Doc Martyn’s Soul: The “What If?” of Marketing Multiple University Presses

University presses are silos joined in many ways by bridges of varying strength. We’re connected through what we do, who we publish, the genres in which we publish, our missions, and our sense of the importance of scholarly publishing. But we’re also disparate, competing, in a sense, against each other, hoping to sell our books to the same people that are interested in another university press’ titles. We market to the same groups, often using similar techniques. This competition forces us into a silo whereby we have to withhold information or data because there is a belief that we will lose our edge if we share such commodities. But what if university presses took a different approach?

What if, instead of keeping marketing information and data separate we actually opened our silo doors and let those crucial marketing leads and contacts leak out? Maybe we could use these leads and contacts, send them outside of the silo to see what they might find and return to us; a set of marketing carrier pigeons, if you will. Can we, in essence, market multiple university presses at once through a combined system of shared marketing efforts? The simple answer is yes. There are few reasons that cannot be skewered with logic and reason and considered argument. The simple reality is that there seems little inclination at this point to do so.

At the recent AAUP meeting in New Orleans collaboration ran the show. It was all everyone talked about. But as a few panelists noted there is little actual, real collaboration. Danny Bellet, publicity manager at Penn State University Press (PSUP), pointed to efforts they have undertaken on their own to use books from other university presses as their “also of interest” titles. PSUP believes it makes sense to highlight these competing titles because of the power of cross pollination but also because if a customer does like one of those books from the other press there is a better chance they’ll like the one from Penn State as well. Simple. And yet this is a relatively isolated incidence. MIT, Nebraska, Florida, and Purdue came together recently to create the “Up In Space” campaign and this has demonstrated some value but it is static and so rather limited in what it can do.

So what real options do we have to take advantage of the incredible combined marketing power that university presses could (do?) have? First, we need to find a group of marketing directors willing to take a shot. I’m one…get in touch with me if you wish to start that conversation. It won’t be an easy thing to do; there is cost – the burden of creating these campaigns and the financial considerations for a start, but other hidden costs that we may not yet be aware of, too. There are questions about sharing staff, time, resources, data (the ethics of doing so, for starters).

But what if there are also potentially huge rewards. Sharing all costs, resources, and data should reduce the actual cost of marketing and could open up new markets and audiences that individual presses are just not aware of or tapping into. Our regional audience at Nebraska is large in some aspects and tiny in others. If we can combine that regional reach with one in New England and one in the Pacific Northwest and another in the South we have just increased my audience by a significant factor. If we buy advertising as siloed presses we are at the mercy of the individual rates of the media. But if we combine as a group of twenty presses, say, our bargaining power just went through the roof.

We all have lists of customers that we have built over the years. We’re all proud of those lists and have discovered that they offer a fairly decent return when targeted effectively. What if five or six presses with similar publishing areas combined the segments of those email and mailing lists to effectively multiply our combined reach by five or six times? We don’t have to break the confidentiality of our lists because we can cross-promote within our own lists, directing people to “competitive” titles from the partner presses, for instance.  

There are many ways in which we can market multiple university presses at once, of course. In my last blog I challenged university presses to come together at BEA as a force to be reckoned with. I truly believe that BEA offers the university press community an opportunity to combine forces and shout from the largest platform who we are and what we publish. Those of us who exhibit right now give ourselves hoarse voices because we’re shouting from a platform that is rather precarious, swamped by the big trade houses. But, twenty university presses (or more) joining forces and taking a large section of the floor would make an impact beyond what we can currently conceive. Our platform would all of a sudden be built on much sturdier foundations and our combined voice would no longer grow so hoarse so easily; our individual voices would not be lost either, but amplified instead to a volume unattainable at this point.

In scholarly publishing we are faced with multiple challenges. This is a perfect time to truly come together in small or large groups and work out how we can cross-promote and co-market our books so the largest number of readers possible knows about our titles and what we do. By only standing still inside our silos we will spend more time, money, and resources wondering how to reach the audiences waiting outside of them. There are plenty of ways in which marketing teams can join forces and create powerful campaigns that benefit all the presses involved no matter their size or reach. So let’s change the “what if” to “when” and see what happens. 

-Martyn (@MartynBeeny)