Tony Sanfilippo talks acquiring, marketing, digital publishing

by Juliet Barney, AAUP Marketing and Social Media Intern

As part of my series of interviews as AAUP intern, learning about scholarly publishing from my layman’s perspective, I recently talked to Tony Sanfilippo, Assistant Press Director and Marketing and Sales Director at Penn State University Press. Knowing his expertise and experience in digital publishing, especially in regard to acquisitions and marketing, I hoped he would be able to help me better understand each area.

From previous interviews, I had picked up some basics about acquisitions and marketing: I knew that acquisitions editors work to find manuscripts that fit the needs of their press, not necessarily their personal needs; that marketing for these titles, whether they are print or digital, is modeled by the particulars of each specific project. I was curious what Sanfilippo had to add to what I have already encountered—and interestingly, he did have a new perspective: he explained that you don’t always stick to acquiring texts within your usual editorial focus, and that you can also revive out-of-print books you still believe are valuable.

From Sanfilippo, I learned that acquisitions aren’t just about finding the right manuscript, but also building up a worthwhile project and making it accessible to a wide range of people. Sanfilippo also revisited his college bookstore idea that has the potential to positively impact college students like myself.

(The full interview has been edited for publication.)

What is your experience with patron-driven acquisitions? Is it an effective model?

This is something I’m actually very concerned about. The major question surrounding PDA—which is also referred to as demand-driven acquisitions—is, “Are the current usage triggers sustainable?” A lot of publishers and vendors are having a big conversation on the model. What we’re seeing is that libraries are no longer purchasing books, but instead, are opting to do this short-term rental more often than they’re purchasing. So, not only are they changing the nature of the library’s collection to something that’s more of a popularity driven selection, it’s also significantly cutting publishers’ revenue. For example, I know University of Mississippi Press noted that they’ve seen a significant cut in print sales and the DDA model is only making up a fraction of that lost revenue.

I think if the model is going to be sustainable, two things need to happen. (1) We need to change the model so that some sort of compensation is given to the publishers to make up for the lost revenue. If we don’t, university presses won’t be able to continue publishing the amount of books they’ve published in the past. Also, we will probably begin to publish only popular scholarship as opposed to good scholarship, which are extremely different things. (2) We also need to think about alternatives to the rentals. For example, if there’s an opportunity for the individual to purchase a copy for himself or herself rather than only offering the library the opportunity to purchase a copy: that sort of revenue could make up for the loss.

Otherwise, PDA/DDA won’t be something publishers can continue to participate in on a long-term basis.

In your article “Rethinking the College Bookstore,” you bring up the idea of borrowing textbooks or new scholarship, both for students and faculty, but wouldn’t that affect the publishers marketing those texts?

What’s different about the model I recommend and what’s currently going on is that there isn’t that opportunity now for a purchase to occur by the individual in a library. Libraries have a mission of sharing. They get a certain amount of resources that they can use totry to purchase materials with, and they try to decide what’s the best way to share those materials. But promoting book ownership—that’s not the part of the library mission. What I propose actually adds that element. Patrons often also have their own personal libraries, but with the loss of bookstores, they have few opportunities for discovery for those personal libraries. Instead that’s been happening for readers more and more often at lending libraries. Publishers can afford to rent more books and allow more borrowing of books if they are also given the opportunity to sell a book in the same space, and to the same audience.

There’s an interesting statistic that I encountered recently, here, at Penn State. We got an email from the help desk at the university library: the #1 most-asked question was, “Where is the bathroom?” #2 question: “Where can I find my textbooks?” Students weren’t going to the university bookstore and asking that question, they were going to the library. There is an expectation from students that if the learning materials aren’t a part of a content management system, they should be on reserve in the library. I think there is some resistance from librarians on this topic. But, if it’s what the students need, maybe we should consider it.

There’s one popular theory that people will pay for the use of material on a borrowed basis. Sort of like a Netflix model. You don’t actually own films or TV shows; you borrow them. If you look at libraries using the Demand Driven and Short Term Loan models, combined they’re sort of like a Netflix for books mixed with the physicality of a Blockbuster. If you borrow a book and spend too much time on it, rather than just paying the late fee, you have to buy the book. It’s like renting a movie and never returning it.

