For technology reputed to be the future of reading, e-books have had a hard go of it in higher education. Students have for years declined to purchase electronic versions of their textbooks, and instructors have largely refrained from assigning them except when they are given no choice .
University presses, in many cases, have been even less successful than textbook publishers in selling electronic versions of their books. A new survey  by the Association of American University Presses suggests that as of last December, e-book sales or licenses accounted for less than 3 percent of total revenue for the overwhelming majority of university presses.
Meanwhile, 60 percent of respondents expressed “serious concern” about the viability of their current business models. In an era of flat or declining print sales, university presses might be discouraged by the fact that e-books, to which most sectors of publishing have pinned their hope for a rebound in an era of flat or declining print sales and scarce resources, have failed to gain traction.
But there is anecdotal evidence from some presses that e-book sales have jumped in the months since the association collected its data. Several presses contacted by Inside Higher Ed reported that their e-book sales have risen significantly in the first part of 2011. While e-books still account for a small proportion of total sales even in these cases, the presses see the uptick as an encouraging sign that there is a market for electronic versions of “serious nonfiction” works after all — and that market might finally be stirring.
Last year, as winter approached, the University of Kentucky Press found itself in a position similar to that of most of its peers at the time: Its e-books accounted for a negligible sliver of the press’s sales: 1.6 percent, according to John Hussey, the director of sales. But in February, e-book sales skyrocketed to 11.3 percent. (Hussey calls this “the Christmas boom,” speculating that a lot of people got Kindles and iPads as gifts.)
The boom tempered a bit between March and April, with e-book sales dipping to between 6 and 8 percent, month-to-month. But last month they jumped again, Hussey says; although May figures have not yet been finalized, e-book sales at Kentucky have crept back toward 11 percent.
The University of North Carolina Press has also seen its e-book sales tick up in recent months, albeit at a more modest rate — from 1.5 percent between July 2009 and July 2010, to a projected 4 percent between July 2010 and next month. That includes a steep rise between January and March. The Johns Hopkins University Press says it has seen similar growth.
These are not huge gains in dollar terms, but they are significant for a couple of reasons, says Kate Torrey, director of the North Carolina press. First, they are the only part of the press that is growing. Second, the trend suggests that despite the medium’s reputation for being good for casual reading but not so much studying or research, there are people out there who are interested in using e-books for more than just newspapers and beach novels.
“These are people who are buying serious scholarly books and books of really enduring value, and seem to be buying them in pretty significant numbers,” Torrey says.
Also significant is which books they are buying. At Johns Hopkins, more than 70 percent of the e-books sold since last July have been “backlist” titles — books that had been out for more than a year. At the University of Kentucky, 87 percent were backlist. At the University of North Carolina, 90 percent. That means that the presses’ recent success in moving e-books has not come as a result of any kind of concerted marketing effort to get customers to spring for the electronic versions. Rather, it has happened despite a lack of such efforts.
“The front list is where the majority of the publicity and promotion activities are focused,” says Torrey. “And so these books are enjoying success that is not driven by the marketing and publicity activity around new books.”
The relative success of backlist e-book titles in the absence of hype campaigns gives us a glimpse into the future of university press marketing if and when e-books rise to preeminence, says Hussey, the Kentucky sales director. Selling print books is all about hooking browsers, he says. That means sexy covers, grabby titles, and shelling out for prime placement on bookstore racks.
Pushing e-books, on the other hand, will turn on how well presses are able to optimize the electronic versions for search-and-discovery, Hussey says: less cover design and layout, more metadata and keyword-friendly titles and abstracts.
He points to Kentucky’s top-selling e-book this year, a Holocaust memoir called The Dentist of Auschwitz. The book, written by concentration camp survivor Benjamin Jacobs, was originally published in 1995. Hussey believes its newfound success as an e-book can be attributed, at least in part, to its amenability to bookstore database queries. “Great book, terrible cover design ,” observes Hussey. “But it has fantastic keywords and metadata in its title.”
About three-quarters of university presses are actively digitizing their backlists, and most of those had digitized between 25 and 50 percent of their backlist titles as of the end of last year, according to the Association of American University Presses study. Most are digitizing them in PDF or XML formats; fewer (14 percent) are using the more versatile EPUB format, which adjusts to fit the presentation styles of various types of e-readers. (More presses — 63 percent — are providing new titles in EPUB format.)
Only five out of 89 university press officials who filled out the survey said backlist digitization is not a priority. Of all respondents, most listed lack of staff, IT resources, and investment capital as the greatest barriers to backlist digitization.
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