English: Engraving of American philosopher and...
Engraving of American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson as seen in his later years. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s clear this up right away:  Emerson did not say, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” The mousetrap was invented seven years after Emerson’s death. Wikipedia (with the Bible, one of the very few publications whose title is not italicized) has an amusing article on this, which includes the following astonishing remark:

The phrase has turned into a metaphor about the power of innovation,and is frequently taken literally, with more than 4,400 patents issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office for new mousetraps, with thousands more unsuccessful applicants, making them the “most frequently invented device in U.S. history.”

I suppose the Wikipedia itself is a kind of better mousetrap, though it doesn’t always catch all the mice.

So let’s indulge in a groaner of a paraphrase:

Build a better Web site and the world will beat a path to your store.

Yes, painful to read, but it does speak to the hard truth that anyone who wants to sell things online–scholarly books, books of any kind, any kind of merchandise, anything–has to begin at the beginning, with Web traffic. As I have been studying the direct-to-consumer (D2C) sales of university presses, one thing has become obvious, and that is that to be a successful Web seller, it’s not enough to be on the Web; you have to be of the Web.

A good Web site (more on what that means in a minute) is not all you need, of course. You need the basics:  the ability to post book metadata; ecommerce capability (usually summed up in the phrase “shopping cart”); the ability to fulfill sales, preferably for both print and electronic titles; a database for customer information; and, not inconsequentially, personnel whose job it is to analyze and improve the overall process day after day. All these things are now widely available (except perhaps the personnel), whereas ten years ago it was hard to find a commercially available shopping cart or DAD (digital asset distributor such as BiblioVault or CoreSource). And it’s only a few years since solutions for secure credit card transactions became widespread (captured in the phrase “PCI compliance,” for Payment Card Industry). You now can make the ebooks you sell available on mobile devices; you can even contact an outfit like BlueFire and have reading apps that bear your own press’s brand. But if no one comes knocking, what’s the point?

The problem for academic publishers in trying to build a strong D2C business is not what we usually hear, the challenges of the shift from print to digital. As a practical matter, that shift is not a challenge but a gift:  no more returns, no more working capital tied up in inventory, the ability to address a global audience. The real problem is that academic publishing was created to look to the academy itself for its audience and to the library in particular. But the Web faces the opposite way, not inward to the library but outward to the world of consumers and individual purchases. The contradiction here between the library as the center of attention and the individual as the marketing target is captured beautifully and ironically when we see highly specialized books for which the readership may at best number in the hundreds–books that nevertheless get promoted on a Twitter feed, on an author’s blog, or on Facebook. To sell more books D2C a publisher has to think harder about the potential connections between the publishing enterprise and the roiling communications of the open Web and social media.

I don’t know what a fully-optimized Web presence for a university press would look like, but it is likely to include some or all of the following capabilities:

*Someone in charge. This, strange as it sounds, is the most important thing. Someone has to be tasked–and rewarded when successful–with developing and augmenting the Web strategy. That strategy would include growth in unique users month by month AND a constant improvement in the conversion rate. The conversion rate is the percentage of people who come to a Web site and then go on to complete a transaction. It’s easier to increase the number of Web visitors than to improve conversions. Of course, the person in charge also has to have some money to invest in programs, including R&D.

*Outside advice on SEO and SEM. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization; SEM is Search Engine Marketing; the former is a subset of the latter. While it can be useful to buy ads on Google, it is more important to improve results from organic search. So, for example, I just Googled “the economic history of the American Civil War” and came up with no university press books among the first ten search results. A bad example? Please choose your own, choose dozens. Unless you choose an exact book title, it is truly rare for a university press book to get high ranking on Google, and if it does get a good ranking, invariably the link is to Amazon, not the publisher’s own site. And what of that, what is wrong with getting good results with the exact title? The problem here is that if a prospective customer already knows the book title, the marketing task is mostly complete. A Web site has to reach farther; it has to be a source of discovery for people who may not yet know that they want a book.

