University Press Web Sales (and Dabbawalas)

My interest in and advocacy of direct-to-consumer (or more accurately direct-to-end-purchaser) sales by publishers is, I think, public knowledge. So I was pleased to use some train reading time today to catch up with Joseph Esposito‘s very usefulĀ article in The Scholarly Kitchen regarding d2c sales by university presses. It’s excellent for the scholarly publishing community that someone has set out to both quantify current performance in this area and to assess the mood music, so I’m delighted that Esposito is beginning to make public some of the findings of his recent survey.

But I was shocked by the stats. I’m never surprised when trade publishers don’t make significant sales through their own web sites. But specialist publishing is different, and I work with a number of publishers who achieve more than 25% of their print book sales through direct channels, some of whom achieve the majority of these via their web sites. From where I’m standing, the 1% of total sales achieved by university presses via web sites is a breathtakingly low figure. 3% feels like a target that is unlikely to achieve ROI. Moreover 10% should not be a distant chimera. It’s a figure that should be conceivable without any drastic change to product range (and I choose my words carefully).

Esposito is correct to point out that given we know a huge portion of academic books are bought online (ultimately through amazon), aiming to achieve 10% of these sales direct rather than via a reseller should not be an unrealistic target. However I fear his commentary omits a crucial point, which is that achieving online sales is not just about energy devoted to managing a good web site. It’s about service: which is what happens after the “buy button” has been clicked. Anyone selling books online is competing with one of the slickest supply chain operations on the planet (second only to the Dabbawalas in Mumbai). Amazon sets the benchmark for the customer experience of buying books online, and what inhibits many university press (and other) publishers from making more online sales is not their web site, but their back office systems and choice of third-party distribution partner(s). The loveliest web site in the world is not going to achieve repeat business if the your distributor loathes handling single copy orders, if the book takes three times as long to arrive as a package from amazon, or if when it does eventually arrive it is badly packaged, grubby or damaged.

So I don’t agree that to get from 1% to 3% or even 10% of total sales via their web sites scholarly presses (and others) need to re-conceive themselves as web publishers. Four things drive web site orders of physical books:

  1. Compelling offers
  2. A great web site UX for buying informationĀ and purchase
  3. A physical supply chain experience that is so fantastic it is invisible (i.e. it is fast and nothing goes wrong or missing)
  4. SEO and other online and offline activities pointing potentially interested parties to relevant content & offers.
To make more sales from our web sites, we have to pay attention to visibility and to service. When we do these things there are sales with healthy margins and almost zero returns to be made. And even better, real end-user customers to get to know. That’s a prize worth the effort.



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