience of ordering. If you’re not upfront about shipping costs or make me use PayPal to order your books (I’m looking at you, Melville House) I’m going to choose the convenience of Amazon every time, regardless of ethical considerations.

Good to know that one can search by publisher, Thom. I was relying on what others had said, which I thought strange to begin with.

The key question (which I’m sure you’re going to address in subsequent posts in this series) is: why would someone go to the trouble of buying from a publisher rather than from a vendor such as Amazon where they already have an account? And surely the only realistic answer is price. Looking at the Geological Society’s book Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective, I see that their own page offers it for exactly the same (very high) price as the Amazon page. In the absence of some other strong incentive, this is a no-brainer for most buyers: they’ll choose the two or three clicks of buying from Amazon over the lengthy process of subscribing to a new vendor.

Bottom line: publishers wanting to sell books direct need to do it at a lower price that the mass vendors offer.

You are of course correct that price is a factor, but what is known is that people already are purchasing books directly from publishers even when Amazon’s price is lower. Many explanations for this, some of which may actually be true, but it does lead me to conclude that purchasing is not simply an act of taking out a calculator.

No one knows that number for books. I want to reiterate that in the survey, I defined a big opportunity for the direct sale of books as 10% of total volume. So I am not suggesting that price does not matter. My own view (gut instinct; zero evidence) is that price is half to maybe 70% of the purchasing driver. But price varies by customer, as we know when we buy an Apple product over the cheaper alternatives.

Ah, but that is not at all the same! When I buy a Mac instead of a Hewlett-Packard PC running Windows, I am getting a different product — one that I think is worth paying more for. But whether I buy Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians from Amazon or from the Geological Society, I get exactly the same book.

My last comment on this thread, Mike. The situation is much more complicated than you imply, but you are right to say that Amazon’s motivations may have something to do with the perceived benefit to the customer. But if you read Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store” about Amazon, you may conclude that Amazon’s notion of what customers want is filled with many self-serving biases. Stone’s book, by the way, is published by Little Brown. That’s one reason to read it.

Last comment too: sorry if anything I wrote gave the impression that I think Amazon is disinterested and altruistic! I am very far from believing that! What I do believe is that their financial success is much more dependent on making customers happy than making publishers happy, and that this explains many of their choices.

It is easy to understand why consumers use Amazon to buy books (pricing, convenience, reduced shipping costs, etc.). University presses would like direct sales from their customers but we can assume that many books that are discovered on university press websites (or elsewhere) will be purchased through Amazon.

It’s interesting to see so many reacting to this posting with questions about why one would choose to purchase a book directly from a publisher over purchasing it from Amazon. I’m not sure that’s the right question. Instead, how about asking, what would happen if the book were only available online directly from the publisher and Amazon was cut out of the picture?

For a publisher, it’s preferable to sell the book directly to the customer. You make more money, even selling at a nice discount, directly to the customer rather than selling at a bigger discount to a reseller like Amazon. You also create a direct relationship with that customer and can gather data on your customers, whereas Amazon offers you no such information.

The downside is a reduction in discoverability and convenience. If you knew you wanted to buy a book and it wasn’t available from Amazon, would you still buy it? Amazon already has your credit card number, and you’ve likely already paid them for Amazon Prime shipping. This is much more convenient for a customer than buying from a site they’ve never encountered before. Similarly, most customers are going to search for a book on Amazon before they do so on Google.

You’d also lose out on customers who happened to stumble across your book on Amazon’s site. If it’s not there, they can’t discover it.

That’s the sort of questions publishers must ask themselves–could you survive selling fewer books at a higher margin if you pulled the plug on Amazon? This gets further complicated because you’d still be competing against Amazon selling used copies of your books.

“That’s the sort of questions publishers must ask themselves–could you survive selling fewer books at a higher margin if you pulled the plug on Amazon?”

This is a crucial question — not just because it’s economically interesting, but because it shows how the problem arises of publishers’ goals not being aligned with those of their authors. As one of the (many) authors in the History of Dinosaurs volume I mentioned a couple of times above, I would much rather the Geological Society sold many more copies at a lower price. If instead they would the price up yet further (reducing the readership of my chapter), they would be acting directly against my interests as an author — not to mention my colleagues’ interests as readers.

I don’t know what the solution to this is (at least as regards books: clearly I think Gold OA is the answer for journal articles). I just raise it as a fine example of a very fundamental problem. Authors use the services of publishers, but authors’ and publishers’ goals are different.

The problem is that University Presses continue to think of ebooks (and books in general) in terms of discrete “distribution channels” and not an integrated user experience. Imagine that a university press sells its books as well as journals and other reference works in an integrated online bundled — a digital library for lack of a better term. Then imagine that a user is conducting some research in Google Scholar or wherever and they come across the web version of a relevant book chapter. The user’s library subscribes to the bundle (in this example) so they have immediate access to the book chapter online (as a webpage). They read a portion of the chapter and decide they would indeed like to own this book and they are presented immediately, on the same page, options for purchasing the book in print and/or as an ebook. The website is aware that the user is part of a subscribing university so they are presented with discounted pricing that reflects that institutional subscription. The user, in this instance, wishes to purchase only the ebook so they select which reader they wish to have the ebook delivered to, enter payment details, and voila — they continue reading on their tablet or laptop or whathaveyou.