*Adapt examples from outside the book business. One of the odd things about university press Web sites is how overloaded so many home pages are. If you want to sell books directly from your Web site, start there. When someone comes to a Web site, the first thing he or she should see is the store. Some sites are doing this now (which, by the way, are the ones showing a higher proportion of D2C sales), but this is not universally true. Compare the home page of virtually any publisher with that of an airline. Airlines have a very strong need to sell tickets, and for the most part they are competing with other airlines that can sell almost the very same thing. So when you go to an airline site (e.g., http://united.com), the first thing you see is the tool for buying tickets. Airlines have tabs for any number of things on their sites (e.g., frequent flyer programs, airport security protocols), but they know full well that some things–commerce–are more important than others.

*Open windows, not just the front door. Search engines atomize Web sites. While a publisher likes to think that everybody will start at the home page, Web search drills into a site–it comes in through the window. This means that the listing for every single book has to be optimized for discovery. Here presses are inconsistent. I just reviewed the online catalog of one press that had clearly invested a great deal in its Web site, but often the metadata for its books was literally briefer than what is found on Amazon. Don’t we think Google’s search engine will notice? Also, and puzzlingly, each book is surrounded by buttons for social media (Facebook, Google+), but it is missing Twitter! Why would you leave out Twitter, which can yield highly targeted communications to specialist readers? Every page a home page; every page, every book listing, should be outward-looking, attempting to draw new users in.

*Remember that is a mobile phone in your pocket. Most of us in publishing sit at desks all day with a desktop or laptop computer in front of us. That’s not representative of the Internet any more, and we all know it, as we fork over big bucks for iPhones and tablets. Surely our readers are doing the same. A Web site has to be optimized for mobile devices. This is no easy trick. Few presses have done this. I just sampled a dozen press Web sites on my iPhone. With few exceptions I could not get much information to display properly on the small screen. But then go to Amazon and you download pages that fit your screen size. It’s one thing to say that Amazon will underprice everyone, quite another to say that you expect readers only to access your online store while sitting at a desk.

*Content marketing. Content marketing is a term of art; it refers to the creation of content as a means to acquire new users or customers. While there clearly is a cost to creating content of any kind, content marketing is an essential tool for any publisher in bringing people to a Web site. The most obvious example of content marketing is blogging, which, when done on a regular basis, attracts users–and search engines, which bring more users. We see this at work here at the Scholarly Kitchen, where the dose of one blog post each day drives traffic. It’s not just the intellectual range, savoir faire, and good looks of the Kitchen contributors but the sheer frequency of the posts. The Kitchen’s traffic is such that it could be the marketing tool for an online bookstore. Similarly, an academic publisher could invest in content marketing in a particular subject area and use that to drive traffic. A Twitter feed that consists entirely of plugs for books will attract few followers, but one that tweets several times a day about news in a particular field could attract an audience. Every tenth tweet could then include a link to the Web page to purchase a book.

*Verticalization. More radically, content marketing could lead to verticalization. Presses today publish in many fields, typically lacking critical mass in any one (there are exceptions). To get more leverage out of a marketing budget, it is better to go deep in a limited number of fields, or even one, than to try to cover the range of a university. It is going to be very, very hard for presses to become increasingly vertical, regardless of what business consultants will tell them, as the narrower the range of the list, the harder to get widespread faculty support on campus.

I am writing this just as the news has broken about how Amazon is pressuring a major trade book publisher, Hachette, on terms of sale.  The response among publishers is to decry Amazon’s actions as immoral and bullying, but my test for “morality” in business is to ask if I would do the same thing if I were in the same position (There but for the grace of god . . . .). If alternatives to Amazon are needed, the way to build them is not to express moral outrage but . . . to build them. Alternatives will be hard to create, but at least one section of the marketplace is under a publisher’s own control, its very own Web site.  If you want to be an effective D2C marketer, that’s the place to start.


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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.


28 Thoughts on "Build a Better Mousetrap"

Joe is absolutely bang on the mark that SEO is key here, and that the experts on this are not publishing industry employees. The other painful truth here is that SEO loves content marketing, and for “content businesses” that involves working out how to give some away without giving it all away. SEO is worth a lot of investment, and it will lead you to some choices that make you rethink your business model.

