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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

More on Books: Amazon Sales Rankings

Here's a great analysis of the numbers behind Amazon Sales Rankings. It appears that many of our favorite university presses are selling about 1 book every year or two on Amazon. Makes you wonder who would pay the full price that is typically available at Amazon (for academic titles, that is), doesn't it?

  • At 6/14/2006 09:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Yah, Amazon used to have my book on a sweet discount, and it had (for an academic book) a reasonable rating. (as in, between 50 and 100K). But then they took the discount off, and I (naively) wrote my editor asking why, and he broke the news to me that in fact very few of their sales happen on Amazon.


  • At 6/15/2006 07:38:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Hey "hay, we"--glad you're back (which assumes you were off someplace else, which may not be true). It's interesting that publishers would be willing to offer 20% conference discounts, but are reluctant to do the same for online retailers. Maybe it's not worth it for them, but it does seem that they are more or less turning their backs on one of the main ways that academics actually buy books.

    I'm curious what others think about this issue. It strikes me that hay we's anecdote supports a pet theory of mine, which is that academic publishers often try to recoup their costs by extracting the highest marginal return possible on each book (i.e., by selling them at full price to libraries) rather than with increasing revenue through a combination of lower prices (and therefore lower marginal returns) and higher volume. If nothing else, the fact that libraries are no longer buying books the way they used to should signal that this business model is probably no longer the best option. Anyone else want to speculate about what would happen if, say, Cambridge UP discounted its titles by 20% on sites like Amazon and bn.com.


  • At 6/15/2006 11:53:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    I'm not sure that a 20% discount on CUP books on Amazon would make a huge difference. 80% of $75 = $60, still pretty high. My question has always been, what would happen if CUP (or other usually hardcover-only presses) were to go paperback, double their print runs, and halve their price (just for an example). Would CUP sell twice as many books at $37.50 as they do at $75? A lot of libraries are no longer buying hardcovers but are buying paperbacks. And wouldn't a sizable number of scholars buy a book at about $35 that they wouldn't buy at about $70?

    On the one hand, you sort of think, these people are pros, they've spent a lot of money researching this, and they know the best way to price and market their books. On the other hand, you think, well, people make stupid business decisions all the time. Maybe they're just wrong.


  • At 6/16/2006 11:20:00 AM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    H writes: "these people are pros..."

    This seems to me like a very generous assessment of academic publishers.

    I'm not entirely sure anyone in academic publishing sees a direct economic value in selling our books. Obviously, some of the larger text book publishers have a shot at real profit, but the branches of these businesses that we as humanities monograph authors deal with are basically obsolete branding extensions for them. Cambridge and Oxford probably publish us for the sake of reputation, not real profit, and the same can be said for all the university presses in the states... University business models are basically built around tuition and endowment models, not, at the macro scale, around how many copies of my book they're going to sell (once I write it). We're like a pretty little tassel on the tapestry of the book market. It's only our own (and our publishers') necessarily limited vision that makes our commercial profits and losses seem to matter. It's really more about whether or not larger entities are willing to spend money to keep the pretty tassel on. Actual profits from academic books will never make an noticeable difference on the macro balance books, I don't think. But when UPs and the academic imprints of larger commercial presses are held accountable by their overlords for their miniscule profits and miniscule losses, suddenly people who are not really that interested in business models have to cook them up. Thus, the practical but ultimately short-sighted idea of abandoning human buyers for institutional buyers was born. While institutions are slower than individuals to recognize that they're being reamed, they do figure it out eventually. That's where we are now, I think.

    Our mistake is to think that ordinary market pressures are at work. Academic books are not supposed to make real money.

    Or am I being too cynical?


  • At 6/16/2006 01:37:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    ah, one other thing my editor told me was that my press had nothing to do with the amazon discount in the first place: IOW, Amazon sets the discounts. I didn't have the energy to figure out who to write at Amazon to see what helps them choose items for discount, but maybe I will. Maybe there's a sexiness factor. haha

    And truewit is partly right about how academic books aren't supposed to make money. The supposed to part gives me pause, though. I wonder if there was a time when they did. The hope is usually to recoup the printing costs by library sales alone, and anything else is icing on the (really dull, boring) cake. Most large libraries (as I've gathered from convos with librarians and publishers) automatically order books from presses like Cambridge and Oxford, which probably accounts for why their books are priced so high. Other publishers go for mid-level prices that might move the books for grad seminars. But y'all probably already know all that.

