Doc Martyn’s Sage Marketing: A Marketing Response to The Chronicle’s Report on the Future of Scholarly Publishing

At the recent Association of American University Presses (AAUP) meeting in Austin, TX, I finally got my hands on the print version of this report, which allowed me to actually read it all since I was no longer stuck behind a paywall. As we all know, it is fascinating. On so many levels.

I am pleased that The Chronicle took the time to compose this survey, send it out, and aggregate the responses, giving university presses a moment in the spotlight in a way that we do not often receive. I am saddened, though, by its overall approach. With a few exceptions, only directors or very senior editors responded (or were invited to). Questions posed were limited to subjects surrounding the acquisition of books. Responses seemed to gloss over the fact that we are businesses with marketing and sales teams.

As I read the questions and answers, I kept wanting to know what these wise and esteemed members of our community think about things other than writing quality, types of books, the acquisitions process, etc. I was struck that many of the responses were cautious—unwilling, perhaps out of fear or respect or something else, to push beyond the expected. While I criticize, I also understand. And yet I wished for something different. As such, I present here my responses to those same questions. I offer them from my perspective as a relatively short-term member of the community and as a marketing-and-business-first thinker. I expect and hope that my responses will elicit criticism, consternation, consideration, creativity, and more conversation. I look forward to, as some of us noted on Twitter during AAUP, a continued conversation. Hopefully that discussion will focus, at least partly, on the future of the university press so that this attention from The Chronicle does not simply fade into the ether now that we have returned to our campuses.

What is the biggest challenge in university press publishing?

There are many, obviously, and this is the “biggest” question in the survey. I’ll limit myself to two answers.

The apparent willingness of many within our own community and our pool of authors to ignore the fact that we are businesses is concerning. We cannot, despite our missions, continue to publish books that do not make money. Our parent institutions will not tolerate negative year-end budget statements for much longer, and we, as curators of content, should not be satisfied with publishing books that sell less than 200 copies and lose money. This attitude of mission-before-margin is due to a lack of business and marketing people in charge of presses and our organization. The next generation of directors must approach what we do with a more entrepreneurial and revenue-generating mindset or many of us will fall to the wayside.

My second answer is that we seem unwilling, as a group (there are many exceptions, of course), to desire and embrace change. The published answers within the report include a remarkable number that can be filed under the “well, we’ve always done it that way” category. We must identify, promote, and support young, ambitious, smart colleagues—no matter their experience or education level or background or gender/race/beliefs—to (and in) positions of influence so that they push and drag and lead us into the immediate and long-term future. Such catalysts of change will greatly benefit us all because they will force us to reconsider our deeply held belief systems and open ourselves up to greater innovation and relevance in the modern publishing and scholarly world. Let us drive the changes that need to happen in scholarly publishing rather than wait for them to be proscribed to us by the larger academy.

Do we need more university presses? Fewer?

The responses provided in the survey for this question are, for me, the most refreshing. They are candid and they show more acceptance that things really will change, and soon. Wendy Strothman’s (Strothman Agency LLC) vision of consolidation mirrors mine. Outside influences (open access; changes to promotion and tenure practices, business models, and financial support; professionalism and expertise) will lead us to consolidation. If open access takes proper hold, no matter the payment model used, authors (and those who sponsor their OA projects) will look for perceived value-for-money first and foremost. If an author is “paying” for their book to be published, they will want to buy the services of the biggest and best. If and when promotion and tenure rules change, authors will expect services that only larger, more strategic, and “profitable” publishers will provide. If business models mutate (linked to both scenarios above but also to how people access our content and what that content is in the first place), then larger, consolidated university presses with nimble and viable imprints offering different approaches will be best positioned to adapt, evolve, and take advantage. If financial support is reduced or eliminated or the financial support is provided in different formats we will be forced to consolidate. Smaller presses cost their institutions less (on the whole) but they are also therefore easier to eliminate. MBAs already hold significant influence in the higher echelons of university administrations and that trend will only continue. When looking for easy (if relatively small) budget lines to eliminate, such administrators will become less and less shy about reducing or removing support for presses. Consolidation will be our only recourse.

Acquisitions editors are overwhelmingly white. How does this affect what gets published?

This question was too monolithic, which is ironic, given its intent. Yes, acquiring editors make the first decisions on what gets published, but they are not the only people who affect that decision, nor are they the only people who affect the success of any given book. A better question would have been: university press staff who make strategic decisions are overwhelmingly white. How does this affect what gets published? I broaden the question simply because, as I noted at the outset, this survey is too focused on the acquisitions side of our business. For example, Cornell was founded on the premise of “any student, any [course of] study.” Why can’t presses adopt the same rationale? Any qualified person, any publisher. Ours is a predominantly white business at this point and we need to encourage change across all our departments, not just within acquisitions, so that, simply put, we embrace different ideas and ways of doing things.

What is the most common misunderstanding that scholars have about university presses?

