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.