Higher education publishers’ aspirations to become software developers

Expanding upon an article in the September-October 2014 issue of TAA’s print newsletter, The Academic Author, Sean Wakely, Founder and Principal Adviser at Academic Author Advisers, posted an article on his blog that covers the topic of higher education publishers’ aspirations to become software developers.

In his post, Wakely examines publishers’ digital solution to declining print sales and used books and whether publishers are ready to meet the challenges posed by the “digital transition”.

In future posts, Wakely plans to cover publishers’ changing product vision and the acquisitions editor’s evolving role.

What percentage of sales are lost to the used book market over the life of an edition?

Tips of the Trade ImageQ: “Does anyone know a “rule of thumb” about what percentage of sales are lost to the used book market over the life of an edition? In other words, if the adoption rate remains basically static, how do royalty returns typically decline after the edition has been on the market for one year/two years/three years?”

A: Robert Christopherson, TAA member, author of Geosystems:

“Quick response on used-book impact. With my 3-year revision cycle we do not stay ahead of the used-book sales erosion. Fortunately in my field there is so much dynamic change that such a revision cycle is warranted.

The largest royalty checks occur April 1 (sales July 1 to Dec 31) the first year after a new book. Oct 1 (sales Jan 1 to June 30) is usually low for early spring instocks. If you have multiple titles that are on alternate years, that helps even the royalties–as one title is hit by used books, the other title is on the rise. You can have a market leading text with increasing adoptions and see sales go down in the third year because of used-book sales.

Keep track of how many printings your edition goes through by checking with editors or checking shipments at the bookstore of new books and the print number on the copyright page. Also, check Amazon and others and see what the discounts are for your book–I’ve found a poor competing book, losing market share has deeper discounts than a book on the rise, commanding new market share—I take this as an indicator of used-book availability—short used-book supply, less discount. A best seller, one that might be kept as a reference book, has smaller discounts.

To make a text more of a ‘keeper,’ if appropriate in your field, write with a voice, a POV, to the student, with the student, for the student. I embed over 200 URLs throughout my texts not only to help the pedagogy but to make it a reference work, one to keep.

Used books are a nightmare—a leading text with growing market share and declining sales—go figure. So glad we have TAA.”

A: John Budd, Industrial Relations Land Grant Chair and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, and winner of a 2005 Texty Award for his textbook, Labor Relations: Striking a Balance (McGraw-Hill/Irwin):

“In the budget / business plan for a new text I am proposing, my editor at McGraw-Hill assumed that approximately 60 percent of the total sales would be in year one, 30 percent in year two, and 10 percent in year three.”

A: Ginny Borden Maier:

“Thanks for the replies to my query about how I should expect sales to drop year-over-year within an edition as a result of used books. It’s clear that the answer is different depending on the discipline and nature of the market.

I will share the answer I received from my editor. He estimates that, when adoption rates remain the same (so the same number of copies are being sold), a little more than 50% of the books sold after one year are used copies. In other words, I should expect royalties to drop to less than 50% in the second year of an edition. He wasn’t as certain about the third year, but essentially said ‘don’t expect much at all, kid.’

I would say that my experience is near the worst-case scenario in terms of impact of used book sales. I write Biology textbooks for non-majors — these students are much less likely to hang onto a book for ‘reference’ after the course than a major is. (Hmm. Kinda wondering about my career choice here. Should have tried to get into anatomy books for med students, maybe).

Anyway, my query was stimulated by my learning that my September ‘royalty’ is a negative balance, due to all the bookstore returns in Jan-June of this year. I wasn’t expecting much, but I needed to know whether my expected royalty in March of 08 was going to cover this balance and leave any payout for, say, groceries. Thanks again for your replies, and happy writing!”