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Posted by on Sep 5, 2008 in At TMV | 9 comments

How to Combat Textbook Sales Woes

Amid reports this week that textbook sales are down at university presses while students flock to web sites offering pirated textbooks, there’s this:

If professors make chapters of a book available as e-reserves in the library, or get that material to their classes via Blackboard, students don’t need to buy the book, and the professors may get out of having to pay a permission fee to the publisher.

To resolve the problem, presses “are going to have to start making it easy for people to ask for permission,” said Alex Holzman, director of Temple University Press and president of the Association of American University Presses. “It’s something we really need to start thinking about.”

Mr. Holzman said that his July and August textbook sales were down about 15 percent, in dollar terms, from a year ago. “My gut is telling me that electronic downloading is adding seriously to what would normally be just a straightforward economic downturn,” he said. “There’s something more going on here than in the past.”

Emphasis mine. It’s finally occurred to them to make it easy to get permission??? Nearly three years ago Slate mentioned a nonprofit venture started by Peter Osnos and backed by the MacArthur Foundation with a group of university presses:

[Books would be published] in five formats simultaneously—hardcover, print on demand, digital, audio, and by the chapter. Osnos is trying to ensure that serious nonfiction books are available at different price points. But he’s also bringing some of the insights of Frederick Winslow Taylor to an industry that still works half-days on Fridays in the summer. “The problem with publishing is that you print 10 hardcover books and only sell six,” Osnos said. By moving closer to a system of just-in-time publishing, “we can significantly improve the business and margins by getting rid of the problem of excess inventory.”

I searched for more on that venture back then and found nothing. Since that time I’ve heard nothing. And today I read that the president of the Association of American University Presses thinks it’s time they start making getting permission easier for professors!

Apple’s had incredible success with iPods and iPhones. Both are ideally designed for purchasing chapter-by-chapter audio books through an iTunes store the students are already intimately familiar with.

If they’re offered the right product at the right price point the student set is willing to pay. And if they feel gouged by a monopoly market in which they’re required to buy, does it surprise us that they go looking for alternatives?

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Copyright 2008 The Moderate Voice
  • Heh. Being a new college student myself, I walked into the university bookstore to get a book for my World Civ class. It was not a big book; I have lots of other books bigger than this one. Yet it cost me $51.00. Plus! Plus! Slapped all over the back of it were oodles of stickers proclaiming it to be “USED.” When a 366-page used book costs $51.00…I shudder to think what it cost as a new book. And the HOPE scholarship, which is sending me to school, mostly, gives me $150 a semester for books. I’m sorry, not enough.

  • lurxst

    With 2 college students moving in and out of my house, discussion of textbooks have become a big issue. Cost is skyrocketing even on online trade sites. Publishers commonly take to putting out new editions every year, with mundane changes like design themes or simply rearranging chapters. Its less common for faculty to use the same source text for more than one year before moving on. The availability of books online through Amazon and now hundreds of other sites, was supposed to give some relief, but seems to have been no improvement or even worsened the problem.

  • SteveK

    The textbooks come from the same cesspool that prescription drugs bubble up from. Prepping our young people for their senior years… At best.. criminal operations at worst… immoral criminal operations.

  • Glen as part of appears to be trying to make getting permission easier. I suspect someone will figure out something like iTunes for traditionally printed content that publishers don’t want to make free. Maybe what we need is a community developed, peer-reviewed (thus controlled) textbook platform. Hook a print-on-demand service and Google Ads to it as a source of revenue. It looks like and might be steps in that direction.

  • kritt11

    Its a shameful scam, and one that we hardly ever hear about. In order to keep competitive we need highly educated workers. Yet, we sit on our tails and do nothing while college costs skyrocket, keeping some from being able to afford to go.

  • kritt11

    Students should start their own textbook coop, where the books are swapped after use, instead of allowing the campus bookstores to get involved.

  • APR

    I just paid $185 for an economics textbook! To make matters worse, it is the 4th edition this decade, so basically the authors and publisher have put out a new edition, with very minor content differences, once every other year. Unfortunately my university does not have this book on their shelves, so I was forced to buy it to complete homework assignments.

    My previous university had a textbook exchange system, where books were sold for $30 (more than you could get by selling to the bookstore, much less than you could buy for), but the university, under pressure from the bookstore, shut the practice down. Very disappointing.

  • AustinRoth

    Two kids in college, $1,200 – $1,500 a semester in books between them (over $2,000 once!). And so many of them written by the professors teaching the class.

    In fact, a couple of semesters ago, one of my son’s engineering classes consisted mainly of helping the professor finish the next edition of his textbook. Luckily it was in a subject my son was already very proficient, otherwise it could really have hurt him in later classes.

  • 7596

    Thanks for mentioning The Caravan Project. But I am puzzled that you weren’t able to find anything more about. There has been substantial attention in all kinds of places including the Chronicle of Higher Education. You might try our site http://www.caravanbooks,org for some over the coverage and further information. Most recently, NACS has announced a major new initiative applying the Caravan principles to its retailing strategies. I also suggest you visit Shelf Awareness, a widely read publishing daily blog which had an update on Caravan this week. Peter Osnos

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