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New Delivery Methods Top Talks At AAUP Annual Meeting
John F. Baker -- 7/27/98
New opportunities presented by Internet sales, especially of backlist titles, and by on-demand printing for titles with small potential readership, were among the topics of presentations received most eagerly by attendees at the Association of American University Presses' annual meeting in Washington, D.C., June 26-29.
Nearly 700 people, a near record, attended the meeting, whose stated theme was "Seismic Shifts." It came at the end of what AAUP executive director Peter Givler said had been a good year for many university presses, much better than the previous one in terms of both sales and lower returns.The opening-night banquet was addressed by AAP president Pat Schr der, who issued a strong call for the passage of WIPO copyright legislation by Congress. "You've got to be able to protect your copyrights if you're going to do e-commerce," she declared. "Therefore you have to have encryption, and you can't permit equipment that will circumvent it." Opponents of the degree of fair use publishers would allow "want to have a black box that's a 'fair use' machine, and they're going to crash the whole thing," she asserted. Publishers have a failing grade in terms of their readiness to get together to defend their interests, she said. Copyrights, in terms of intellectual property, is now the U.S.'s biggest export, "but Congress thinks it's all Hollywood. We're bigger than Hollywood." The difference, however, is that the movie industry and the music business between them spent $55 million on lobbying efforts, whereas publishers spent only $2 million.

She said it was hoped that next May would be the month for the big "What Are You Reading?" generic promotional campaign aimed at 18- to 34-year-olds, which would be highlighted with ads showing celebrities "caught in the act of reading" their favorite books.

The first plenary session was devoted to a philosophical scrutiny of presses' role in the scholarly process -- especially the question of decoupling the process of peer review, tenure and promotion, from publication -- which would have a profound effect on the publication of scholarly monographs.

Nile Hasselmo, president designate of the Association of American Universities, was one who noted this, saying the AAU was in the process of studying the issue and its likely impact on UPs. John D'Arms, president of the American Council of Learned Societies, said an update of the late Herbert Bailey's study of the rate of publication in certain fields was needed, and urged humanist scholars "not to remain aloof in their specialties." Some notable scholarly projects were now being published entirely online, he noted, and wondered how soon these would find their way into the mainstream.

Clifford Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information, said he had no doubt that printed scholarship would continue to exist, and that the Net was making it more visible. Many scholars, he thought, were using the Web to decide what interested them, then downloading very selectively. "Hardly anyone is printing out book-length material." William Bowen, president of the Andrew Mellon Foundation (and also the author, with Harvard's Derek Bok, of The Shape of the River, a study of the impact on race over many years on American university admissions policies), said he and Bok had preferred to publish with a university press (in this case, Princeton) rather than a commercial press, although the book was likely to be a strong seller. UPs, he said, should watch cutting-edge developments and how they would affect education: distance learning, for example, was likely to grow rapidly. Archiving issues would be fundamental: Who would have the resources and incentives to do it on the required scale?

The second plenary, on the role of UPs in the current publishing marketplace, was more of a nuts-and-bolts affair, in which Thomas Turvey, director of merchandising and publisher relations for barnesandnoble.com, suggested that the significant part of the bookselling business was still in the stores.Nonetheless, the Web market was an interesting one: B&N.com currently has 500,000 customers online, "all looking for books you won't find in the stores," with 20% of its sales overseas: Japan, Germany, the U.K. and Argentina are its biggest electronic-commerce customers. "Eighty percent of what we sell is backlist, often arcane, high-priced titles. We ship out 70,000 orders a day, mostly in single copies, mostly your books," he told the UPs. "The opportunity for UP books is dynamic, and we want to help you grow." In answer to a later question, Turvey said B&N.com was after publishers for covers, title pages and first chapters to digitize so the titles could have individual book pages on the Web. "There are 40 people in our warehouse working on that right now."