Here at least, in the survey, was a broader acknowledgement of the fact that we sell books. I would push this farther. Scholars, perhaps led by our acquiring editors, perhaps pushed because we as a group are not effective enough in our own outreach, do not understand the simple and harsh realities of book publishing. We must educate scholars—particularly those still in graduate school or at the start of their careers—on the facts of publishing books. Most scholarly books will not be accessible to a broad, non-academic audience; they will cost too much and will have discounts that discourage booksellers from stocking them. Most scholarly books will find few readers outside of their own corner of their own discipline (even the interdisciplinary books); even with modern discoverability techniques and improved marketing efforts, the content of most scholarly books is relevant to only a small number of people. Traditional marketing techniques are quickly becoming obsolete. Rarefied book covers, high-end production values, and the like are not the most important nor the most effective starting points from which to market a book. Traditional advertising and displaying of books, award submissions and book signings, and long-winded reviews that come out two years after book publication are passé and ineffective. We must bring our authors into the modern, metadata- and discoverability-driven marketing world. We must start the process of educating them now on what book publishing, marketing, and selling is and will be.

What topic areas are overpublished?

All of them. Simple as that. What is not over-published are innovative and forward-thinking approaches to books. The “front-to-back, 250 pages, bound and permanent” book will remain and needs to. But we should publish only the absolute best of these. I realize we all believe we do that already, but if we are honest, there are many books published because we “must,” because our mission requires that we do. Quality must overcome quantity in the publication of the traditional book. How we approach a book, though, may offer us solutions to overcome any reduction in how many books-as-artifacts we all publish. Why should print books be permanent, finished? Scholarship doesn’t stop. Research continues after a book has been published. But a book simply stops; it occupies a specific point in time. New editions sometimes come out in an effort to move that stopping point forward, but they, too, then put down their roots and grow old. Subscription models for “never-finished” books could be investigated. “Real-time” edits to books are potentially possible. Digital files can be crowd-reviewed (and sourced) and turned into print pieces at will and whim. Print books will and must survive but maybe our definition of one can change.

How should the university press role in hiring and promotion change?

In his answer, Greg Britton (Johns Hopkins University Press) noted that young scholars have little time to think and write because of the contemporary demands of their junior academic positions. However, those same young scholars are writing; they just do it in different ways. They use social, they write on blogs, they contribute opinion pieces online and in print. They are thinking and writing, but perhaps they are not thinking and writing longer pieces designed to be a published book. Niko Pfund (Oxford University Press, USA) mentions that there is almost collusion between the academy and university presses over the necessity of the published monograph. So, why not take these two elements, mix them together, and make university presses the agents of change? If younger scholars are thinking and writing (but in different formats) and we’re part of the problem of published-monograph-as-required-P&T-element, let’s change the rules. Publish the unfettered and unreviewed “thoughts” of younger scholars. Put these pieces into print. Offer these as an element of the P&T process. Drive the change by forcing the hand of the academy, of the old guard. Give a platform to new academics willing to break the mold.

Scholarly prose gets a bad rap. Is it deserved?

I get a lot of sideways glances and “stink eye” when I say this, but the quality of writing does not, for the most part, affect the sales of a book, particularly in the first crucial months of its existence. Outside of galleys sent out, no one has read the book when backorders are placed, and even with immediate sharing of information on social platforms, most “reviews” take a while to surface. Thus, whether a book is written on a Pulitzer level or a Fifty Shades of Grey level, they will be purchased. But only if people are interested in the subject. It’s that simple. The most beautifully written book on the most obscure and arcane academic subject will not sell many copies. A book on a subject of incredible importance and interest does not need prose worthy of the masters. I’d rather try to market and sell a book that has something genuinely valuable and interesting to say and that has a big potential audience but isn’t written all that well than try to sell one that has a tiny potential audience and a subject that no one cares about but the words flow and gurgle with delight. I’m not advocating publishing poorly written books; I’m saying the words “beautifully written” are not the key to selling the book.

How will university presses look 20 years from now?

There will be maybe twenty presses. They will be large with numerous imprints. They will be business focused with marketing and sales teams leading the charge. They will be technology driven and content will be provided in multiple formats on multiple platforms using multiple business models to recoup costs. In other words, while we will be smaller in number and each one will be much larger, we will, in fact, be more nimble, flexible, professional, and market driven than ever before. We have to change not because our cause, our existence, will be changed for us (therefore that change will be required), but because we need to drive the change, to take charge of it. We have incredibly smart people rising through our ranks and they will have seized their opportunity to remake university presses. We will, under their leadership, be empowering our stakeholders and community in their own development. We will retain our important place in the world of book publishing but we will look different (internally and externally).

What book do you wish someone would write?

A bestseller.


Martyn Beeny is Marketing Director for Cornell University Press. He recently had a hashtag (#MartynBeenysPants) made for him, thus completing one of his life goals. All opinions in this post are his own and do not reflect those of Cornell University Press or any other person working for or associated with the Press or Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @MartynBeeny

Doc Martyn’s Sage Marketing: A Marketing Response to The Chronicle’s Report on the Future of Scholarly Publishing