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.

Frame from the only surviving hand-colored print of Georges Méliès's 1902 film Le voyage dans la lune.
Frame from the only surviving hand-colored print of Georges Méliès’s 1902 film Le voyage dans la lune.

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.

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.

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Discussion

12 Thoughts on "How to Shoot the Moon with D2C Sales"

This is an interesting article. By ‘vertical’, do you mean niche, in a different way? If the market is big enough, this could be very interesting and productive

The model you describe is the world of society publishers. They (we) publish books and journals in just one subject area. While it may increase direct to customer sales (members!), it comes with baggage, such as difficulty with interdisciplinary books. Another plus, though, is a very good understanding of both your authors and your readers.

This raises some questions:

a) How does this figure for journals, just looking at the large presses as an example
b) How does this play with presses that are a mix of journals and books across fields?
c) SK published a piece which challenged universities to support those institutions that did have presses. Seems a bit schizophrenic
d) What if universities changed the pub/perish criteria to articles instead of the required book?
e) Dunne’s point raises the issue of market size for niche subjects. The American Chemical Society not only can focus on books in general but also in subdisciplines. Others are not of that size.

A puzzling matrix

West Virginia University Press is currently looking for a new director and one of the unique features of that position is that the director there does most of the acquisitions. It would be one place that an experiment in vertical publishing might make some sense because it would seem to have a minimal impact on the current staff. While perhaps it shouldn’t become entirely vertical, leaving open the option to continue to do its great creative writing and regional publishing, it could redefine the scholarly side of their list by focusing on just one particular discipline. For a press that size, that would be a very intriguing option.

As Tony knows, when i was director at Penn State, I acquired about half of the books published in any given year, and during one period when there were no other acquiring editors, I acquired 100% of the books. At small presses it is common for the directors to do some or even most of the acquiring.

A very interesting concept. Since many of the readers of this article are connected with libraries, has this concept worked for those presses that focus on the library market exclusively? I’m thinking a bit about the recent problems at ALA with disappointing publishing revenues though I read yesterday that sales have somewhat unexpectedly improved with excellent results at the recent ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas. One positive would be my guess that many libraries buy more books on library topics because librarians want to look at them.

In other words, is this the kind of focus that you’re talking about?

It is an interesting proposition, but if you delve deeper and ask why no press has already done this, it comes down to market share. If you could be guaranteed to get the lion’s share of proposals in your one subject area, then that would make sense. However, you know that won’t be the case and then you will be left with just a few titles that won’t give you the volume of sales you need. Academic publishers (particularly in the monograph market) sell very small print runs and the only way we can survive is to work in 12-15 subject areas, publishing a large volume of titles in many sub-disciplines that will add up collectively to something that will keep us in business.

There may be another way to create “verticals” without making UPs into speciality publishers. An all-UP web bookstore subdivided into disciplines or even, say, a large set of topically-specific online bookstores (each with its own URL) featuring books from all UPs would create these verticals without changing what UPs publish at all.

At the New Books Network (http://newbooksnetwork.com) we’ve created sales verticals like this. We have a universal UP bookstore (http://universitypressbookstore.com) divided into disciplines (one “page” for each) and we have discipline-specific UP bookstores on each of the 100 New Books Network websites (e.g., see http://newbooksinhistory.com/bookstore/ on http://newbooksinhistory.com). These bookstores are just mock-ups. They are populated by Amazon, and Amazon filters are not very good (so you’ll find a lot a chaff there with the wheat). But the idea is the same: a) unite UP books in one subdivided “universal” UP bookstore and b) create discipline-specific UP bookstores each with its own URL.

I would be happy to replace the Amazon feeds I’ve used here with feeds from UPs, in fact I’d be thrilled to do so. The sales links would go directly back to the UPs. In addition, this sort of arrangement makes it possible to do the kind of “content marketing” Joe mentioned. Indeed, the links in University Press Bookstore to NBN channels and the many interviews featured on the 100 NBN channels are precisely “content marketing.” We reach thousands and thousands of book buyers in our “verticals.” There is a lot more we could do.

Anyone interested in pursuing this initiative–perhaps with a Mellon grant– should contact me at marshallpoe@gmail.com.

I am very surprised that Joe does not mention the MIT Press as an example of a press that comes very close to his ideal. Three or more decades ago, MIT decided to concentrate in just four areas–economics, cognitive science, German studies, and architecture–and this turned out to be a very fruitful and successful strategy. It dominated the field of cognitive science so much that few other presses bothered to try competing.

But there are other examples of presses that tried a vertical strategy and failed–SMU Press (fiction) and Rice (art), among them.

Despite what Joe suggests, one can hire top editors with Ph.D.s from the best graduate programs even if one publishes in several fields. Even at a press as small as Penn State, we were among the top five art history publishers, and the two most recent staff editors in this field had degrees from Yale and NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, probably the two top departments in the country.

It’s an appealing idea. But, of course, to focus like this is to give away diversity—even for a small press that doesn’t cover a lot of disciplines in the first place.

Diversity is healthy, because, as the computational biology example shows, you might establish total market dominance only to find that the market is too small to support you, or the market is moving elsewhere, or whatever. You could choose a bigger market, but you won’t achieve dominance, because of the competition there. Of course, it’s really a question of degrees, and I generally like the concept of moving incrementally toward a larger presence in fewer specialties.

But we have proverbs for a reason, and this business strategy needs to acknowledge that 1) when you put all your wood in one arrow, you get only one shot, and 2) you ain’t Robin Hood.

Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
Joseph Esposito at the scholarly kitchen argues that if academic publishers want to sell more digital books to consumers they need to rethink not only their digital sales approach, but their entire business model. Esposito recommends that university presses should adopt vertical enterprise model that focus on very specific scholarly fields. Instead of publishing books in 15 fields, a press should only publish books in one or two specialities. He believes that this would allow publishers to become experts and dominate specific fields.

While focusing on a specific field may permit a press to dominate that area, there is a danger that presses would gravitate towards fields where the largest number of books were sold. It would be shame if every press decided to publish only books on Civil War History because there is a large consumer market for those titles. Additionally, entire scholarly fields could lose their publishers because their sales were perceived to be to small. Additionally, once an author was rejected by the one press in their field they might be out of luck. Finally, by focusing on one field your entire business model could destroyed if your chosen speciality falls out of favor in the academic community or book readers. Dominating a field that does not sell many books is dangerous.

While Esposito’s suggestion is intriguing, it is inherently a high risk, high reward proposition.

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