When looking for new manuscripts, what do you consider?

The acquisitions I do are very different from the scholarly acquisitions that Penn State Press typically does. In our mission statement, we talk about how the majority of what we do is for serving the scholarly community, but we also have a line in there about serving the people of Pennsylvania. As a state school, we feel a responsibility to give back to the commonwealth, so we also try to publish books of interest to them.

For me, what makes a good book is going to be different than the standards of those acquiring our scholarship. Our scholarly acquisitions staff are looking at whether the manuscript uses the language of the discipline and whether or not it’s engaging with a current argument in that field. In contrast, the questions I ask myself are, “Is it useful to the people of the commonwealth, and if so, what’s the market? Would we serve a good portion of the regional market or is it too narrow a focus?” So whereas marketing is a minor part of scholarly acquisitions, it plays a major role for me and regional acquisitions. I’m also looking at the writing. If you’re not a great academic writer, that’s not always important. And if you’re really engaging with the language of your discipline, the book will have trouble with a wider audience; jargon is not accessible to the average reader. I’m looking for really great writers who can engage their readers, and who are going to appeal to a much broader audience. It’s not only what they’re saying, but also how they’re saying it.

I’m also generally thinking about publicity, because our regional books have a better opportunity to benefit from publicity. There are so many local radio stations where I can book an author because they’re talking about deer hunting. Our Continental philosophers? Not so much.

When acquiring a text, do you take into consideration whether it will be in print or digital?

psupress_birdatlasLet me give an example—not of a book that I acquired, but a recommendation that I made. We did an atlas on the breeding birds in Pennsylvania. It comes out of work that the Pennsylvania DCNR (Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) does here. Folks go out and count the number of breeding birds they find in the wild: pairs, and nests. The volunteers are out there every weekend documenting these numbers on paper. They did this for 10 years and came up with this amazing data set of the distribution of birds and their breeding habits, including where and when they could be found. We published all that data into a book. My first thought on that was, “Wow, wouldn’t that make a wonderful app?” Not only for species identification, but also to continue monitoring the distribution of the breeding species.

Once we started looking into the cost of a project like that and it became more daunting. We weren’t able to proceed, but it’s the kind of thing I thought about in the terms of, “Does this project make more sense in print or digital?” There’s an argument to be made for both. But as a project, if it were to be ongoing and continuously recording data, it seems that as an app, you can create an opportunity, not only for the user to look up a particular bird, but also to report that sighting back to the database.

It depends upon the project. When considering whether to publish in print or digital, I’m not only thinking about the audience, I’m also thinking more about the actual project. That said, there are very few projects where we’re forced to choose between only one or the other.

What’s the most interesting project you’re currently working on?

psupress_angelswildthingsThere was a book we published a long time ago called Angels and Wild Things: The Archetypal Poetics of Maurice Sendak, by John Cech. I think the world of Sendak; I think he was an American treasure. There was so little written about him that was really scholarly in nature, and here was this book that we published that had unfortunately gone out of print. So I tried really hard to bring that book back into print. The folks who actually controlled most of Sendak’s illustrations were generally HarperCollins (they were his publisher through most of his career). We would have to negotiate another deal with them to use the illustrations again, and our initial attempts were pretty discouraging. They wanted quite a bit of money for the necessary permissions required for a reprint.

But then serendipitously, one of our acquisitions editors found herself talking to a friend of Sendak. When she realized the connection, our editor started talking about the book, and the friend offered to “see what he could do.” So a few weeks after that party, we got a call from HarperCollins’ rights department saying that Sendak asked them to give us unrestricted print rights to his images for use in our book, and to do it gratis. (For print only, though; they weren’t so generous with the digital rights.) So in the end, we were able to bring the book back into print after more than a decade, primarily because Sendak himself intervened. I’m extremely proud to been able to bring that book back into print.