I ran into Caroline Wintersgill at the IPG conference in the UK. Caroline was my first hire at Bloomsbury Academic when we established it in 2009 and is a terrific commissioning editor. At the bar she told me a couple of stories about successful experiments in open access books. Of course, as someone with a social science background I know full well that a sample of two does not make a trend. Nevertheless it was heartening to hear that open access books can do very well. It was also interesting to hear that open access is playing a role in allowing books to be discovered, read and promoted by key opinion leaders in fields that traditional marketing approaches may not have reached.
Two years ago, when I was still Publisher at Bloomsbury Academic The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class by Guy Standing came out on a Creative Commons Non-Commercial license. I remember the arguments at the acquisitions meeting when Caroline, the editor behind it, presented. The sales team hated the title. It broke all the rules of academic publishing. You always, always, always try to convince the author to say what the book is about using well- recognised key words in the title. No one had ever heard the word ‘precariat’. And why did Caroline side with the author on this? Well, we caved in and ran with the title. The sales team grumbled, we published and held our breath.
The Precariat had a number of things going for it – excellent content and an author who knew how to work with us. Eventually it was found on the Web by Noam Chomsky. He read a few chapters online, asked for a copy and has been quoting it in text and at conferences ever since. One couldn’t ask for better publicity. I have to admit we’d probably not have thought of sending Chomsky a review copy. He found us instead of us finding him – a great example of open access content’s ability to work as marketing for editions that are charged-for.
Now what did this do for sales? Bloomsbury sold over 5,000 print copies, plus another few hundred in ebook format. The Precariat is going to be released as a trade paperback in January 2014 at £12.99. The sales team are excited, saying it’s one of the best books coming out of the early days of Bloomsbury Academic. I chuckled remembering how it was nearly turned down.
For a while if you googled ‘precariat’ the book was the top entry. Now it’s been overtaken by a Wikipedia entry on the concept, which refers to the book. A new word has been born and the ideas behind it are permeating landscapes of both public and scholarly debate.
Caroline also told me that Oonagh McDonald’s book Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac : Turning the American Dream Into A Nightmare is coming out in the summer in paperback too, only a year after its launch in hardback.
I commissioned this book with some trepidation. As a start-up we’d not yet decided to publish in this field and had no other such titles on the horizon. Rule number two in publishing: don’t stray outside of fields you already publish in, and if you do launch into a new area make sure you have a large enough collection of books over which to spread your market entry costs. Again, this book faced resistance from the ever-sceptical sales team (to be fair, it is their job to be professional sceptics). Nonetheless, the passion of the author and the importance of her research got me very excited and I pushed for its acceptance.
In this case I had a double battle on my hands: As well as convincing the sales team, I had to convince Oonagh to let us publish on a CC NC license. Oonagh took some persuading as the idea seemed totally alien to her. Although she wasn’t concerned about royalties, she was worried that we would never get it reviewed if it was floating about for free in cyberspace. In the end, however, she agreed. As it turned out, the availability of an open access version did not deter Nigel Lawson, a former Chancellor of Exchequer, from taking an interest. He reviewed the book in the Financial Times several months after publication and now the sales team are happy with its prospects in paperback.
These success stories suggest to me that much of what I learned during my many years as a publisher remains true: Good publishing produces good books that sell well – even when they are also available for free on open access licenses. Determined editors acting as responsible and caring midwives for books remain vital to successful publishing, regardless of whether books are published in open or closed formats. Even the best books can flop if they are not treated with care and attention by skilled publishing teams, fought for in editorial meetings and intelligently promoted until they have gained the momentum that allows them to stand alone in highly competitive markets.
These two strong and profitable books for Bloomsbury have made an even greater impact than the sales figures alone can show. Thousands of hits indicate their significance and ensure that the pull that comes from unexpected quarters is possible. For authors who have put so much into their books this has to be a good thing.
Oh, and Bloomsbury Academic and Professional Division won the IPG Publisher of the year award!