Mark Long is the publisher of Texas State Technical College Publishing. He blogs about the industry at TSTC Publishing's Book Business Blog.
1) Academic publishing is usually a short-run business where POD makes great sense if the quality is sufficient. What percentage of your titles are currently POD vs. offset?
All of our books are done via POD. Right now we do three print runs a year-one each for the fall, spring, and summer semesters-based on the textbook orders for an upcoming semester. Ideally, sure, we'd like to get to where a significant amount-say, 25% to 50%-of our titles had the sales (and stable/fixed content) to justify offset runs because the lower per unit cost would increase profit margins. Then again, if it wasn't for POD we never would have gotten our operation off of the ground; many of our titles are custom work for particular programs at Texas State Technical College and/or need to be updated regularly because of ongoing curriculum changes based on industry needs. We'd have already gone broke printing 2000 copies at a time to sell 150 copies that needed to be updated the next semester or two anyway.
In a sense, that can be both the blessing and the curse of POD. Short runs are economically feasible and from semester to semester the text can be relatively fluid and organic because we're not printing 5000 copies that have to be sold before we can pick up corrections/updates in a reprint. (And you don't have the ongoing setup costs of making those updates via a series offset reprints.) But, with the number of titles we actively have in print-around 20-25 right now-over the last year I've seen that we're progressively spending more time on an upcoming semester's print run instead of putting more new titles together as we'd like. So, we're looking to deal with that issue over the next couple of semesters by getting on a fixed schedule to update any given title once a year at the most.
2) Is the acquisitions process for your textbooks driven by the needs of the college or an independent business model of your press?
Initially, because of the increasing price of off-the-shelf textbooks that didn't dovetail that well with the TSTC's programs, our plan was work primarily with faculty who had a desire to put a textbook or lab manual of some sort-especially in those cases where they had already been working on their own to develop those materials so that the development time on our end was relatively short-to produce books that generally fell into the $30-$50 range. We also folded in some other publishing the school had been doing on an ad hoc basis, technology forecasts in particular.
The thing that happened after the first couple of years was that we had a wide assortment of books in a lot of different areas: some health related, some computer, some developmental math, some philosophy, and so on. And some were strictly custom work-books for one program at one college-with no market for outside sales while others did have the potential for wider sales.
So, while we still actively look for projects inside and outside the TSTC System, we're also beginning to commission projects on a work-for-hire basis that we think have good sales potential. That's the theory behind a freshman orientation textbook specifically geared toward technical college students we have in development and a series of technical program career guides as well.
3) I think you started the TSTC Book Publishing Blog for internal consumption, yet your readership obviously goes far beyond that. Has the outcome of your blogging surprised you, and has it changed the way you work?
As an old college English teacher-I taught freshman comp for about ten years-the blog was a way to talk about the learning process all of us at the office are going through in becoming book publishers. I also had this idea that it would be-to use the buzzwords du jour-a Web 2.0 new media marketing vehicle.
As it's turned out, though, since the blog is more about the mechanics of publishing than the titles we've put together, I can't say we've ginned too many sales from it. On the other hand, we've made some good contacts. In particular, we found the writer we contracted with to do the freshman orientation textbook for us because of a comment she made on our blog about a publisher she had worked for I had written a post about. And it's good, given the high degree of transformation and flux in the publishing industry right now, to actively participate in the ongoing "conversation" about those ramifications instead of just lurking around the fringes.
4) Industry pundits often point to colleges and libraries as the primary market for ebooks, something I don't currently see, but I've always felt ebooks would make a great textbook replacement for weight and environmental reasons. What's your take on the future of ebooks in academic publishing?
On the one hand, I'm still unconvinced that there is an imperative reason to buy a $400 device to read an eight dollar paperback. It just doesn't make sense to me. And, as far as straight academic publishing goes-original critical research-I think it will take a long time for tenure committees to see ebook (or even a lot of POD) publications as "real" publications.
On the other hand, I think textbooks in ebook format could really be the killer app that ebook reader manufacturers have been looking for. Who wouldn't want to have all of their textbooks digitally stored on a Kindle (or whatever) instead of lugging a giant backpack of books around? And with the printing/distribution costs cut out of the equation, retail prices could be half of what they are right now while increasing profit margins, much like SafariX (I think they're CourseSmart now?) has done with Web-based subscriptions to select textbooks.
The biggest problem I see is with the digital rights management issues. I mean, if I want to read a Stephen King novel I don't really want to hunt around for a bootleg PDF on the Internet to read on a screen or print out and put in some giant notebook. But if I'm in a college class, I could probably care less how or where I get a book or what format it's in as long as I can access the information I need. Combine that with the fact that college students are infinitely tech savvy when it comes to cracking DRM protocols and permissions and you wind up with a situation where the potential market is huge but the potential to undercut yourself because of the nature of your typical consumer is almost equally as great. Basically, once ebook readers-whatever actual device comes out on top in the coming format wars-become ubiquitous enough that the price drops way down or have enough value added features-I went to an interesting session this week at the Publishing Business Convention & Expo about epaper-to make pirating more trouble than it's worth, etextbooks won't take off like they could.