Joe what you propose is a huge investment on behalf of a University Press. Why not just bite the bullet and use Amazon? D2C by a university press is doing an e mail to the 2 to 300 customers. I just do not see university presses as marketing houses and wonder if they should be.

“bite the bullet and use Amazon”? Joe addressed this in his last paragraph. More simply, when Amazon and bullets are involved, biting is not.

Interesting article. I don’t find many University Presses have the technical skills to develop, maintain, and build a very sophisticated selling site. Other than OUP,and a very few others I just don’t see a sales system developing at the individual publisher level. Even if the Press built the greatest system, librarians may not buy direct from the University Presses as they often prefer to use one of the book dealers or ebook aggregators to buy individual titles. Building a marketing site where librarians can go to find out information is supportable, building your own web site is a questionable business practice. Just consider how many medium to large publishers rely on outside vendors to provide their hosting platform. Even using an outside hosting service has a level of risk as some hosting sites are not functioning well. How many publishers have had to delay launch dates as systems were not ready? Try hiring the technical talent to build your site inhouse. Programmers in this area cost more than $100,000 and you will need multiple programmers as well as other specialists. Every major hosting service technical team that I know is constanting being poached. Just when you get a great talented person, someone is willing to pay them more. I don’t think many University Presses are ready to build and maintain the technical team that it takes to support a commercial sales site.

University Presses in the US are not as well supported as their European counterparts. While they are aware of the risks and challenges, they often lack the funding to change the equation. When they are free to focus on their core competency, and not rebuilding the technology mousetrap they are often successful. Collaborative efforts have proved successful in the past, why not now?

I have to disagree with both Harvey and Dan. On the technical side, there is absolutely no reason that a publisher should build and support their own technology. There are many good cloud platforms out there that can easily (and cheaply) be used to create a good web experience. We are building a small ecommerce site for under $5,000. Building an ecommerce site from the ground up would be a big and costly mistake.

To Harvey’s point, a university press already has a marketing department, just perhaps not one with the right skill set. Yes, B2B is different than B2C but, as with technology, this expertise can be “rented” and existing staff can be taught the skills needed to support a D2C effort.

The bigger issue that Dan brings up is size of the consumer vs. library market. For some specialties, this will be an issue; selling 5 books directly to consumers may not be worth the effort. But if there is a reasonable consumer audience for the product, D2C is definitely worth pursuing.

Finally, Joe, a small point: as you point out, a very small proportion of traffic ever sees your home page. Airlines have their “store” on the home page because they only have one product to sell and a lot of traffic coming to their sites is looking to make a transaction. But look at any other retail web site (Amazon, Macy’s, etc.) They use the home page to guide people to specialties — much like a multi-discipline publisher might do.

Thanks for continuing to beat the drum for D2C. There is a lot of money being left on the table by many publishers.

Two questions:
1) Do you see university presses collaborating to build one supermarket for academic books instead of building many smaller stores?
2) There’s an emerging technology called Open Publication Distribution System (OPDS) that is becoming built into many eReaders as well as being offered as a stand-alone eBook discovery mechanism. How do you see online OPDS catalogs vis-a-vis web sites in re the UP quest for D2C sales? OPDS Reference: http://opds-spec.org

I just looked at three university presses and one can purchase from them using the shopping cart method.

Their on-line catalogues are well organized and product description well presented.

Thus, to me, the problem facing the university press is getting the word out. But, that is a problem for all academic publishers from Wiley to Indiana University Press. In short, Wiley and IU face the same problem in promoting a specialized book. The cost of promotion cannot be justified for a book that will only sell a few hundred copies.

We see specialized publishers like Springer simply abandoning the individual customer in the specialized market and replacing it by selling a huge database of books to libraries. If an individual wants to buy a copy of the book – one of the 300 – then they will pay dearly for it. Interestingly enough the 300 will find the book they want with little or no promotion on behalf of the publisher.

Publishers keeps track of who is buying what and create a book buyer list for a given topic and then e mails the customer that a new book in X is being published. The more sophisticated publisher is even able to notify a customer of a tangential book which s/he may be interested in.