Jane Isay, now at Harcourt, but who had been in UP publishing for 15 years before going into trade, said these were the "best of times" for people publishing serious books for an audience beyond a small academic circle. "They have much better chances of reaching their audience than they did 20 or even 10 years ago," due to an "amazing proliferation of distribution methods and greater speed." The previous core academic readership, about 7500 nationwide, had gone down, perhaps by half, Isay said, but there is a larger readership now of independent, serious-minded people you can get to; but you have to pitch your books very carefully, and edit and title them well.

Youngsuk Chi of Ingram advised publishers to "pay more attention to your customers than to your authors and suppliers, and use sell-through data to make market decisions." On-demand publishing addresses consumer needs, Chi declared. "It's not just a novelty, it's here to stay." It is now a cost-effective, realistic economic model. "We have empowered readers to search for a potential universe of 2.5 million available titles." Until the end of August, Chi said, Ingram's Larry Brewster would be digitizing sample titles free to get publishers used to the idea.

Bill Strachan, who emerged from trade publishing (most recently at Holt) to lead Columbia University Press, said he had been struck by the variety of publishing programs and approaches within UPs, which were much more various than today's trade publishers. Trade, he said, had lost much of its character by deciding it was in the entertainment business.

"Publishing is more than printing, and we have a unique niche in it," he said. A session on backlist found it, as moderator Jim Bernard of the U. of Minnesota Press said, "basking in the bright beam of access," with customers who can find out more about backlist titles, and find them easier to buy all the time. Harvard University Press's Chria Palma said its top 12 or 13 backlist titles (of 2500) sell about 90,000 copies a year altogether, and backlist sales were steady at about 65% of overall sales. John Kulka, divisional merchandise manager at B&N, said, "Any healthy press should be doing at least 50% of its sales in backlist." At B&N, he said, backlist sales (defined as those of books a year or more old, on automatic replenishment order) currently represent 68% of units and 63% of revenues, with the proportion slightly higher at superstores alone. By contrast, bestsellers, on which most of the promotional money was spent, represent no more than 5% of annual business. He noted that backlist titles were 80% of Internet sales, projected at $100 million in 1998. For Ken Scott of the University Press of Florida, "frontlist pays for next year's frontlist, backlist pays for everything else." It is, he said, "the engine that drives growth."

The third plenary session was on implementing diversity within the UP world. Lawyer and author Angelo Ancheta said the lack of minority representation in publishing was "troubling," and that ongoing leadership from the top was necessary. James Lowry, an African American management consultant who has advised dozens of companies on minority hiring, said few have done a really good job at it. You have to realize, he said, how difficult it will be: "It's about power, and people get very emotional; it's all about fear of losing power and jobs." It will take time and effort, probably five years, and recruiting will have to be fine-tuned by making an effort where the bright minority students are.

Andre Schiffrin of the New Press described how, starting from scratch five years ago, he had aimed to have half his staff from diverse backgrounds. But it was not enough just to hire minority people, Schiffrin said. "They must have meaningful jobs." New Press went after good interns, aware that when they were trained they might move on. He added that minorities can help in finding new audiences and markets for books, as they had at the New Press. "The argument you can make from commerce is as strong as the ideological one."

Other sessions dealt with grants, with the NEH's Lynn White offering detailed advice on how to apply (few UPs do) and Cliff Becker, acting director of the literature program at the NEA, describing how his organization was still able to offer support on efforts with national significance, like returning notable books to print-for which Northwestern has recently received a grant. NEH director William Ferris, the closing banquet speaker, said there was not enough relationship between state arts councils and state UPs, "a link I would love to help to make." He predicted an increase in available funding next year, and asked for a list of endangered UPs (like Arkansas in the past year) that could perhaps be saved by state-level support.

Texas's Joanna Hitchcock yielded her presidency of the AAUP to Bob Faherty of the Brookings Institution Press, who said the whole publishing business was on the brink of "huge change." It was time, he said, to review and update the AAUP's strategic planning process, which he would make a priority for the next year.
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