At 75, University-Press Association Rides the ‘Second Digital Wave’

The members of the Association of American University Presses have a lot to think about as they gather in Chicago next week for their annual meeting. There’s the fresh momentum behind open access; the implications of the recent decision in the Georgia State University e-reserves case; and the imminent demise of a respected state university’s press, to name three of the more burning topics on the agenda.

The meeting, whose theme is “Igniting the Future!,” also marks the group’s 75th anniversary. “This year, 75 flames flicker on the candles of AAUP’s birthday cake,” the association says on its Web site. “Watch them and reflect on the past. Then watch them kindle the future.”

Kindles with a capital K—along with other e-readers and book apps and e-book aggregations and collections—will certainly be part of that future. They’ve already worked their way into most presses’ planning, according to an AAUP survey on digital-publishing strategies released just ahead of the meeting. The survey, “Digital Book Publishing Strategies in the AAUP Community,” collected responses from 80 presses, or 60 percent of the association’s membership.

The Amazon Kindle format led the list of platforms, vendors, and aggregators that presses said they use to deliver digital access to what they publish. Eighty-one percent of presses said they’ve gone the Kindle route. That’s not a surprise. Amazon has become “the No. 1 sales revenue channel for almost everyone,” said John P. Hussey, director of sales and marketing at the University Press of Kentucky and a member of the AAUP committee that organized the survey. In his experience, university presses get 60 to 70 percent of their retail revenues from Amazon sales now.

The survey showed that the Kindle has some sturdy competition, though. Other popular e-book delivery options included ebrary (also used by 81 percent of respondents), Google’s eBookstore (74 percent), and Barnes and Noble’s Nook (68 percent). One university-press e-book consortium, Project MUSE’s UPCC, is used by 59 percent of those surveyed.

It doesn’t come as a shock to learn that almost all of the respondents—93 percent—said they are “pursuing” individual e-book sales. The survey didn’t ask for specifics on what “pursuing” means, exactly, but the figure confirms that e-books have become well established in the university-press community, at least in planning discussions. The individual e-book sales figure was 66 percent in a similar 2009-10 survey.

E-books don’t loom large yet as a source of revenue for many presses, though, according to the new survey. Only two presses reported that e-books made up 10 to 15 percent of their earnings in the 2011 fiscal year. Twenty presses said that figure was in the 1 to 3 percent range.

“Those numbers kind of baffle me,” Kentucky’s Mr. Hussey said of the earnings figures. The Kentucky press gets about 20 percent of its revenue from e-book sales, he said. He noted that some publishing lists don’t yet lend themselves well to e-book sales. Art and art-history titles, for instance, often rely on copyrighted images that can be expensive to use.

“Some of it is the nature of the list,” Mr. Hussey said. “Some of it is just serendipity—getting your stuff out there, seeing what works” as an e-book. He said he’s hearing a lot of interest in developing book apps and enhanced e-books. He compared it to the evolution of mobile technology from simple cellphones to smartphones. “That’s the same trajectory we’re following,” he said.

It’s all part of “going to the second digital wave,” Mr. Hussey said. “What’s become extremely evident is that university presses are definitely up to speed” in acknowledging e-books as part of the publishing landscape, he said. The discussion no longer revolves around whether presses need e-books but what business model or models incorporating them will work best in the current climate.

More notable findings: Ninety-three percent of responding presses reported that they’re pursuing short-run digital printing and/or print on demand for their backlist titles; more than 70 percent are doing the same for their new or front-list titles. Eighty-six percent sell certain e-book titles through aggregators. Almost 60 percent are trying print-on-demand for foreign distribution—a new category on the survey. And a quarter of those surveyed said they’re trying out short-form digital books, like Princeton’s Digital Shorts series (tagline: “Short Takes, Big Ideas”).

[Creative Commons-licensed image by Flickr user needoptic.]

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