What I will say today at the Oxford Conference for the Book on a panel about the University Press of Mississippi celebrating its forty years of publishing
Marketing After 40 Years
Every so often marketing will hear the charge that “No one knows about this book!” Even for books that we have sold 15,000 copies of in two years, I have heard this exasperated cry, “Oh, no one knows about this book!”
I used to hang my head and consider leaving the business over comments such as that. But I have come to understand them as sentiments that stem naturally from the conditions in which we now market books.
In 1998, the year that I came to University Press of Mississippi the book industry’s chief bibliographic service Bowkers tells us more than 200,000 new books were published worldwide. In 2008, that number topped 560,000 brand new books. Currently at University Press of Mississippi, we bring to market 70 to 75 new books each year, a matching number of new and backlist electronic books, and 60-80 books returned to print through print-on-demand technology. In raw terms of books brought to market in one year in all three forms―traditional books, electronically formatted books, print-on-demand books―that would mean at the least UPM brings 200 author creations to market every 365 days. We ought to forgive you if you happen to miss notice of one of them.
Even as more books come to market, our customer perceives she has less and less time for reading, and she definitely, statistically has more choices. Let’s consider the average University Press of Mississippi customer. She is a junior scholar in her forties. She carries a smart phone buzzing with messages from work and home. On campus her work email inbox is stacked with queries, and her home email (now accessible at work) has loads of greetings, problems, spam, and frivolity she must address or dodge. Regardless of how serious and thoughtful she appears to her colleagues, she is still a victim of the average 4-1/2 hours of television consumed daily by each of us in America. Never have so many sources of information and desire been unleashed; never have so many demands been placed on her attention.
From or maybe because of that welter, there has arisen in her vocabulary the notion of authenticity and an aversion to being hard sold. Like many of her students, she has a deepening distrust of traditional media pathways. She may think Brian Williams terrifically handsome, but she doubts that he has ALL that is news and doubts that ALL his stories come from agenda-free sources. Rather than being overwhelmed by noise, she is discerning and harbors ever-hardening convictions about what content is nourishing and worth seeking, about what content is candy, and about what content is rotten and toxic. There are only a few of those many channels of information and desire―maybe an email listserv, a facebook page, a podcast, or a blog―that she uses to make buying decisions when it comes to books. She demands a direct connection with a new product, she wants experiential purchasing; she would prefer to see a high resolution video of the author speaking on our vimeo site, rather than choosing a book based on a review in a scholarly journal, even if her teaching specialty would dictate that she needs to be reading that journal.
Her changes in media consumption are a sign of our times. There is tremendous contraction in many of the traditional places where books are marketed. Newspapers are an excellent example. When I came to University Press of Mississippi 12 years ago, thriving book pages and thoughtful book editors existed at many of the metro newspapers across the South, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Raleigh News-Observer, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. Now in the South we are down to two newspapers where an editor and pages are still specifically assigned to book coverage―Greg Langley at the Baton Rouge Advocate and John Sledge at the Mobile Press Register.
In one six-month catalog season in the year 2000, University Press of Mississippi had three books reviewed in The New York Times Book Review. At that time we visited the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Art in America, Library Journal, Black Issues Book Review, and several other magazines and newspapers face-to-face every sixth months in New York City. All of these outlets have reduced their pages, reduced their coverage, and some have folded all together. Just this Monday, Library Journal and School Library Journal were sold to a media company in Ohio. Even that vaunted outlet The New York Times Book Review has drastically reduced its book coverage, shrinking the number of pages in each Sunday issue. If one follows its pages now and counts the number of times any university press book outside of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Yale receives attention at all, one risks severe melancholia.
As these traditional outlets have contracted and or disappeared, the marketing department at UPM has kept in mind the changing preferences of our customer and made sure that notice of our books is spread far and wide, especially through the internet.
Last week I received an email from one of the buyers at Barnes & Noble national offices in New York asking to see a copy of our book Conversations with Sherman Alexie. Now this was unusual. The buyer in question buys self-help, health, and other books, not literature. We visit the Barnes & Noble national offices every six months as well, so I know him and his habits from years of making sales calls. I couldn’t help asking him, Where did he learn of the book? His response: I was trying to prove something to my wife about Alexie, and when I looked on the internet, your book came up.
While there has been much in the news about Google’s Library program, a much quieter program, the Google Print Program for Publishers has had UPM as a participant since its inception. Using Google to search for the terms “Blues Sites Mississippi Delta,” our book Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues can not only be found as a resource, but browsed to determine experientially whether or not it fits the customer’s need.
Several recent initiatives illustrate our marketing department’s drive to find those trusted channels, and mix that effort with the traditional direct mail, advertising, publicizing, and exhibiting, which has not stopped. In November 2008 we created a web page called a lens celebrating Mississippi bookstores on the social networking site squidoo. In a given week 38-40 people use the page to find a local bookstore. And 2,228 have used the site in its short 28-month lifetime. The lens reinforces our close relationship with independent booksellers and lets that authenticity seeking, experiential consumer know that University Press of Mississippi cares about its state and is a Press happy and willing to share knowledge of a rich and varied bookselling tradition.
In addition to seeking out bloggers writing about comics, film, music, and food, UPM maintains its own blog (please check it and leave comments), manages an email list of insiders who have asked for news about our books and authors (please come to our website and sign up), and keeps a facebook page (so come on and fan us). More important, the marketing department encourages our authors to use the democratizing power of social networking to create their own facebook, blog, twitter, and you tube presences. Author videos on our vimeo site can be downloaded and incorporated into any page an author builds. Several authors have embraced this social networking very successfully. The author of a forthcoming country music book on the MuzikMafia already has 1000 fans on the facebook page he created, a ready made market of 1000 consumers on a low bandwidth, but for those 1000 a chosen and trusted frequency.
In 40 years of publishing, University Press of Mississippi has now sold and shipped over 2.5 million individual books worldwide with the name Mississippi on the spine, witness in every one of the 2.5 million that a vigorous intellectual discourse and artistic seeking comes from our eight state universities through our many authors as nearby as Rowan Oak and as far away as Europe and Asia. Once in a while a patron or friend will cry out, “No one knows about this book!” But it is not hard to find a channel through which some very committed and enthusiastic someones have found our books, shouted Gospel good news about them, and then taken those books to heart.