Editor’s note: Today’s post is by Leann Wilson and Marshall Poe. Leann is the co-editor of the New Books Network and Coordinator for Outreach and Social Media at Amherst College Press & Lever Press. Marshall is the founder and editor-in-chief of the New Books Network.
The idea that scholarly publishers would do well to create a comprehensive catalog of academic books with a consolidated storefront function is hardly new. In 2012 Joe Esposito, freely admitting that he was not the first to do so, issued a robust call to create “A Newfangled Online Bookstore” informed by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supported feasibility study. Since then, evidence has mounted that such an endeavor still deserves our consideration.
Although you may hear it bandied about that university presses make all their money by unloading pricey monographs off on the libraries, this hasn’t been true for decades: nowadays these sales account for only about a quarter (if that) of total sales. Markets that used to be mere “icing,” per University of Minnesota Press director Douglas Armato — brick-and-mortar bookstores, individuals, graduate students, overseas buyers and the like — now do the bulk of the purchasing. This shift is part of the reason, but not the only one, that traditional marketing methodologies, selling products business-to-business (B2B) via intermediaries, may have reached their limits. In order to compete with commercial publishers privy to detailed real-time consumer information, Albert Greco and Chelsea Aiss have urged the university presses to “start or acquire…a non-profit comprehensive website using big data, predictive analytics, and a D2C [direct-to-consumer] business model.”
But the merits of direct-to-consumer marketing approaches aren’t purely economic. After participating in Cornell University Press’ recent one-day Pay What You Want bonanza — a promotion that yielded a whopping 4,700 book sales — Cheryl Quimba had this to say:
There was something exhilarating about directly interacting with so many ardent fans of our books…I got into this line of work to help build communities of readers, and PWYW felt like we were doing exactly that.
Academic book marketing is often as geared to impressing and attracting potential authors as it is with courting readers. Establishing a press-wide online catalog would have many benefits, but perhaps most importantly it would demonstrate a commitment to democratizing the consumption of university press books. This move would at once disarm critics who accuse the presses of elitism and help publicity managers like Cheryl to truly inspire critical masses of readers who habitually turn to Association of University Press member titles in pursuit of fresh, topical, and learned reading material.
As the editors of the New Books Network (NBN), a non-profit, public education project focused on scholarly books that serves around a million podcast episodes per month, we’re eager to contribute this ongoing discussion of direct-to-book-consumer practices by sharing insights we’ve gleaned along the way in our efforts to introduce serious books to a wide public.
First off, simply building an online bookstore — let’s call it “Scholarly Books Unbound” or “SBU” for short — isn’t enough. It needs to be actively promoted and in a way that courts the many micro-audiences involved. Scholarly book markets are niche markets. This is why the NBN consists of 81 subject-specific podcast channels. In a broad sense, the NBN serves many of the same stakeholders as the scholarly press world — the intellectually curious public at large, academics themselves, and the higher education establishment — yet we still had to grow our audience through “narrowcasting,” or employing more granular strategies for targeting book enthusiasts.
We found that there is a way to “narrowcast” this content inexpensively, namely through social media. As Cornell University Press attests, Pay What You Want owed its success to an enthusiastic #PWYW Twitter campaign that generated 20,000 unique impressions leading up to the event. In order to thrive, SBU needs to be heavily integrated into the AUP and its affiliates’ social media assets and promoted vigorously.
With today’s proliferation of scholarly blogs and podcasts coupled with the general flourishing of the #AcademicTwitter scene, the time is ripe for such a campaign. Aimee Morrison has dubbed this phenomenon the rise of “public/scholarship,” by which she means “not a modified, adjectivized version of ‘scholarship’ but a truly compound, see-saw form, both ‘public’ and ‘scholarship’ equally weighted.” For example, with the #massincarceration hashtag applied to a New Books in Sociology episode featuring Jerry Flores’ Caught Up: Girls, Surveillance, and Wrap-around Incarceration (California), the podcast eventually made its way to Piper Kerman of “Orange is the New Black” fame, who then retweeted it to her 120,000+ followers. Despite the possible pitfalls of publicly engaged scholarship, it’s hard not to view such developments as a net good.
When Joe Esposito outlined the vision for a press-wide catalogue he called “Academilogue”, he regarded it as a “baseline of content onto which other services…would be layered.” The platform would be home to a number of applications for the book industry: discovery tools; tools for tagging, indexing and search engine optimization; user-generated reviews; topical/author bibliographies, and custom catalogs for conferences, lectures, course syllabi, and to complement current events. The bulk of these applications are readily amenable to social media mirroring. The AUP already boasts a repertoire of hashtags: #ReadUP, #LookItUP (to combat fake new), #ListenUP (for podcasts), to name a few, and one could imagine an interface like SBU signal boosting for inclusivity movements such #WomenAlsoKnow, #POCAlsoKnow, and #CiteBlackWomen, or hosting an assemblage of #MeTooSyllabus or #HaitiSyllabus in the aftermath of contentious news cycles.
