By Dr. Frank Lowney

college bookstores

I recently traveled to Kansas City, Mo., to attend the annual convention put on by the National Association of College Stores (NACS), and to participate in a panel discussion on the impact of emerging technologies upon the textbook business. The CAMpus market EXpo, or CAMEX, is billed as the “largest annual tradeshow and educational event in the collegiate retailing industry.”

NACS represents nearly all U.S. college stores, but CAMEX is attended primarily by people who run campus-owned stores. Half of all college stores are campus-owned; the other half are outsourced operations such as eFollett. The experience firmed-up many of the ideas I came there with, and added several important new insights. The following represents my current thinking on the college bookstore question.

Of course there’s a lot more to college bookstores these days than just textbooks.  Indeed, the role of textbook sales has been decreasing in recent years. NACS, which represents 3,000 campus retailers, has chronicled this decline (57 percent in 2009, 56 percent in 2010 and 54 percent in 2011).  Some campus bookstores are reporting figures as low as 36 percent and predicting a floor of 20 to 25 percent.  Some of this is due to the Higher Education Opportunity Act, passed by Congress in 2008, which required schools to provide the ISBN numbers of required texts in their online course catalogs. This has facilitated vigorous comparison shopping—and more online buying.

college bookstoresAlthough diversification is an appropriate survival tactic, one has to wonder if it doesn’t have practical limits in this case. Can a campus bookstore attract enough business if students no longer need to go there to get required texts? Campus bookstores without textbooks is a very probable future.

What is looming is the impact of the digital textbook—the e-textbook.  An e-textbook can be delivered to students without the intermediation and additional cost of a bookstore. One way this might happen is to adapt the student information systems (SIS), which are now in wide use throughout academia for online registration, to additionally handle the purchase of required texts. In other words, register online for the course and buy the required texts in the same transaction.

It would also be possible to bundle the cost of the text with tuition, especially where free and  low-cost e-textbooks, such as those offered by Rice University’s OpenStax College, are adopted. As I try to establish in my book, The Coming ePublishing Revolution in Higher Education, it is now quite possible for colleges and universities to produce their own textbooks. They employ the subject matter experts, there are many free e-readers for the EPUB standard as long as DRM is avoided, and there are a number of ways to create those EPUB-based e-textbooks with free or inexpensive software applications that are no more difficult to use than a modern word processor.

college bookstoresOf course, the traditional textbook publishers are not stupi,d nor are they going to allow themselves to be dis-intermediated without a fight. They well understand that open source e-textbooks could put an end to their historically substantial revenue streams. Their solution is to destroy both physical and digital textbooks altogether.

Signs of this can be seen in the shift in textbook publisher language. The word “textbook” has been replaced with “learning content” in their new vocabulary. What they’re referring to is adaptive learning content which is delivered via learning management systems (LMS) such as Blackboard Learn, ANGEL, Desire2Learn and Moodle. These adaptive systems analyze the learner’s online behavior and conditionally assign customized homework, drills and practice exercises, and other dynamically assembled content. It’s not a textbook—it’s LMS-based learning content.

college bookstoresThis recompilation of facts and ideas converts what would normally not be copyrightable into something new and different enough to qualify for copyrights, and perhaps a patent or two. Old wine in new bottles will sell well, they calculate. The textbook will be obsolete, they say.

So what’s driving all this?  Certainly, the inexorable process of superior technology replacing old ways is a part of it. But there is a more pressing force at work that is significantly accelerating the process. Here it is:

We’re seeing the effects of declining philanthropic, corporate, federal and state financial support for public higher education. This has raised tuition and contributed significantly to the student debt crisis. Instructional programs are being looked at as a cost reduction opportunity for the very first time in my decades-long experience. The fat from all other areas of campus life is generally perceived as long gone after years of successive budget cuts. Writing about a recent Moody’s Investors Service report which downgrades the entire education sector, Kevin Kiley of Inside Higher Ed used the title, “Nowhere to Turn.”

Consequently, reducing the total cost of the college experience has risen to the top of the higher education agenda. Online education is being viewed as something more than just a supplement. As well, reducing or even eliminating the cost of textbooks, or “learning content,”  to students is getting very serious attention. Textbook innovation abounds, but I think much of it is misdirected toward preserving things as they used to be. That simply isn’t tenable.

The rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is seen by some as an existential threat to institutions of higher education (IHE). MOOCs are beginning  to crack the credentialing lock that has been the exclusive domain of IHEs, and the key to their revenues. Dis-intermediation may be a real possibility here too. College and university administrators are hard at work figuring out how to contain and even lower the total cost of the college experience. If they don’t, perhaps MOOC or Son-of-MOOC will.

My guess is that what the traditional textbook publishers offer will not contribute to the needed lowering of costs. Whether that offering comes in the form of e-textbooks or adaptive “learning content” that requires an LMS container, it won’t be cheap enough to make a difference. They are just too addicted to the revenue streams they have enjoyed in the past.

The best solution, I think, is for institutions of higher education to redirect their considerable human, technical and organizational assets toward creating and distributing their own e-textbooks.  Campus bookstores, libraries and university presses (where they exist) are natural allies in this kind of effort. Faculty creating e-textbooks may have the content expertise, but they will need lots of help in all the other aspects of book production.

Although I think that that DIY e-publishing is the best solution for higher education, I have no illusions about how incredibly difficult this will be. A culture that has evolved over several hundred years will have to be upended and almost totally re-invented.  Old relationships will break and new relationships will have to be formed. It won’t be an easy decade at all.

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Correction: A previous version of this article mentioned that “NACS represents about half of all college stores,” when in fact NACS represents nearly all U.S. college stores. We regret the error. 


college bookstoresAbout the Author: Dr. Frank Lowney is the author of The Coming ePublishing Revolution in Higher Education, available for $0.99 on iTunes. He is currently associated with the Georgia Digital Innovation Group, a collaborative initiative of the University System of Georgia and Georgia College & State University. In his current position, he works with faculty, staff, students and external agencies to develop, maintain and find ever more innovative uses for computers, software and networks dedicated to the production and deployment of both standard and experimental educational applications. To learn more, visit his website or his blog.