At last count, two dozen university presses will have booths or tables at Book Expo America , the annual trade show for the publishing industry, held this week in New York City at the Jacob Javits Convention Center (“Home of the Surprisingly Expensive Hot Dog”). By the time this column appears I will be on a long march through exhibit hall, foraging for the next season’s readings.
In advance of the expedition, I got in touch with each of the listed university presses to ask some questions about how things are going in a publishing environment that is, putting it euphemistically, ever more challenging. About two thirds of them responded to all or most of my questionnaire. In years past, I recall seeing some of the less-known university presses at Book Expo, but fewer of them in recent years; now those in attendance are, for the most part, the well-established places. It's too bad. It's also understandable. The hot dogs are the least of it. The booths are expensive, then they charge for the chairs, and if you want to ship the display copies back home, it'll cost you don't want to know. A lot to gamble on the off-chance that Charlie Rose's producer discovers one of your crossover titles.
Without making any undue claims for the rigor of this survey -- the methodology of which consisted of checking my e-mail every few minutes -- I’d say that the answers give a rough picture of how some university presses are adapting to the new normal.
The obvious question was whether the past year had been one of recovery. Or was “flat [still] the new up,” as the saying from the mid-‘00s had it? (That is, if sales haven’t dropped, you’re actually doing pretty well. See also the blues lyric “Been down so long, it looks like up to me” might be more fitting.) And what effect, if any, did the Borders bankruptcy have?
Out of the 15 university presses that responded to my questions, a dozen presses answered the question about recent business. Five of them said sales were up; another five, that they were flat. At one university press, sales projections had been “on target” – a discreet semi-answer -- while another reported that the year had been satisfactory apart from “a fall [in sales] on the backlist, which is worrying.”
Everyone misses Borders, but you don't hear any sobbing. Few presses noticed much impact on their business. “Borders was a great customer for our American history titles,” recalls Mark Saunders, assistant director of University of Virginia Press, “but their business had declined several years before they closed.” Consumers of scholarly titles continued to buy them -- just through other vendors.
“The closing of Borders did not have a significant impact on our revenue,” said Laura Waldron, marketing director at University of Pennsylvania Press. “Barnes & Noble has always been a much better bookselling partner for us.”
Susan Donnelly, sales and marketing director at Harvard University Press, wondered if the closing of Borders hadn’t created “some change in the way the average book buyer thought about bookstores and their importance to the community.... I would like to think so, would like to believe that people thought that bookstores were necessary.”
A good point. And just the question inspiring the effort to come up with a new sort of bookstore, as considered here  two weeks ago.
What about e-books? Trade publishers have taken to the new format in a big way, and lots of e-book-only “presses” have emerged to exploit the market. (And “exploit” is the right word for it, in some cases. A number of skeezy enterprises simply repackage public-domain material – some of it of scholarly interest -- that is already freely available in digital format. Caveat lector.)
So it is undeniably growing readership -- and I'm finding that more and more scholarly titles of personal interest (up to half of them) are available for e-reader. The e-book format also has potential side-benefits for academic publishing. The “read a free sample” option, for example, often proves helpful in deciding whether to buy a hard copy of a book, or look for it at the library.
How many presses had e-books on their lists? What share of revenue did they bring in? And if a press hadn’t gone into e-publishing, was it a matter of some reservation about the format – or was there just a roadblock, institutional or technological?
The latter question proved moot. A dozen presses answered this set of questions. All were offering e-books. Three had just started doing so, and could not venture a guess about the effect on sales. Of the nine presses that did have the numbers on hand, five said that e-books now accounted for 10 percent of their revenue, give or take a little. Figures for the rest ranged from 2 to 7 percent.
Carey C. Newman, director Baylor University Press, said that he and his colleagues “have decided to leave it [e-book income] a zero in the budget until we can get a good track on it.” But caution is not skepticism: “We are expecting sales from e-books to be a nice fat number [over] this next year.”
Circulating each season’s catalog as a PDF ought to spare the cash-strapped university press the expense and hassle of printing and mailing it out. Likewise with the prepublication copies of new book sent out to reporters and reviewers. A few clicks of the keyboard and it’s done.
But such cost-cutting measures work if and only if the intended audience goes along with the change. Here we see the effect of what social scientists used to call “cultural lag.” An awful lot of us still want these things on paper. One day, when we are dead, the publicists can do everything from their laptops. Until then, a catalog must be delivered the old-fashioned way. Reviewing a book that arrives in PDF is possible, but no joy, and something to do only in a pinch.
Thirteen presses responded to my inquiry about this aspect of their business. All report that they offer both print and PDF catalogs. None suggested this arrangement was likely to change any time soon, although at least one sounded ready to let the print edition go as soon as possible. (Fear not: mortality will thin the herd of resisters soon enough.)
The situation with advance copies is broadly similar. Everyone still produces bound galleys, and almost everyone makes e-galleys available. The one exception, University of Pennsylvania Press, expects to offer them soon.