Media complimentary of professors and the scholarship they publish abounds on the Twittersphere and beyond. We need only intensify our engagement with scholarly allies such as The Conversation, Public Books, Lit Hub, H-Net, HumanitiesCommons, and ScholarlyHub. In this way, SBU would serve as a lively clearinghouse for all things related to the academic press and in this way become an attractive alternative to Amazon, at least for our little corner of the book market.
And the search for an alternative is important. Though we don’t have any hard, statistically satisfying study to back this up, our impression is that NBN listeners don’t like buying books from Amazon. They send us snippy notes telling us so after we’ve referred them to the retail behemoth (we’re a member of the Affiliate program) and not to, say, the publisher’s website. We tell them that Amazon pays us and that we need the money, but if affiliate sales are any indicator, NBN listeners don’t seem particularly moved by that answer. We would love to have someplace else to send them. That place could be SBU. Put yourself in the shoes of an NBN listener and imagine this scenario…
Ding! You just received an email notification from the NBN about a book we had on one of our shows. You click and think, “Maybe I’ll buy this one.” You see a big banner that reads “Purchase this Book from Scholarly Books Unbound.” You already know about SBU. It’s the online store run by the university presses. You see ads for it in the New York Review of Books all the time. You like these publishers. They put out smart books and you’re smart. You also know that SBU has all the books any serious person would want to buy. Unlike Amazon, it’s carefully curated; no diet books, no celebrity memoirs. In addition, SBU has other goodies Amazon doesn’t offer, like curated bibliographies, moderated reviews, and an in to a community of scholars.
Naturally, you have an account there. You click through the banner, a cookie signs you in, and there it is “Buy With One Click.” The list price is still a little high, but not for you because you are a member of the SBU Frequent Reader Program, a subscription service for which you pay a small annual fee, but it’s totally worth it because you get discounted books and all kinds of swag (stationary, stickers, mugs, Foucault bobble heads.) You even qualify for cut-price subscriptions to The Atlantic, the Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. Lots of people you know are subscribers. It’s not just a good service; it’s a community and it supports scholarly publishing. You’re a proud member.
If this scenario seems far-fetched, recall Cornell’s frenzied direct-to-consumer operation, during which marketing manager Martyn Beeny observed that “[i]ndividual customers were willing to part with relatively large sums of cash for scholarly books if they believe they are getting a good deal.” We wonder if scholarly presses have underestimated the size of their readership. Do monographs have more crossover potential than we may have anticipated? It’s hard to say, of course, but our experience running the NBN has certainly led us to think so. We cover many books that most people would call “obscure,” yet even episodes on highly specialized titles are downloaded several thousand times immediately after publication and continue to be downloaded 50-100 times monthly thereafter.
The consensus in scholarly publishing is that a D2C book emporium like SBU would be good for all the stakeholders—the presses, the readers, the book buyers, and (now) NBN listeners. Eight years ago it was estimated that perhaps 10% of academic library purchases were sourced from Amazon. Today we have new evidence that Amazon is the second largest vendor of books purchased by academic libraries. Furthermore, the recent launch of AmazonGlobal makes the need to revisit a scholarly press-wide catalog-cum-storefront all the more urgent. If the introduction of Amazon Marketplace third-party vending undercut press profit margins by flooding the market with used books and advanced, review, or remainder copies of new books, AmazonGlobal, as Robert Harington warns, throws down another challenge: it puts the squeeze on local retailers and distributors by “crossing international boundaries with the same products with often significantly lower prices.” Clearly, Amazon’s ascendancy poses grave threats to keeping university press publishing sustainable.
So why hasn’t something like SBU happened yet? In 2010, Joe Esposito anticipated one stumbling block, namely that “a shared catalogue…can help to make all authors and all presses look equally good [and some] of the more distinguished presses may balk at helping the smaller presses get access to the same tools to attract authors.” He may have been onto something, but we see signs that university presses are increasingly inclined to cooperation rather than competition. In light of the profusion of shared infrastructure initiatives for editorial, production, design, distribution, and conventional business-to-business sales and marketing, why not extend this spirit of reciprocity to publicity and direct-to-consumer marketing? Or, to put it in the Twitterian argot using a hashtag that debuted at last month’s AUP annual meeting, “Let’s #TurnItUP for direct marketing, outreach, publicity, and macro-vending!”