University Presses Start to Sell Via Kindle

Just months after Amazon launched its portable reader, academic publishing is starting to experiment with the model.
June 24, 2008

The Subprime Solution: How Today's Global Financial Crisis Happened, and What to Do About It is a promising title for Princeton University Press. The topic couldn't be more timely and the author is Robert Shiller, a Yale University economist who has managed with works such as Irrational Exuberance to attract big audiences for complicated topics.

The Princeton press is planning something new for the release: Two weeks before print publication the book will be available as a Kindle e-book. Kindle is's portable reader that allows for downloading of complete books. Launched in November, and already attracting attention (and competition from other companies planning their versions), Kindle has been hailed as potentially opening up a new kind of reading experience. Of course, plenty of people have heard earlier such claims, but Kindle's Amazon backing has given it a market that is attractive to many publishers -- including university presses.

By the beginning of the fall, Princeton plans to have several hundred books available for sale through Kindle. Yale University Press and Oxford University Press already have a similar presence there. The University of California Press recently had about 40 of its volumes placed on Kindle and is ramping up.

Press officials say that they are generally putting a wide selection of current and backlist volumes on Kindle, and aren't selecting any one particular kind of volume as more likely to sell in this format. However, you are unlikely to find on Kindle any books that benefit from illustrations. Permission is so difficult to obtain for online books that most presses aren't trying -- and many believe that Kindle doesn't yet provide optimal viewing for all illustrations. Yale, for example, is known for its publishing of art books, but is not putting them on Kindle.

The university presses participating in Kindle were reluctant to describe the specific financial arrangements they have with Amazon (which also declined to discuss them), but said that they were revenue-sharing deals, and that preparing the books for release on Kindle was not particularly burdensome or expensive.

While it's too early to see if Kindle results in a significant sales boost, several press officials pointed to promising signs. Stephen Cebik, Internet accounts manager for the Yale press, said he has started to receive e-mail messages from Kindle fans who find a Yale book not available in that format who want to buy it that way. Erich van Rijn of the University of California Press said that one of its volumes was sold more than a dozen times in a month on Kindle.

"There is definitely an audience out there looking for content in this way," he said.

Priscilla Treadwell, marketing manager for electronic publications at Princeton, said that the current interest reflects a change in attitudes about electronic distribution of university press books. A few years ago, Princeton experimented with some book aggregation services, but stepped back when the market didn't build. The single book model, combined with improvements in technology may make this a better time to push this option for scholarly books, she said.

The experimentation with Kindle comes at a time that many experts are urging university presses to try new business models.

Readers would save some on Kindle books, but at least now modestly, and only after recouping the costs of the reader (currently at $359). The Kindle version of an Oxford book called Punishment and Democracy: Three Strikes and You're Out in California sells for $21.96, compared to $24.40 for the paperback through Amazon. The latter also takes two to four weeks to ship and requires shipping fees. A Yale book, Churchill's Promised Land: Zionism and Statecraft, is available for $25.20 via Kindle and $28 plus shipping in hardcover.


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