Jessica Pellien, assistant director of publicity for Princeton University Press, is enthusiastic about the ability to customize digital catalogs for specific disciplines or constituencies. She’s enjoyed “pulling out all the math titles for example and emailing that to our math media contacts,” she says, “or all the bird and natural history titles for our bird-blogging friends. I think it allows these contacts to immediately see the books that they are interested in without having to page past a bunch of other titles." It also means she can go anti-specialist when appropriate, “picking out the trade and academic trade titles for general media who are unlikely to review our more specialized books.” But while targeted digital catalogs are "essential for the way we work now,” Pellien says she “can’t imagine walking into a media meeting without a print catalog. So I hope we always have that.”
Susan McIntosh, marketing director for McGill-Queens University Press, calls the print version of their catalog “less of a sales tool [than] a general promotion tool for the press,” since it expresses the press’s "overall commitment to good publishing design.”
As for e-galleys, most respondents indicate that they are provided if a special request is made. “Typically, only urgent requests are done this way” at Indiana University Press, says Mandy Clarke, its trade marketing and publicity manager, “and even then, reviewers want the hard copy mailed. I have heard from a limited number of large review publications that they will be making the switch to e-galleys though.”
Colleen Lanick, publicity director at MIT Press, says that for the past few seasons e-galleys have been an option on the checklist sent out to reviewers over the past few seasons. (I recall seeing one or two other publishers doing so as well.)
New York University Press “will begin offering e-galleys for a select few of our spring and fall titles,” says Betsy C. Steve, a publicist there. “I find that a majority of reviewers and reporters still prefer receiving a hard copy, but enough are starting to request e-galleys and even e-books that we needed to start offering them as an option for our titles. Overseas reviewers are definitely the friendliest to e-galleys, as they eliminate the delays international shipping can sometimes create."
Not all that long ago, hardy pioneers at a few university presses first drove their covered wagons into the wild frontier of the blogosphere. It’s hard to remember how adventurous it all once seemed, how new and risky. The challenge today, rather, would be to find a university press (any sort of press, really) that doesn’t have a blog. Every press responding to my questionnaire had one. I asked how they were generating content, and what they did to promote it. The easiest thing in the world, after all, is to establish a blog, while tending it and finding readers is another story.
Michael Roux, publicity manager for University of Illinois Press, says that three to five items a week go up on the press’s blog , including “author opinion pieces, author Q&As, book announcements, and links to recent reviews, radio/TV interviews, and publishing news.” That list covers the range of content sources identified by the other presses that responded. It is a considerable improvement on the situation a few years ago, when many blog posts were hard to distinguish from catalog listings. Jodi Narde, e-marketing and social media specialist at NYU Press, says the press’s blog “very rarely [has] any marketing-type material” in its posts .
It’s a good policy, and one that others have developed on their own. “We’re doing our best not to be too formulaic about what we post and how we post it,” says Kate O’Brien-Nicholson, marketing director for Fordham University Press. “Obviously, book launches, events, anniversaries, positive press, etc. etc. etc., can be and are shared on the blog  but we also try to make connections and provide context that we believe a reader might find interesting.”
Brendan Coyne, exhibits and awards manager at Johns Hopkins University Press, describes a publishing schedule approximating that of a regular periodical . “We carry posts written by our authors every Wednesday,” he says, in addition to two monthly features: The Doctor Is In, which consists of “posts by the doctors who write our consumer health titles,” and Wild Thing, “a look at the natural world around us” by Hopkins authors. A department called Over the Transom “gives brief overviews of different parts of the publishing process,” while Tales from the Assistant's Desk offers “commentary from the perspective of an acquisitions assistant.”
Meredith Howard, publicist for Columbia University Press, says that the blog runs multiple posts per day, including “the occasional shout out to our fellow UPs.”
It’s clear that being a powerhouse in this venue involves posting in both quantity and quality – as well as learning to incorporate platforms as they become available. Laura Sell, publicist at Duke University Press, mentions taking advantage of the graphics-friendly capabilities of a Tumblr blog , “where we feature short excerpts from our books and journals and display interior art from our titles to a visually-oriented audience.”
Carrie Olivia Adams, publicity manager for University of Chicago Press, runs through an overwhelming array of the tools now in use to make Chicago titles more visible, including an individual Facebook page “for each of our trade titles,” used “mainly for announcing author events and linking to review clips.” The box on the right-hand side of The Chicago Blog  is a switchboard for making contact with some of the press's content-churning efforts, though not all of them.
She admits that it is difficult to assess the results of all the multifront experimentation. Even so, “we definitely think the online conversation is one worth being a part of, and it engages us with many savvy readers.”
And engaging savvy readers is, of course, what it’s all about.
Thanks to everyone who responded to my inquiries, and sorry not to have incorporated all of the interesting replies. See you at Book Expo.