    All this does make a difference as we try to figure out which presses are more advantageous. Do I want my book in every library possible--including internationally? Or would I like for it to be an option for grad seminars or reading groups? That's a tough one.


  • At 6/16/2006 06:24:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…


    So I spent a little time this afternoon trying to figure out who to contact at Amazon about our question. I finally found an online question submission page in their publishing section, and so I queried about how Amazon determines its discounts.I got the response below, which is effusively unhelpful, but in the end, it seems, discount decisions come down to sexiness and <3. Take that, Truewit!


    Thank you for writing Amazon.com!

    Our pricing structure and strategy is something we have developed
    internally to best serve the needs and desires of our customers.

    We are constantly researching and analyzing our sales and marketing
    approach so please check back with us from time to time to see what
    changes arise. We are an ever-evolving entity and we're proud of the
    fact that we can take your feedback, as well as the feedback of
    others in the industry and our customers, into consideration when
    modeling our overall business approach.

    Thank you very much for your continued interest in Amazon.com!

    Best regards,

    Tony S
    Book Catalog Department
    Amazon.com, Inc.


  • At 6/17/2006 01:15:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Very interesting, "hay, we." I assume the big publishers probably do try to influence Amazon's pricing, but clearly university presses do not (and, more importantly, could not even if they wanted to).

    Now I'm thinking about the most I've paid for a new-ish academic monograph. I don't mean out-of-print scholarly editions or reference works (e.g., the STC), but monographs of the type that most of us seem to be writing. I've paid $45-$55 for only maybe four or five books, but I have a fair number I that purchased for $25 -$35 and a small biblio-army that were in $5-$15 range (i.e., remainders). Not sure what these numbers mean, but they at least represent the buying habits of one semi-active academic consumer.


  • At 6/17/2006 04:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Yah, as soon as a price 40 bones or more pops up on Amazon I automatically search the library catalogs. $18-25 is a pretty attractive range.

    A couple years back I attended a panel on academic publishing featuring mostly exec. editors, and the numbers they quoted us were this: in order to keep--make?--university presses healthy, every academic would need to buy something like 20-25 titles per year. That's a lot of books. Probably twice what I've been buying since my research account drained away.


  • At 6/22/2006 01:41:00 AM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    I'm coming to this conversation rather late, but as someone who's sat in on plenty of pricing and marketing meetings at a couple of academic presses (one university-affiliated, the other not), I can say that the economic picture in academic publishing is truly dire; the formulae for pricing elaborate (betcha didn't know that page count matters--if a book runs over to an additional signature [a set of 32 pages these days, usually] the pricing can get all messed up; on the other hand, if the book is unexpectedly a bit short, a press has a hard time rationalizing whatever the "normal" price might be); and no one makes any money on monographs.

    The only thing that keeps academic presses afloat--other than the possible support of their home institutions (which is pretty infrequent these days)--are textbooks or texts likely to be adopted for course use, and presses research course-adoption potential furiously. At one of the presses I worked at it seemed as though 75% of the sales during any given month came from a well-known foreign-language series. Anthologies are similarly popular, as are crossover, "trade-y" books, which is unfortunately what so many university presses are moving toward publishing. Monographs, as Truewit says, are what the presses feel an intellectual obligation toward, and a bit of vanity about continuing to produce--but they're pared down to the bone.

    But it's not only the pricing of books that's harmed by the woeful finances of academic publishing--it's their content. I'm appalled by how few editors actually edit these days in the deep, meaningful sense (I know of only one press where there's a separate in-house editorial department that's *purely* editorial--staffed with people with advanced degrees in relevant subjects). Everywhere else, it's pure acquisitions, and the minimal copyediting that each book receives is outsourced. At the second press I worked at, authors themselves were being cut out of the process and it was rare for them to get proofs after submitting their final manuscripts.

    As for pricing and purchasing: I actually buy about 40 academic books a year, and I was patting myself on the back for doing my part even on a grad student/non-tenure-track salary. . . but then I remembered that I buy all my books on ABE, where they're usually ex-reviewer copies and thus not exactly lining the publisher's (or author's) pockets.

    Oh, well.


