Mark Twain once wrote, “The report of my death was an exaggeration”. The illness of a cousin had been mistakenly applied to him and he sought, in a letter, to set the record straight. So it is with the bookstores at colleges and universities across the US. They are described as everything from ailing to imminently expiring. What is presently the prime suspect in this demise? Remaining independent? Limited book selection? On-line purchasing? Textbook rental? All of these are contributors, but the central figure is e-textbooks.
E-books have been around for the better part of a decade, but software technology that has moved the books from static PDF files to dynamic, editable and searchable has helped e-book availability grow rapidly in the past few years. The growth of tablets has accelerated the adoption of e-books and the hunger for more titles. Add Apple’s announcement of their plans for the e-book market and it is clear that the platform is here to stay.
E-book prognosticators predict that e-books will soon dominate the textbook market, especially at colleges where some texts can cost $100, $150, or more. Proponents tout the e-book’s cost advantage, the ability of professors to edit and customize the books, and even the health improvements for students who will no longer have to carry heavy, spine-bending, backpacks to and from class.
Since traditional cover and paper textbooks are the lifeblood of the college bookstore, the natural conclusion is that the rise of e-books will slash profits, decrease foot traffic, and send the stores the way of the abacus. But, is it so? Will the prophesy come to be, or are bookstores in a strong position despite the advent of this new tech? A few factors are contributing to the health of the college bookstore:
The traditional re-sale and new rental markets for traditional textbooks keep publishers and consumers happy. While e-books have a lower base price at purchase, they have non-renewable or transferrable licenses. If you like the book or the class, or not, you’re stuck with the book. Traditional books can be sold and re-sold, and now it is increasingly popular to rent, so the publisher, bookstore, and user gets some return on the investment, a win-win-win proposition not available with the e-book.
The assumption that everything new is immediately desired by college students is problematic. “Surprisingly, albeit having a customer base of GenX’s and GenY’s who are technologically savvy, the e-book has not been widely received. Students today still prefer their hardcopy books. A small percentage of students, and I am talking nationally, actually desire and use this format.” says Karen Normann, Bookstore Manager at Muhlenberg College. Students are not Pavlovian when it comes to technology.
The bookstores are not a one-line retail outlet. Bookstores carry hundreds of items for the student – licensed apparel, other course material, art supplies, and convenience store items. The e-book doesn’t directly threaten these lines. Don’t forget that bookstores used to sell calculators and typewriters, their demise did not eliminate the need for the college bookstore.
Most importantly, students, bookstores, and publishers are not the only players in this game. A critical player must not be ignored – the faculty, the decision-makers in the textbook chain of command. The average age of a university faculty member is the mid to late 40s, not your typical early adapters for technology. The notion of faculty around the country adopting and editing e-textbooks with their own content is pre-mature. Apple and the big publishers may try to force the issue, but it will be some time before e-books are the norm.
For certain, e-books, and all technology on campus, is to be reckoned with. E-books will expand in title offering, cross-platform availability, affordable price point, and acceptance by students and faculty. That said, campus bookstores are already addressing the challenge, and are preparing to re-invent themselves accordingly as a platform for distributing the new option, and not as a barrier to its adoption. Like Twain, reports of the demise of college bookstores are exaggerated.