1) I think there is a supermarket and it’s called Amazon. There isn’t any significant savings to the publisher of having a “supermarket”. The area where publishers may want to band together is on the back end — fulfillment of small orders can be expensive. Combining in this area could result in savings, especially for smaller publishers.
2) At least in the short run the consumer is going to use a search engine to look for content, not a catalog. Being present in the catalog is one piece of an overall marketing strategy but it can not replace a content-rich web site that is optimized for search engine discovery.

“There isn’t any significant savings to the publisher of having a ‘supermarket.’” What does a publisher save by selling direct to the customer rather than via Amazon? Around 30 to 50% of list price. Plus a relationship with the customer, which is priceless.

The 30-50% charged by Amazon is eaten up in warehousing and distribution. The priceless customer relationship has about a nanosecond life span. In books, one has a relationship with an author not the publisher.

Doesn’t a book that’s sold through Amazon still need to be stored and shipped (to Amazon)? Are there any savings offered by shipping and selling through Amazon rather than direct to the customer?

The house I worked for did POD and shipped direct from printer to Amazon.

Many others do the same. Warehousing books to many is becoming a thing of the past.

The writing off of inventory at years end would destroy margins. I stopped printing anything more than the projected very conservative sales estimate and priced to break even on the first print run.

Book publishing is a diverse enterprise and generalizing across it is difficult. University press publishing is spectacularly diverse, embracing a range from regional general interest books to very specialized monographs. POD is sometimes appropriate. Sometimes color printing and fine binding is appropriate.
Perhaps not as a matter of theory but definitely as a matter of fact, publishers do have relationships with individual customers and the D2C sales of some books exceed their sales via any other channel. Or are a factor in the mix. Or help pay the costs of D2C communication about what the publisher is releasing.
A day may come when Amazon is the only seller of books; but it is not this day.

Your figures make no sense to me, Harvey. At Penn State Press our order fulfillment and warehouse costs were less than 10% of our total operating costs.

Sorry, I don’t think my “supermarket” comment was clear. Frank suggested that various presses band together to form a supermarket. I don’t think that a group of university presses can be more effective at competing with Amazon than an individual press. If someone wants to go to a site that has a large variety of books, Amazon will win. That said, I totally believe that selling D2C is very important, not very hard, not very expensive, and agree that the relationship is priceless.

Joe-So that is the basis for the mousetrap cliche.
These marketing issues remind me that aspects of publishing change resemble marketing issues of the post phone company divestment world.

Since publishers outsource so much–a good up to date marketer in charge of a good outsourced or co-op operation may do well. If B&N sticks w the higher ed market they could develop a service.

Verticals could work but perhaps bringing in some high grossing short and longtail books to support the endeavor and subsidize the other titles such as other non-acad publishers who btw publish too many titles that don’t have a market. Let alone not enough readers are in the market or have time to read.

Publisher websites have not been so good and it is author or subject or title–not publisher, that is the most likely key to discovery. Word of mouth, and as you mentioned Twitter or assignment in academia are still likely the most effective. Personally, I think growth will come from the emerging markets or occasional break out title but not much more. But it is time to update the doors and windows or perish.

I also wonder where publishers think all the readers will come from. For this type of publisher emerging markets may be of interest

Joe, as always, thank you for leading the charge here–and can’t wait for your panel at the AAUP in New Orleans This is important work for many of the reasons mentioned; vast bundled of value to be created and money/ies left on the table taken as read. The future yet to be written.

Agree with Sheila above that this post is spot/bang on! SEO is a bit of a given on the web, and yet it would be new to many presses. U Presses will need to “dive in,” traverse swim lanes as you suggest (from B2B to B2C), and accelerate in their approaches catch up with 3.0/4.0/next web thinking; so, all the more reason to start!

As you suggest, content Marketing and behavioral marketing are nearer the place/s to start on the web today, semantic strategies taken as a price of admission. So, you’re quadruply spot on in your summation of D2C websites: ‘they need not only *on* the web, but rather *of* the web.’ Any and every site needs to be a source of value, in and of itself. Your last notes on building “vertical” offerings (I always think of wine cellars, with ‘verticals’) are fertile in this regard; new content would be *of* the new site and the web. We can see HBR’s blog network functioning in this way to the benefit of all readers and all HBR Publishing units and offerings (Ugly Black Duckling here). Similar approaches would be conducive to success in the modern sales-scape for u presses.