  • At 6/22/2006 09:55:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    And at a number of presses, they now ask authors to prepare camera-ready copy; ie, shifting the work of typesetting onto the author. It also makes the books look considerably worse, in my opinion.

    Flavia: it still seems weird to me that presses can't even break even on a monograph. 500 copies at $30 each = $15,000. Add on a couple hundred frees and reduced-price copies, and do a press run of 750 say. Can they not produce 750 copies of a monograph for less than $15,000?


  • At 6/23/2006 01:13:00 AM, Blogger Breakitdown wrote…

    I worked in the marketing department of a non-university academic press. I hate to break it to you, and this info may be out of date, but the reason to my knowledge that university presses don't offer discounts on amazon is because publishers pay to have those discounts made available. Amazon used to call us and ask us if we were interested. We were not, the reason for this was mainly that there was not an extra dime to be had anywhere. Academic publishers fronting money for Amazon fees would actually amount to undercutting themselves--the sales generated by offering the books at $41.90 vs $37.50 wouldn't justify shelling out the cash when they had my MONSTROUS salary to pay. Which I promptly spent on beer and yarn and grad school applications and some antiques. My sense is that Hay we said's editor probably just didn't know this, although it's highly possible that it doesn't work this way anymore.

    I was gonna go to sleep. I got all sucked into your interesting discussion. So much so that I must go to sleep so I can write more on this for you tomorrow, mwah-ha-ha. Beware.


  • At 6/23/2006 01:17:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    hey, breakitdown, welcome back. we await tomorrow's comments with what I would normally say was "bated breath" but since you're a writer and probably hate such cliches, I'll just say "eagerly" and leave it at that.


  • At 6/24/2006 01:21:00 PM, Blogger Breakitdown wrote…

    Hey H. What are you talking about, I love cliches. My favorite cliches are bashing Paris Hilton, or when people tell me to Be Myself.

    Anyway, I guess I have a slightly more upbeat look at things, perhaps because although I was a marketing cubicle dweller, I happened to work for one of the last remaining visionaries in academic publishing, who himself carved out an unbelievably solid niche, and taught everyone who worked for him about the whole process, acquisitions, marketing, subsidiary rights, permissions, production, journals.

    Flavia’s point about the editor who does not edit is well taken but unfortunately not something specific to academic publishing, it is that way throughout the industry. We can even see it in the title, Acquisitions Editor, whose job it is to acquire books that are ready. It sucks for the editor who is dedicated and just too burdened to edit developmentally, but it’s not really part of their job. That’s a model we simply have to let go of, unfortunately. It does occur at larger houses, that’s true. More on that in a second.

    To Hieronimo’s point about breaking even on monographs. The answer is yes, they can break even, and yes, they can produce a book for the sum you quote, but it can’t be done on _all_ of them. Some need to oversell their projections to make up for those that undersell and don't make up what it cost to print them. Publishers don’t think about one book at a time, they think about the list as a whole. Presses that aren’t affiliated with big universities have developed ways of making up for that difference, like society publishing with built-in sales agreements, or, dismally, just sending the production value of the books into the dumper. The production value at the place I worked was ridiculously low, they made some really fuggly books, and that’s something Oxford and Cambridge UPs simply aren’t going to do.

    The situation is a dismal one, but perhaps a useful way to think about it is to consider it in the way one considers an indie record label. I respectfully disagree with Truewit on the comment that the publishers don’t see any economic value in academic books. You’re right that it won’t tip a balance, certainly not against macro stuff, ie trade. And scholarly humanities books won’t tip a balance against other academic stuff like medicine or English comp textbooks. Is there an audience for academic humanities books? Yes, but it’s a small one. Do they want it? Hell yes, they want it. They’re business people. The publishers with developmental editors are the big, where the small market share that monographs occupy is supported by the textbook adoption sales, and the biggies, journals and science-tech-med stuff. The idea is a niche. Sell the same audience a monograph, a textbook, subscriptions to journals, reference books. There also needs to be a distinction made between the university presses and a successful academic imprint of a gigantor house—ie, Routledge, Palgrave. Those guys have made their lists succeed by scaling down the model used by their mothership, ie Taylor & Francis or Blackwell or Springer or whoever it is.

