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.

Books store exterior

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!”

Discussion

12 Thoughts on "Guest Post: Scholarly Books Unbound: A Portal for Brainy Books"

This post adds another layer to the conversation that’s been going on all week here in the Kitchen about shared infrastructure for the smaller and not-for-profit publishers. I think my same concerns apply here as they did when we were talking about journal platforms or article submission systems. The project here is intriguing and would be awesome, but sounds really expensive to me — who is going to pay for it? How many university presses are going to be willing to put up millions of dollars without a clear ROI (and for a project that will benefit others as much as it benefits them)?

Where big infrastructure projects have been successful (think CrossRef), the big commercial publishers have been involved, and have provided the lion’s share of the funding. For this proposed bookstore, is it just for university presses, or would it also sell academic books by Elsevier, Wiley, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, etc.? If you could get them on board, perhaps there’s a chance of bringing in enough funds to build the thing.

Then you get into the question of management — who runs the store? We know there is intense competition and intense spending for prominent placement and promotion on Amazon. Would the bigger and wealthier presses dominate the store because they have higher marketing budgets? We know that Amazon uses the store to preferentially promote their own products, how do you avoid that happening here?

And of course, a few anecdotes aside, you’re still directly competing with Amazon (and given most surveys, customers love Amazon). To compete, the store must offer free 2-day shipping, tough to match for most smaller presses. I’m also concerned that since Amazon is willing to sell books at cost, or even lose money on them to use them as loss leaders to get customers to buy other products, the new bookstore will have higher prices (plus shipping costs) than Amazon across the board.

The only solution there would be for all publishers involved to pull their products from Amazon (and likely other online outlets) and only sell them through the new store. How many presses are willing to take that gamble and the potential losses that may result?

I don’t know how much it would cost. I know I just helped a bookstore set up a an IndieCommerce site that sells every scholarly book in the world, and it didn’t cost that much (comparatively speaking). As for who would run it, I would say someone who runs a big bookstore, as they have the retail experience. Or maybe the AUP? As for the audience, I can say this. The NBN has roughly 250,000 subscribers (and rising) and we would tell them all–and regularly–to buy books from “Scholarly Books Unbound.” I don’t know if that would do it, but it would be interesting to find out. All these things are well above my pay grade, so I defer to the chefs!

As Liza and Joel sang money makes the world go around!
And as David brings out who finances and manages the operation?
Lastly IMO the problem is the size of the audience.

The question is, I agree, bound up with audience size. I can say we have been amazed (and pleased) at the growth of the NBN. We reach hundreds of thousands of people, and that number is growing daily. What is remarkable (to me, at least) is that they listen to interviews with the authors of books that are often thought to be too obscure to merit an aggressive sell-on-price strategy. My guess–and it is only that–is that if the price of many of the monographs we cover/publicize were dropped, then there would be an uptick in sales such that the publishers would make more money. An enterprise like SBU would enable presses to sell at lower prices because they would be selling direct to consumers (“disintermediation,” I think it’s called). I’d love to see some sort of experiment launched where we tested this proposition. We at the NBN would be glad to help by promoting books and the SBU.

Question: if the presses (UPs and for-profit scholarly publishers) owned “SBU” in whole or in part, would they then be selling “direct to consumers” and therefore be able to sell books at any price they liked? If they could do this, then they could compete and beat Amazon and Amazon third party sellers on price at least, if not fulfillment.

I think that’s the assumption — the store would be run by the publishers who would set their own prices. The question is how far those publishers are willing to go to compete with Amazon. If Amazon is willing to take a loss on book sales, would a publisher do the same?

Good point. The scholarly book market, however, is a very, very small piece of Amazon’s book-selling world. According to Author Earnings, UP books (for example) make up 1.9% all books sold online. Even if Amazon sold all of them, they would still account for a tiny fraction of all the book revenue Amazon generates. Given this tiny sliver of much bigger pie, Amazon might not even care to compete with SBU. But even if it did, and it chose to sell at cost, those costs would still be higher than the prices SBU publishers could set on SBU. Amazon would essentially have to choose to lose money for a tiny, tiny niche market. Or am I missing something?

A store is about much more than a website. It’s the warehouses that get the books to you really, really fast. It’s the reviews (CHOICE would be a good starting point). It’s the apps and the tablets and the voice-listeners. Stores are ecosystems now, and going back to the good ole days of backordering just won’t cut it.

An idea oddly and sadly out of step with the times, when vast numbers of academics think they should be able to just “share” illicit digital copies of books (manual scans, stolen ebooks) and it is exceedingly easy to do so, both technologically and in terms of the online platforms dedicated to this activity.

I wonder if a press with an existing, well-developed web presence and delivery infrastructure (like Chicago) could be the foundation. Campaigns like Chicago’s monthly free book would mesh well with PWYW.

If a press (or consortium of presses) wanted to conduct a low-cost “proof of concept” test of the idea, the NBN would participate by telling all our listeners (hundreds of thousands) to buy books from the test-web store rather than from Amazon. We would do this buy tacking a pre-roll (a kind of “bumper”) on every NBN episode suggesting they buy books from the proto-SBU and why. They would all hear it, 30,000 of them a day. That would help answer some of the questions about the viability of the SBU idea.

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