I might underscore that challenges to “non-core” or “non-traditional” approaches to vertical offerings would fall to virtual partnerships; several presses’ lists in aggregate will find strength in numbers, with respect to resources and readers and other things; so too, any challenges to approaches to a shared D2C site/s. Meanwhile, benefits to u presses born of behavioral analytics and conservations of scale would, inversely, increase considerably in such coopetition strategies; so too would multiplier effects of cross promotions (Ugly Black Duckling/s here).

I think this thinking is spot on! Thank you!

Great post! (Love the Bears one too!)

University presses serve four different kinds of audiences, which Joe does not distinguish among, but are important with regard to D2C sales strategies: 1) libraries; 2) academic specialists; 3) readers of general interest (“trade”) books; 4) readers of regional books. Putting aside libraries, for which D2C selling is mostly irrelevant, we need to think about how to reach the other three audiences. Academic specialists are the easiest, and despite what Joe implies about verticalization, most presses do have fairly well-defined lists, specializing in certain academic fields, or even niches within those fields (as, e.g., MIT Press does in cognitive science). These specialists already know which presses publish the books most important for them, and many of them will go to the web sites of those presses that service their field best (especially if they have received a direct-mail flyer). Selling trade books is a much bigger challenge, especially if they include poetry and fiction as well as nonfiction, because then the potential audience is amorphous and difficult to target. The audience for regional titles, which many presses at state universities emphasize as a major revenue generator, is obviously more well defined, at least geographically. Presses can sell into this market not just through regular retail bookstores and libraries (including public libraries) in the region, but also through such general retail outlets as hotels, general stores, tourist centers, etc. The D2C strategies for each of these markets will be different, and that presents a major challenge for presses that want to use their web sites to reach all three (besides academic libraries). Joe, would you care to comment on the complexities involved here?

I wonder if there’s a space here for expanding the idea of the decoupled journal to serve university presses, as well. The functions that UP’s have served in the past–and that many are struggling to keep up with and add now–could easily be served by third parties.

Borrowing from Harvey’s example of the IU Press, we see that they’re moving towards a print-on-demand model, and away from printing books up front, storing them locally, and managing shipping. Couldn’t all UPs do the same with things like ecommerce site management (or handing over to Amazon, as David suggests above), SEO optimization of sites, designing of book jackets, etc? That way, they could focus on what they’re great at–editing and selection–and take up newer marketing functions, where subject expertise and savvy is needed, like content marketing.

More than a decade ago the provosts of the CIC universities (Big Ten + Chicago) proposed that the CIC create one mega-university press with all functions except editorial to be centralized. (The University of Chicago Press Distribution Center already was handling order fulfillment for half of the CIC presses at the time.) The idea was resisted by most of the CIC press directors then, but it is an idea whose time may yet come.

Yes, agree. The past is not prologue, it is a classroom. And the CIC idea is STILL a great idea.

As a D2C marketer at a university press (Chicago) I embrace pretty much everything you say in this post. But of course with some caveats. The problem of the university press website and its audience is a complicated one, because the website serves a variety of audiences, not just prospective buyers of books. Prospective authors are another important audience, as are professors who are looking for a book to use in a course–or a copy of a book they are already using. And so on. The audience is diverse. In true Chicago school of sociology fashion, I created a typology of website visitors a few years ago when we were overhauling our site. University presses facing the same task may find it useful http://bit.ly/DBtypes

Also, I think I want to nudge in a slightly different direction. The mousetrap analogy is not really appropriate. There is no “better” here. The book retail marketplace is diverse; it has always been diverse; Amazon notwithstanding it will continue to be diverse. Physical bookshops are an extraordinarily important part of the mix and in the e-book universe, multiple devices and sources for e-books are not only desirable, but inevitable. Chicago has been selling D2C since the middle of the last century and it continues to be a viable piece of the marketing and sales mix. Not least because D2C is communication with customers even when a transaction takes place elsewhere. As the number of physical bookstores has diminished, as the number of review outlets for books has shrunk, D2C communication is increasingly important. Amazon and other online booksellers work well when you know what you are looking for. But finding out about a new title? Not so good. Good search, lousy browse. So, other avenues are essential. The first piece that D2C has to get right is communication. Sales will follow, in multiple venues.