    The other consideration about monographs is, to say something prescriptive, they should lead for you, the author, to something larger, yes? Don’t you want them to be devoting more resources and time to your work that has a slightly larger range, ie your second book, your fifth book, your trade book? Monographs aren’t going to truly carry any business model just as, to be frank, they’re not really going to carry anyone’s career as an academic author. I know we can all think of examples of academic work which is both popular and accessible and in the barnes & noble and still scrupulously researched. I dunno, maybe a thing to remember is that it’s your niche. Tell them the price is too high, when you go to those conferences and there’s a rep there. They need you, without you they have nothing to publish, and they have no buyer. They are big, inflexible institutions, even the small ones, just as universities are. They’ve got to find a way to compete. If the content is being scrutinized less because the editors and the marketers are thinking about the bottom line, the good news is that they’re thinking about the bottom line—-they’re finding ways to continue publishing. The death knell of academic publishing is not camera ready copy or high prices, it’s the folding of imprints and elimination of lists and the firing of staff and no more titles. That means you don’t have to think about the bottom line. So, don’t. Sit in that chair and write book the fourth or thesis the first.

    Usually I am a terrible example. But today I worked on it. And enjoyed it. So, I’m happy.


  • At 6/27/2006 08:13:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    Thanks, breakitdown, for some of the inside juice. And I'm glad there are some grounds for disagreement about my admittedly hyper-pessimistic sense of our place in the commercial publishing world. I want to keep talking, perhaps on a more abstract level, about some of what you said about the economic (and by this I mean money-related) factors driving monograph publishing:

    Is there an audience for academic humanities books? Yes, but it’s a small one. Do they want it? Hell yes, they want it. They’re business people.

    Two things. First, I think we all agree that monographs are a tiny slice of the "humanities books" pie, one that draws people into a wider list rather than supporting that list. A gateway pie-slice, if you will. This is especially true for commercial presses like Palgrave and Blackwell. For these presses, I think your point is well taken. They are, at the end of the day, run by "business people," and I have no doubt that they will cut their academic imprints when they no longer function as cogs in the profit machine.

    But, second, how many folks who work at a UP are "business people," really? BitD: How many folks who worked along side you, with the possible exception of the budget people, were really interested in Business -- in Making Money? Not so many, I'd assume, and I think it's safe to say that there would be even fewer working at the UPs. Poets, freelance book reviewers, novelists, ex-academics, academics-in-training... sounds like a Flaubert novel waiting to be written. I know I'm doing some serious generalizing here, and I'd gladly be set straight if someone could tell me about an editorial assistant at Routledge or wherever who worked nights to put himself through business school and thought academic publishing would give him a good foothold in his career as a businessman... but I doubt he exists. I know plenty of people who have struggled to make ends meet working in academic (and other) publishing, but few of them wanted to make what my uncle might call “real money.” They were interested in other kinds of profit: intellectual, political, etc. The financial stuff was more of a nuisance than anything else.

    With that in mind, I wonder if the ways in which we’ve been discussing the field of academic monograph publication reverses the terms of Bourdieu's observation that systems of cultural capital can obscure and reinforce oppressive economic relations. In this instance, open discussions of finance, profit and loss, the need to break even and find markets, etc actually obscure the ways in which academic monograph publication came into being with, is maintained by, and in turn sustains a predominantly cultural economy in which professors are forced to compete for extremely limited resources of symbolic capital (which, our salaries being what they are, and our chances of Greenblattian/Shapiroistical book contracts being what they are, will never quite make its way back into economic capital). That is, there's something calming about discussing academic publishing in terms of financial profit and loss because it takes our own small struggles for audience and engagement and links them to the epoch-defining language of the "real" market. The inequities of the cultural economy that structures these struggles are erased as we debate the “real” costs of publication. The actual cost of the limits and struggles ongoing in the academic publishing field, I suspect, is the uneven quality of higher education across the board, especially once ideas about academic status push people to choose certain jobs over others, but I’m getting too tired to write about that now.

    I couldn’t agree more with BitD’s final words: we shouldn’t worry about the bottom line. And that lack of concern can in turn be part of the inspiration to write. (I could use some encouragement like that every time I turn on my computer, by the way.) But I wonder what everyone thinks: is our concern with the small-scale economics of publishing masking the perhaps more pernicious elements of an isolating and limiting cultural economy that is preventing those of us in academia from being something other than an oft-marginalized and even ofter-ridiculed appendage to the forces that make substantive change in the world?


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