When most of us think of “bestsellers,” we tend to think of celebrity memoirs and genre fiction titles by big-name authors. What we don’t normally think of are scholarly works published by university presses. To the average reader (and perhaps even the average trade publisher), the world of academic publishing may appear to be a closed-off realm in which scholars exchange dusty monographs with their colleagues, showing little interest in attracting readers outside their field. After all, it’s hard to imagine a riveting book trailer promoting a specialized work like Nan Z. Da’s Intransitive Encounter: Sino-U.S. Literatures and the Limits of Exchange (a recent title from Columbia University Press).
But the reality is that university presses make important contributions to society by disseminating knowledge and upholding high standards for factual accuracy; and in order to remain economically viable, they have to market their books just like everyone else. In the face of modern challenges like widespread digitization and shifting priorities in higher education, university presses are getting creative in their efforts to promote their books and connect with readers.
In order to understand the evolving marketing strategies of university presses, it’s important to know what kinds of books these presses publish, and where these books have historically been sold. In addition to academic journals, university presses publish monographs (highly specialized works directed at a narrow academic audience) as well as trade books (titles that are expected to attract a wider readership) and midlist titles (books that fall somewhere in between). Historically, university presses relied on university libraries to buy and stock their journals and monographs. However, this has changed in recent years as commercially published journals have begun to claim a much larger share of library budgets, which are already shrinking due to cuts to higher education funding. On top of this, university administrators facing budget constraints have grown increasingly skeptical of the importance of university presses (which are usually subsidized by their affiliated universities), and some of these presses have even been shut down. Finally, the onset of the digital era has changed the game, forcing university presses to rethink their well-established marketing and sales models.
So how are university presses adapting to all these recent challenges? One of their key strategies has been to embrace the social media revolution. A quick perusal of the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts for Duke University Press, University of Chicago Press, and Columbia University Press (just to name a few) shows how these century-old academic presses are keeping up with the times by engaging with readers on digital platforms. Social media allows university presses to promote their books and journals outside of academia, thereby expanding their brands and reaching a wider audience of non-scholarly readers who are interested in their midlist and trade titles. Rather than relying on libraries as they did in the past, university presses are focusing on marketing directly to a diverse readership.
Another platform that university presses have begun to utilize in recent years is YouTube. Oxford University Press, in particular, has been very invested in marketing through videos: according to an article in Publishers Weekly, as of 2014, the press’s marketing department had more than forty staff members working on video production and related projects. That investment seems to be paying off: as of January 2019, OUP’s YouTube channel, The Oxford Academic, had over 48,000 subscribers. This may come as a surprise to some, since the channel’s content (which includes a variety of interviews with authors and academic experts) focuses on the press’s more scholarly works. Similarly, the Harvard University Press YouTube channel features a video of a talk by mathematician Paul Lockhart (author of the HUP title Measurement) that has garnered over 47,000 views.
These examples show that despite recent changes and setbacks, university presses can still appeal to large audiences. People are still hungry for the thoughtful, high-quality content that university presses have to offer—it’s just a matter of finding a modern platform that will help presses engage with those readers.