To pick out another Chicago academic strain, D2C should practice pluralism. Online or print catalog, e-mail or mail notification: each is effective and each reinforces the others. Lots of mousetraps, different kinds.

“D2C is communication with customers even when a transaction takes place elsewhere. As the number of physical bookstores has diminished, as the number of review outlets for books has shrunk, D2C communication is increasingly important.”

Dean, Spot on, Sir! Spot on!

Sandy, I could offer partial response to the “complexities” in targeting three groups in one site. First, “trade,” “regional,” and “scholarly/humanities” can be simple menu selections. Many u presses currently have audience cues: “Authors (click here), “Vendors (click here),” “Customers (click here),” and “International rights seekers (click here).” Categories of offerings could be set apart as unique entry points or sites, one for each market.

More to your question regarding the challenge in targeting subject-interested customers (non-regional), the data gathered in the site will help immensely. Marketers can isolate desirable behavior (e.g., conversion to sale on the site or click through to a third-party sales site) and run multi-linear regressions or logit analysis on various attendant data points to establish equations for scoring and ranking populations. Customers with greater interest in certain subjects and higher likelihood to respond to information cues can be given special promotions, e.g., discounts, advance access, added information. Helping customers in this way results in several-fold greater ROI (higher sales) from marketing, from the publishers’ perspective, and swifter searches and much better discovery from the customers’ perspective.

Last, bigger data yields better returns. Which could lead us back to something else Joe and others have lobbied for: a universal login for u press websites. U presses could derive added benefit akin to that available with a universal site by setting a single login standard and sharing profile and traffic data (an unique login would have an “opt in” in any terms of use, presumably, and any customer would most likely opt in, provided special offers and new of new titles would follow). Simple way to get started. Save customers the headache/s of creating 100+ accounts. 😉 Building one business intelligence unit for u presses would be terrifically cheap too, compared with establishing 100+ in-house algorithm farms.

Longwinded way to say: I imagine we’d find many ways to approach new and old challenges to create new value.

Last, last: Chicago is wise, and CIC does sound like a great idea.

Indeed, Sir, you are most correct; Amazon does (and then some, btw). This service is a definite value-add for book shoppers to be sure, and I greatly value the benefits of this service as a consumer/shopper. However, potential benefits (beyond sales/marketing) are not enjoyed as thoroughly by publishers.

I.e., Amazon “gives a press a fish” by doing so. Yet, presses can also teach themselves to fish (in addition to Amazon’s good work), and in so doing will gain better knowledge of unique trends in the marketplace; they will enrich relationships with both current and potential consumers (expand their sales and customer base, and build relationships with motivated participants and potential brand/title advocates), and have the raw materials needed to build new value-added solutions and new offerings for the future.

Even if this D2C exchange will only constitute a small swath of the market, this is often referred to as a “sample” of the larger market population. Businesses can and often do improve the products and services they offer, based on information gathered from market sampling, thereby increasingly better positioning themselves to continue to innovate, improve, and expand the ways in which they create and receive value in society.

When I was an undergrad, I stopped into a deli for a felafel on the way home from the main library; had a backpack over my shoulder. The deli owner said to me:
“You study hard?”
“Yes,” I answered, a might bleary-eyed from the last 12 hours in and around the library, time on lawn in sun notwithstanding, and not ‘sleeping’ on the attendant irony.
“Good!” he said: “No one can study for you!”

One of the problems with book publishing is that you have to be a soothsayer in that you are constantly predicting what will be popular or needed and not what is needed now. A book now takes about 2 years from idea to print. Thus, the metadata is out of date for decision making.

As a young book rep I went to math departments and learned that a good topology book was needed. Reported this back to NYC and low and behold three years later we had not one but two topology books. Unfortunately, so did all the other math publishers and the profs just gave their comp copies to the class of several students and I and my fellow reps received no sales!

Good points in Joe’s article and good comments in response. D2C is just one component in a mix to reach potential customers…

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