The problem is not that UPs are failing to see significant sales from the distribution channel of their website. The problem it that their website are conceived of merely as distribution channels: simulacrum of their old catalogs and are not places where you can engage with the content itself (first and foremost) and then purchase in the natural context of that engagement. UPs (or any publisher) will not be able to compete with Amazon as an e-store — that is a lost cause. To compete they must shift the context to forms of engagement, relevant to the needs and workflows of their respective audiences, that Amazon cannot compete with.

I’m not sure why you say that potential buyers cannot “engage with the content itself” at university press web sites. All the presses I know make available sample chapters of their books for free viewing on their sites.

Their websites are constructed as catalogs or as ebookstores – a place you go to download the book and go away. This is the same as Amazon (where you can also “look inside the book”)– and competing against Amazon at Amazon’s game is folly. It puts the shopping cart first, not the content.

Michael, Fine points. Though they are so fine, no straw man is needed (i.e., “competing with Amazon” needn’t be mentioned). To build a web-space is to beg the questions your asking, to begin to shift thinking to digital engagement. Let it begin.

This is a great post. Thank you, Joe, for the work of the survey, interviews, and going the extra mile/s to post to keep folks informed!

General note on approaching the web:

“My company and I would like to give folks a nigh-infinitely scalable digital map of every street in the world that they can “fly” around like a video game, and after that we’ll build eyeglasses that surf the web and self-driving cars.

“So, naturally, our first step will be to put a new search algorithm up on the web, in a single framed search box, so folks can find webpages better.”

Google had a good idea and a fine algorithm. But, no one short of shaman-grade crazy saw web-enabled eyeglasses and self-driving cars as likely later/next steps–or as their ultimate goal when first they set out.

Do what you can do now; find out what you can do next, after. Then, do that. It’s how we learn to walk, run, and build unimaginable things like driver-less cars.

Respectfully, the “key question” further above focuses on one aspect of a partial near-term goal. Key questions depend on what strategic intent/s and ends might be in the near term, in the long term, and beyond (positioning for an unknown future). And, in so far as some of those goals may be open ended or a matter of positioning for an unknown future, key questions can be manifold or moot, in current terms.

For now, I’d suggest that raising customer awareness (no matter where purchases take place) would bring value. Purchase intent is constrained by lack of brand/product awareness; by similar measure, it is often enhanced by increased brand/product awareness. Down the road, being in position to build new models, set new goals, expand into a web-based world (in ways no one else will for presses = as Michael describes); that may well be priceless.

Last comment, in sum: I’d suggest that for talented folks in a swiftly changing landscape, landmarks may be less helpful than they used to be; direction may be key. The web is a good direction.

Presses, unless they are heavily engaged in trade publishing, don’t have much incentive to sell ebooks directly; they can more cost-effectively do so through third-party vendors like Lightning Source. The main market for monograph sales is not the individual buyer, but the library that subscribes to the ebook aggregations offered by UPCC, JSTOR, etc., which have been quite successful so far in generating new revenue for presses. Why would a press not engaged in trade publishing want to go to the expense and trouble of running D2C ebook sales from its own web site?

“Why would a press not engaged in trade publishing want to go to the expense and trouble of running D2C ebook sales from its own web site?”
To gain customers. Sell 10 e-books a day, gain 3,500 customers over the course of a year. Everything is to the end of gaining customers.

In academic publishing customers are already quite familiar with which presses publish in their fields. Selling ebooks directly is not likely to gain any new customers who are not already engaged with the major publishers in their fields.

One of the reason’s I’d like to do it is because as UP book prices go up in response both to library monograph budgets going down combined with the impact of the broad adoption of the DDA/STL model, we’re missing a very important market and a very important part of our mission; getting our books into the hands of individuals, primarily early career scholars, graduate students, and smart undergrads. This part of our audience is least able to afford the current trajectory of UP prices and if I can sell them an ebook directly, I can cost it significantly more affordably than if I have to give Amazon or B&N around 50% of the price. I’d also love to get them on my email list and to show them books that we publish that are related to the one they’re interested in, not what other people bought, or what has the highest margins for the retailer. We can be better curators of our own content on our own site because we understand the content, and we’re not offering visitors book recommendations based primarily on commerce and one retailer’s margins.

At our marketing department meeting this week we decided to actually expand our “Also of Interest” program to start including books on our web pages published by other UPs that are related to our books, not just our related books, and then linking to those other UP sites. When I first proposed this to colleagues at other UPs there was a lot of reluctance to reciprocate, but I think we’re going to roll out a few pages with the feature just to see what happens. I would much rather refer our visitors to another UP’s site than to Amazon (which we already do) and we realized that we need to be proactive and create opportunities to for visitors to do that. Our hope is that other UPs will notice the traffic and if it results in conversions, perhaps they’ll reciprocate. Since we don’t yet have an aggregate UP site to refer to, we can at least start to build a UP network, one link at a time, if necessary. We see this as being very much in the spirit of what MIT, Nebraska, Florida, and Purdue are doing in their University Pressess in Space site.

Fair enough. The idea of creating a network of presses referring customers to each other seems a good start. But is the expectation that this will drive print sales or ebook sales, or both? How many of the networking presses sell ebooks from their own site?

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