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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?