The partnership between independent bookstores and university presses has a long and mutually rewarding history that has balanced the differences between the trade and academic business models. “University presses publish great books, and are critical to the vitality of the culture,” said Ed Conklin, trade buyer at Chaucer’s Bookstore in Santa Barbara, Calif.; sales of university press titles account for 6% of the store’s revenue. “They need to be supported and encouraged.” Suzy Staubach, general books division manager at UConn Coop in Storrs, Conn., and the author of two books published by the University Press of New England, finds much to appreciate about university presses. “They are publishing some of the most interesting works, and are a great place to find quirky, deeply researched books, works of regional interest as well as books for specialists who frequent our bookstore,” she said. About 15% of the UConn Coop inventory is devoted to these publishers.
Despite the affinity that indie bookstores and university presses have for one another, there is one issue that stands in the way of a better relationship: discounts. Many indies are clamoring for a change in university press discount schedules, which would be an important incentive for them to continue to stock many of their titles. Unlike trade houses, which normally offer a 46% discount, university press discounts have traditionally been lower: trade books’ discount is usually 40%, while the more academic titles’ discount is 20%. Then there are course adoptions. Generally, if a bookstore orders, say, more than five copies of a title, the publisher assumes the book is being bought as a text, which also gets a short discount. Multiple-copy orders for author events and other unique customer requests ought to qualify for trade discount, but often don’t receive it.
Doug Armato, director of University of Minnesota Press, said stores do best ordering from sales reps. “The [reps] make it work for our customers, because all rep orders override short discounts. If the reps aren’t in on the order, the system short-circuits. So the core issue is how the bookstores are ordering.” Nearly every university press maintains that working through reps results in the best discounts, and it’s the rep’s job to remind stores of that. Like many other presses, Minnesota offers an extra discount on orders placed at BEA and regional trade shows.
Peter Berkery, director of the Association of American University Presses, explained that each press makes discount decisions based on what it concludes are the most appropriate bookselling channels for a particular title. For Armato, this is largely a marketing decision. “A trade discount indicates our investment in a title,” he said, “as we put money into promoting it so that it reaches a broader audience. But at sales conferences, if our reps think an academic title will sell better than we project, we’ll change the discount from short to trade.” Indie booksellers make up about 10% of UMP’s revenue.
At Book Culture, in Manhattan, university press books make up 40% of the store’s inventory. “We are probably singular in the number of new releases we buy and represent from the uni presses, and are probably one of their biggest supporters,” said owner Chris Doeblin, who sees his store as mission-driven and playing an essential role in distributing university press books. Since variations in discount schedules mean higher labor costs at his store, Doeblin would like to see schedules simplified: “My proposal is that university presses follow the industry leaders and offer one discount: 46%. A retail bookstore is barely profitable at 40%, so it can be onerous to sell books at 20%.” Conklin agreed, adding that a trade discount across the board from university presses would take into consideration the showrooming function that indies perform, as well as the level of inventory they maintain for discovery. “But we are discouraged from stocking some of their titles because of prohibitive short discounts combined with freight—it’s not profitable,” he said.
UConn Coop carries “far fewer” university press titles than it did 10 years ago because of price and discounts. “We can deal with a flat 40% discount, but unless it’s a local author or a speaker we must accommodate, or a single special order, we do not order books at lower discounts,” Staubach said. Doeblin thinks it doesn’t make good business sense for university presses to assign different discounts for different categories of books. “If you watched the books we sell as they go to the counter and sell out the door, you see individual books and stacks of books, but you couldn’t categorize those sales differently. Our customers certainly don’t. Every one of those books looks the same.”
Bruce Joshua Miller was PW’s Rep of the Year in 2013 and sells 20 university presses in the Midwest territory. “There’s some prejudice against university presses out of ignorance,” he said. “Many have improved their discounts, and they all have a 40% override on rep’s orders. There’s a certain price you have to pay for buying authors with small print runs, but a book should be judged on its merits and not its discount. Why would you retreat from what makes your store unique and send customers to Amazon?”
Ironing out problems with discounts could lead to more business opportunities for both parties. “University presses and bricks-and-mortar trade bookstores have much in common, yet they share a world with a market influence that perverts their decisions and business practices, and damages the culture as a result,” Conklin said. “There must be an answer, and brave and creative university press minds can and should address this.”