Remarkably frank analyses of three university press titles that achieved unwonted bestsellerdom during the chaotic months following the attacks of September 11, and their ultimate impact on sales and their publishers' results, were a feature of the annual Association of American University Presses convention held in St. Petersburg, Fla., last month.
Senior execs at three presses—Rutgers, Oxford and Yale—told their tales at a plenary session June 29. In each case, they described receiving an unexpected level of orders for titles that would normally have sold modestly at best, and taking heavier than usual returns long after they did their best to fulfill those unprecedented orders.
Marlie Wasserman, director of Rutgers, was the opening speaker at the session called "Success in the Face of Tragedy: Publishing in a Changed World." Twin Towers by Angus Kress Gillespie, a Rutgers professor who wrote about the history of the buildings and their role in the American ethos, was originally contracted in 1995; the author missed two delivery dates and, in the end, delivered a book 60% longer than agreed. After cuts, Rutgers went out with 3,000 copies in late 1999; two years later, it had become the fastest-selling book in the press's history, with 88,000 copies in print.
From the start, Wasserman said, there were problems within the press about how to handle the book—the staff was uncomfortable about doing special advertising or seeming to be taking advantage of the situation, and some wanted to donate profits to an associated charity. They short-shipped customers whose orders seemed excessively large, and in some cases demanded pre-payment. "We knew we'd be criticized if we undersold or oversold," Wasserman said. Paperback rights were sold, for the largest amount in the press's history, to NAL—"and I feel we could have got even more." The press also sold Japanese rights—the author had no agent, so the press handled it all.
In the end, 31% were returned—"and it's only June," Wasserman added. But it could have been worse. "If I'd listened to wholesaler advice, we could have printed 150,000," she said. As it was, the book overwhelmed the staff for more than two months and gave Rutgers a 25% sales increase for its fiscal year, "which complicates our record keeping."
Oxford v-p and trade publisher Ellen Chodosh described the furor caused by Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, which Oxford signed for only $6,000.
After September 11, the press received a number of orders for backlist titles on Islam, but no thought was given at first to Lewis's book, scheduled for January 2002 with a planned first printing of 18,000 copies and with a few added paragraphs bringing the book up to date. It was not until the New Yorker printed an excerpt that "everyone jumped," Chodosh said.
It landed on the bestseller list and stayed there for 15 weeks, selling 150,000 copies in 10 printings. Oxford also made a huge paperback sale to Harper—"probably the biggest paperback sale a university press ever made. We took the money and ran," Chodosh said.
Oxford also took great care in checking orders before fulfilling them (Borders consistently overordered). In the end, although Oxford's trade returns usually average out at around 40%, it looks as though Lewis will be only about 15%—and the book is still high on Amazon.com's list. All this came in the context, however, of a collapse in the house's trade business, which was down about $1 million in the last quarter of 2001.
Tina Weiner, associate director at Yale, described the experience with Ahmed Rashid's Taliban (its elaborate UP-style subtitle, Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, was later dropped) as "quite amazing" and "one that saved our fiscal year—nothing else was happening."
The press first heard about the book in 1997 and bought it from its original British publisher, though several other publishers, including some UPs, had turned it down. It was initially published in summer 2000, when it sold about 8,000 copies. Rashid came over to promote the title and did well enough, scoring an appearance on NPR's Fresh Air, though a bookstore signing attracted only two people. A trade paperback in April 2001 sold about 5,000 copies. On the day after September 11, the phones started to ring.
Weiner initially thought of printing a further 10,000 copies, and consulted a distributor, who told her a house like Random would likely do 100,000; she finally decided on an extra 20,000. "Looking back, I should have ordered 200,000." As it was, constant new printings were needed to keep the book available, and their expense "reduced our eventual profit a lot." Beginning on October 14, the book led the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks, and "being there is self-perpetuating." Rashid was brought back for another tour, becoming a regular "talking head," and the book ended up selling 45,000 copies in September; 200,000 in October; and 25,000 in November.
Then the returns began. In the end, it looks as if the book will have netted about 225,000 copies, with returns in the area of 22%. "We were glad to have been part of it, but it wasn't fun," Weiner said. Among other things, the publisher worried about reprisals from the Taliban and, when the anthrax scare began, they were deeply concerned about the mail. A subsequent book by the author, Jihad, is still selling, but at nothing like the same level. "I think there's a sort of central Asia fatigue, and it's been overtaken by other events, like the Middle East and the Catholic priests," declared Weiner.
The meeting was held in the context of considerable unease about the level of returns all presses seemed to be experiencing, not just those who had overpublished post—September 11. Addressing the first plenary session, called "Hard Times: A Glimpse of the Future or a Bump in the Road?" the chair, Peter Dougherty, publisher at Princeton, said there had been "an unprecedented wave of returns" from trade booksellers, both independents and chains, and considerable "backlist erosion." UPs need to take "bold new steps" in editorial acquisition policies, he said. There should be more editorial innovation, more disciplinary diversification and changes in press governance whereby editors play a greater role. "We have to rethink what we do from the bottom up," he said.
A visitor from the world of trade publishing, Broadway and Doubleday editorial director Gerry Howard, said it was dismaying to hear that publishers "with such a clear vision" were in trouble, but at least publishers could take some comfort from the much worse plight of the music business. "Schadenfreude is the only reliable pleasure left," he said. Even trade publishers like his make 80% of their profits from backlist, "and we have to run like the dickens to stand still." So he urged presses not to "look for salvation" by doing more trade-style publishing. Still, Howard believes the current troubles might be only "a bump in the road," since most predictions about publishing turn out to be wrong—"Only when predictions turn rosy should you watch out." He questioned the ability of editors to change things: "We used to complain about our titles not getting enough marketing. Now they get more than we want, and our role seems to be reduced."
Marilyn Moller of W.W. Norton's college division said that hard times for general publishers often mean good ones for college publishers, and since fewer and fewer publishers are now doing textbooks, "this gives UPs a golden opportunity." There's considerable possibility in the freshman composition market, she noted. "Textbooks can be a contribution to scholarship." She urged publishers to make their books teachable, to offer supplemental questions and materials. Books could be made more readily digestible through the use of "bubble captions," and design is very important. Big headings, color and charts "don't dumb down a book. Reference books have to be used."
William Germano, publishing director at Routledge, said it is the task of scholarly publishers to "spread information and avoid bankruptcy. Publishing is an art, not a science—even science publishing. Talk about your problems, but continue to publish anyway, even if in smaller numbers and at higher prices." He offered four cardinal rules: teach everyone on staff about publishing finance; make sure everyone knows what is expected of them in the way of goals and quotas; carefully check manuscript length—shorter books mean lower manufacturing costs; and continue to ensure that the AAUP provides outreach to the academic world.
Outgoing AAUP board president Bill Sisler of Harvard, in a brief farewell luncheon speech, noted that it was the AAUP's 65th anniversary and offered a fine joke, reminding his listeners of the speaker who told his audience they were on the edge of an abyss and "it's time to take a giant step forward!"
Incoming president Peter Milroy, of the University of British Columbia Press, offered a hard-hitting speech skeptical of current U.S. foreign policy.
The Association's Constituency Award for outstanding service went to Seetha Srinivasan, director of the University Press of Mississippi, and medals went to retiring directors Cathy Fry of South Carolina, Jim Clark of California, Ken Cherry of Kentucky and Art Evans at Wayne State. The deaths of Naomi Pascal of Washington and Peter Cannell of the Smithsonian were noted and mourned.