Barbara Oakley, a professor at the University of Oakland in Michigan, thought teaching an online course might help her book sales. Her editorial and marketing team at TarcherPerigee wasn’t so certain. But in 2014, when A Mind for Numbers debuted the same week as Learning How to Learn, her massive online open course, Oakley was on the way to reaching 1.8 million students and having a bestseller. The book, which helps readers master different subjects quickly, now has 125,000 copies in print.
This April, the publisher got the opportunity to try a different approach when Oakley’s new title, Mindshift, was released alongside a new MOOC of the same name. Working with Oakley’s digital course provider Coursera, TarcherPerigee is using the lessons from its experience with A Mind for Numbers to market an author whose work is rooted in her digital classroom.
Brianna Yamashita was one of the skeptics when the subject of Oakley’s first MOOC came up. “I thought, it’s untested and we don’t know how popular it’s going to be,” said Yamashita, associate publisher and executive director of marketing and publicity at TarcherPerigee. “A lot of MOOCs out there don’t do that well. Next thing you know, we were running out of stock.”
In the ensuing weeks and months, Yamashita began working with Coursera to better understand the relationship between the MOOC and the growing book sales. Some of what they found was expected. For instance, even though the book is not required reading for the course, sales were closely linked to enrollment figures.
But that was just the beginning. Looking more closely at course data, Yamashita discovered that their expectations about the target audience were wrong. “We were shooting for college age and younger,” she said. Instead the audience turned out to be primarily postcollege lifelong learners. Armed with this data, she was able to shift the publisher’s marketing strategy and persuade Barnes & Noble’s sales representative to get the book placed at the front of stores.
Another key insight came from information on the locations of course enrollees. According to Kurt Apen, chief marketing officer at Coursera, Oakley’s course is unique among MOOCs for its large international audience, especially in Asia. For Yamashita, this explained why 50% of the book’s sales were e-books, which, she pointed out, “is highly unusual for a nonfiction book.”
With Mindshift, there is no formal agreement between TarcherPerigee and Coursera to work together, but Apen said coordination is inevitable because Oakley is at the center of it all. “The book reinforces the course and the course reinforces the book in a very complementary way,” he explained. As with A Mind for Numbers, the release of Mindshift was timed to the launch of the course. Coursera also provides Yamashita with information as she requests it and helps support TarcherPerigee’s marketing through its strong social media presence, which Yamashita says TarcherPerigee does not have. In turn, Charlotte Crawford, public relations manager at Coursera, said TarcherPerigee has provided marketing and publicity material that the MOOC provider is unable to develop in-house.
“We’re not always super involved in the content creation process,” Crawford said, but “working with [TarcherPerigee] on getting to the key points—what are the key messages from the book, and what can [Oakley] speak to that is different and interesting to people who might want to consider reading the book and taking the MOOC?—really helped us get to the meat of that messaging.”
While initial sales of Mindshift are not as high as they were for A Mind for Numbers, Yamashita said they are off to a strong start. Despite this success, TarcherPerigee remains cautious about acquiring new books based simply on their connection to a MOOC. “Not everyone is going to hit the ground running,” Yamashita said. “This was just a phenomenon.” With Oakley, it is one that TarcherPerigee seems interested in continuing to support: in early May, the publisher announced plans to publish a young adult version of A Mind for Numbers.