In an earlier Scholarly Kitchen post I noted that just about all university presses are trying to sell books directly from their Web sites, but that overall the success rate is not outstanding. Most presses have direct-to-consumer (D2C) sales in the range of 1% of total volume, while a small number have gotten that number up to 3%. But how to get to 10%? It would seem to be an insurmountable problem.
Before going any further I might as well acknowledge that there is a way to get D2C sales up to 10%, even 25% of total volume, and we all know what that is. All you have to do is let the rest of the business go to hell and that tiny channel for D2C will suddenly loom very large. There are scholarly publishers with virtually no institutional sales and only the smallest bit of business with Amazon, but they continue to sell books, mostly ebooks, directly from their Web sites. In a perverse world this would count as a victory of sorts, but for purposes of this discussion, I am focusing only on those publishers that view D2C as one channel of many. If you are doing 3% that way, you aren’t doing all that badly, especially if you are bringing in good numbers from Amazon, YBP, Ingram, et al.
There is a way to get the D2C business up, though, without ruining the rest of the business, but I am doubtful that any university press will take this prescription. It flies in the face of how presses operate today and, what’s more, it would not be nearly as much fun. It may be that scholarly publishers outside the university press world will take advantage of this–indeed, some professional societies with book programs are doing something like this already–but I offer this idea with little hope anyone will take it up.
If you want to get a big increase in the percentage of books you sell D2C, stop publishing books in a wide range of subject areas and concentrate on a single one.
Well, that was simple wasn’t it? But the catch is that most university presses have programs that cover a great many areas, including areas that are notoriously difficult to monetize, and the supervisory boards of most presses include faculty that will fight hard to keep their fields covered by the press. It may make good business sense to publish in, say, just classics or anthropology, but what will that do for the support a press has on campus?
The interesting business issue is why it makes sense to publish in only one category–or, as it was first expressed to me some years ago, to put all the wood behind a single arrow, a metaphor that utterly mystifies me. The answer is in marketing, that nasty word that business types bring up even when the chaste practitioners of the holy work of scholarship invoke community and the covenant. When you market D2C, you have to have a way to get individuals to pay attention to you. This is expensive. Coming up with ingenious ways to tap the shoulder of prospective individuals one at a time is difficult. If your prospects work in a dozen different subject areas, then you have to be twelve times as ingenious.
The “one-subject marketing paradigm” is a creature of the Internet. Once upon a time in the bricks-and-mortar world a publisher could work more generally. In the trade, for example (and university presses have always had some representation in physical bookstores, many of which are affiliated even now with colleges or universities), a bookstore would have a sampling of books for every category that might appeal to someone who walked in off the street. The defining characteristic of the bookstore derived directly from geography: people went to the bookstore nearby and the bookstore stocked books that represented the local community’s interest. This was and is true of libraries as well, which purchase books for all the members of its constituencies, who happen to live near campus. But on the Internet geography goes away. A constituency is defined not by proximity but by area of interest. I may have nothing in common with the person who lives next door to me, but that bloke on the other side of the planet may share my outlook, be interested in the same things, and read the same books. This is not an idle or abstract possibility. I have been happily surprised to hear from people from all over the world who share some of my strongest interests (e.g., Italo Calvino)
In business jargon this is known as the distinction between horizontal and vertical enterprises. A horizontal business attempts to cover everything. You can get just about any book in existence at Amazon, which is not called “the everything store” for nothing. Amazon is thus a horizontal retailer. An example of a vertical site would be that of Tor, which is focused entirely on science fiction and fantasy literature. Consumer publishing, genre fiction especially, lends itself to verticals: romance, westerns, cookbooks, mysteries, and so on. The equivalent for scholarly books would be defined by subject area: anthropology, computational biology, genetic science, literary criticism, European history, etc.
So the ultimate D2C game is in verticals. Let’s imagine a university press that publishes 100 books each year and has net sales of $5 million. I just went to the Web site of a press that more or less fits that description and found that the press publishes in 15 different subject areas. The business challenge here is to find the resources to work with so many categories. You can’t afford the staff, and there is no critical mass in any one area to mount a strong marketing campaign. A marketing staff of 5-6 people spread over 15 categories? It’s simply not a winning proposition unless you rely on distributors to make a market for you. So YBP, for example, will take those 100 titles and put them through the approval plan process. This will help get the books into libraries. And selected retailers will put the titles into their catalogues (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.), hoping that a customer will discover a book through an online search or word of mouth. The press’s publicity staff will do all it can to get press coverage, but with 100 new titles to work with and a backlist of thousands, it begins to feel like rolling a boulder up a hill. It’s no wonder that university press books don’t sell more copies: there is very little marketing oomph behind them.
In a vertical environment, however, things change. Resources are reallocated. Instead of having to cover 12 disciplines, the marketing team has to cover one. This means (to take an obvious but significant example) that most academic conferences can be safely skipped, but all of the conferences, no matter where, no matter how small, in the subject area of the press’s concentration will have a booth and personnel to staff it. It means that the press can recruit editors who are specialists–people with advanced degrees in the chosen field–who will be able to get inside the discipline and become players of importance there. In many respects it would make a university press look something like a professional society, whose members are all organized around a specific area.
Perhaps the most important advantage that a vertical publishing program has is the ability to make an economically efficient investment in content marketing. Content marketing refers to the creation of new material (blogs, Twitter feeds, etc.) that is then used to develop an audience. This audience is then approached for conversion into customers. So a press might decide to focus on anthropology or a reasonable subset of the field of anthropology. This is an opporunity to set up a group blog (perhaps modeled on the Scholarly Kitchen) or a news service that can be distributed as an RSS feed or on Twitter. Such content, properly curated and delivered in a timely and reliable manner, could become a staple of a particular discipline. It takes little imagination to think of ways to insert commercial messages into a news feed or to use the Web traffic for a blog to steer users to particular publications.
The strategic question for publishers seeking to go D2C is their willingness to do what it takes to dominate a particular field. So much has to be given up; the life of the generalist is a good one. But the generalist is fighting the evolving structure of the Internet, which is a direct-marketing platform. Of course, not every field can support such a heavy concentration; it’s difficult to imagine a press that publishes 100 books each year in computational biology, for example. Perhaps one way for a press to move in the direction of greater D2C business is not to reduce its program to 1 field but, say, to 3. Not that this would be easy to do; as I said at the outset, I am doubtful that any press will accept this prescription. On the other hand, with university presses struggling with the current market environment, perhaps a press director will take a chance.
Still and all I can’t help but think that if you were to start a university press today, isn’t this where you would begin, with a concentration in a single field? Wouldn’t a new press set out to establish the closest relationships possible with its readers? Wouldn’t it want to create a sense of community around its publications, and what better way to do that than to organize authors and readers alike around common topics? It seems a shame that the obvious course of a start-up would be blocked off for an established publisher. And that may be why we need some new start-ups in scholarly publishing.