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Don’t Forget the College Market

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It’s tempting as we go around chasing Internet sales and working out how to get more titles into fewer bookstores to forget about an important market. For relatively little effort, this market can supply not only sales today, but sales next year and every year. Those sales are to be found in the college market, and no matter how trade-oriented your book might be, somewhere someone is teaching a course that might find your book useful.
One of the goals of all publishers is to create backlist. Backlist books are made, not born. Creating ongoing sales into a college or university market is one of the best ways to create a backlist. It can be especially important when the returns are coming in from the chainstores and there’s no more publicity channels to follow up.

Our Experience at Northwestern

I’ll start with the example of our own press at Northwestern University. Building from a specialist list in Eastern European literature and a literary magazine, we have built up a strong and award-winning literature list. We now specialize in fiction in translation but also have an imprint in American fiction and poetry. The primary sales route for these titles is through the book trade in the first instance, and we rely on our reps to get the books into the stores and on reviews to get them out into the hands of the buyers. But except for the award-winners, that realistically only moves around half of the initial minimum print run that we require. The follow-up sales are into the course adoption market.
To this end, we exhibit at the major conferences and do mailings to college professors. And we happily send out complimentary copies to professors interested in using the book in their courses (more on this later).
We currently have a Russian novel from the Socialist-realist period which we published in our European Classics series, and intend primarily for the trade market. It’s going into its fifth reprint in four years with sales over 8,000 copies, of which perhaps 10% went through regular bookstores. And we didn’t even commission the translation-the book was out of print with a major New York publisher in a perfectly serviceable translation.
To learn about such manuscripts, we have primed both professors and booksellers around the country to call our editor when a book they need to use disappears into that most dreaded of all sales report categories-RPUC (reprint under consideration). That’s when we make the call. Last year we picked up Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle that way and had the book out within six months. We’ve sold 3,000 copies at $17.95 to date and sales are likely to stay at that level for years to come. (Now you may well ask why a major New York publisher would let a book with a sales record like that go out of print in the first place. I think that’s a topic for another article.)

Exploring the Potential of College Sales

The first thing you have to do is to work out whether your book realistically is suitable for courses, and which specific ones. Find out how the author got to know about the topic in the first place. Did they do a course that led them on to the path they ended up specializing in? In your search, don’t just stick to the obvious colleges and universities. And realize that learning has become a lifelong activity. Education of the Third Age is one of the catchphrases of the moment in all educational circles.
Getting a novel “set” for a reading group is just as much of a course adoption sale as getting a textbook used. And in fact, less conventional educational institutions are more likely to want to use books from less conventional publishers (though they may be harder to market to, because they’ll be harder to find).
Academic conferences are an excellent way of showing your book to a lot of potential adopters at the same time-and of finding new manuscripts as well. But they are expensive and they are much less effective if you don’t have your own booth. Aim at the conferences that attract teachers. There are companies that will exhibit for you-and even companies that will represent your title on college campuses around the country.
Don’t put any hope in college bookstores getting the message out for you. They really exist to stockpile the right books at the right time for the students, and they aren’t in the risk business, which is why they often get lower discounts on their orders on text adoptions. They won’t stock your book unless they have an order for it, and if they did stock it, the right people wouldn’t come looking there anyway. But do target the independent bookstores around major campuses if that’s your market, where teachers do go looking for new titles.
The most obvious approach is direct mail. The main mailing list companies will be able to break down a list of teachers into exact subject interests. As always with direct mail, do a sample mailing before laying down too much money on the list. Remember that the aim of your mailing is not immediate sales-you cannot expect the teacher to buy the book first. They are inundated with free books from major college publishers and they are unlikely to send you their credit card number with an order. What you want is for them to request an inspection copy.

Handling Sample Copies

There are various schools of thought on this. My approach is that the cost of sending that copy gratis is very small (just the unit cost of the book plus postage) and the goodwill is considerable. Others go through complicated invoice procedures whereby you send the book gratis, and within 30 days, the teacher either writes you with an adoption promise, buys it at 10%-50% off, or returns it. Following up on these “invoices” boggles every computer system I’ve ever come into contact with, annoys the teacher, and if you ever get the book back, it will be in unsaleable condition.
If you send the teacher a free book, it seems to me you have every right to call them or e-mail them in 30 days, and ask what they thought of the book. Was the information level right? Was the price right? What could you do in the second edition to make it better? If that isn’t the right book for their course, have they ever considered writing such a book that you could publish, etc., etc. And you have their name to build into your own core list for the future. And when you send out your book, ask them if they object to your sending them e-mail in the future to inform them of new books you are publishing in their field. For the few dollars that the book has cost you, you may get a loyal customer who will be responsible for multiple purchases of your book in the future-or even a new author.


Every marketing plan for every book should ask the “college” question. Use your dollars carefully while you find out whether your book is right for the market. You might even test-run it with some teachers if you can while it’s still in preparation. However, never ignore what can turn a one-shot title into a significant backlist item.


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