Death of Campus Bookstores/Birth of Digital Textbooks, Apple style
|January 21, 2012||Posted by Josh Boldt under Activism, Arts & Humanities, Education, Technology|
I have no sympathy whatsoever for campus bookstores. Their business model has always been one of exploitation. For decades, campus bookstores have made almost no effort to adapt to changing trends in the book industry. They have continued to sell textbooks to students at unconscionable prices, and offer the most meager exchange rate imaginable when those textbooks are resold at the end of the semester. They do this because they can. No viable alternative exists for students.
For years and years, campus bookstores ultimately held the reins to student college success. Too strong of a claim? Think about it. Without the book, you can’t succeed in the class. As the retainers of the text, the campus bookstore has traditionally been the gateway to the college diploma. Which is why their monopolistic exploitation of the customer base should be a much bigger deal than it seems to be. Companies who do their best to stick it to the very people who keep them in business, deserve to fail. I have no sympathy whatsoever for campus bookstores.
When I was in college in the late 90′s, the option to buy books online was still in its infancy. Although Amazon had been around for a couple years, the online textbook industry was still relatively unknown. We had no choice but to buy our books at the local bookstore. Yeah, there were three campus bookstores in Lexington, but the prices were all the same. They might as well have been owned by the same company. I remember paying $150 dollars for a Chemistry book, and getting about 10 bucks back at the end of the semester. I’m sure you all have similar stories. What kind of business continues to succeed when it treats its customers like that? Answer: One that has no competition. I’ve written before about the fact that a corporation has no conscience, and therefore will never care about anything but the bottom line. As long as a corporation can exploit, it will exploit.
Even back then, I railed against this system that gave all the power to the merchant and none to the consumer. I half-heartedly tried to organize a student book swap that would allow students to both sell books for more, and buy them for cheaper. If we could cut out the middle man, we could all win. I never came close to the scale necessary to really make it work. Knowing what I know now, I wish I could go back to my 20 year old self and develop that business plan. Where’s Doc Brown when you need him? At any rate, I (nor anyone else) got that project off the ground. But even then I knew the system was corrupt and that there had to be a better way.
Fast forward a few years to the early 2000′s, at which point Amazon started taking off as a platform for what I might call “peer-to-peer collaborative retail trading.” Now here was the model I was looking for. Students could cut out the middle man, so to speak, and connect directly with each other. Here was a system that was much more fair. Success (in the form of sales) was truly determined by price and quality, rather than the old way in which the bookstore was succeeding just by existing. In order to sell books, the vendor had to cater to the consumer, for once. Prices had to be low, condition had to be good, and—perhaps most exciting—sellers could be reviewed by buyers. Exploitation is not an option in this type of retail environment. Amazon and others had established a large scale version of my book swap idea. And it (finally) gave some power to the buyer. Still one problem, though: time. We often don’t have the seven or so business days needed to receive a book after purchasing it. By then, we’re a couple weeks into the semester and past due on several readings. I would argue that this—and this alone—is the only reason campus bookstores are still in business. Immediacy.
Oh boy. Now we get to the fun part.
Apple Kills Campus Bookstores
On Thursday, Apple announced iBooks 2 and its large scale entry into the world of e-textbooks. Good old Steve Jobs had plans before his death to revolutionize the way textbooks are purchased, sold, stored, and consumed. The project has now begun. Apple has partnered with textbook publishers Pearson, McGraw Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in an attempt to further digitize and make available a realistic alternative to the campus bookstore. The new textbooks will have a price point of $14.99 each. As of right now, these e-books are aimed at high school students (presumably because high schools are more likely to purchase the books for their students), but I believe it’s just a matter of time before this trend explodes on to college campuses as well. You have to start somewhere.
Apple is just so good at doing things right. That’s what makes me excited about Thursday’s announcement. When the company gets behind a project, they do it thoroughly and blow all the competition out of the water. I can’t wait to see what they do with this.
The beauty of the e-textbook is it solves the last remaining hurdle in the quest to ditch the brick and mortar textbook industry. Immediacy. You can have your books even faster than if you walked to the bookstore. And no more waiting in line. Plus, at $14.99, the cost is certainly not an issue any more (except for that whole buying an iPad thing, but we can talk about that later). The whole process of selling books back is no longer important in the world of e-textbooks—as long as they stay affordable.
Beyond the affordability and immediacy of the new e-textbooks, Apple has also promised a new exciting element of interactivity. John Paul Titlow of ReadWriteWeb notes this interactivity means that “glossary terms can be looked up instantly, indexes of each book [will] contain links to the appropriate sections, and [that] each chapter closes out with an interactive Q&A for students.” He also points out that “books can come with built-in flash cards . . . as well as any additional multimedia or Web-based resources that could aide in the learning process.” All pretty exciting innovations. Can’t wait to see it in action.
If campus bookstores have any sense, they will realize the imminent threat to their business model, and adapt. For one, they should be working with everything in them towards making a deal with Apple that would allow them to sell iPads at a reduced rate. Or at least provide some kind of incentive to students to shop with them. Maybe that will include in-store docking stations or a special wifi network that offers a discount on textbooks when downloaded at the bookstore. In the next decade or so, hard copy textbooks will be a thing of the past. I guarantee it. If campus bookstores don’t make an effort to get with the program and stop ripping off students, they will disappear. Apple just took a big step towards ensuring this is the case. The campus bookstore is in some ways a hub of college life—at least it was when I was in college. Of course, a lot of that was because students had no other choices. I would kind of hate to see the bookstore disappear, but if they don’t adapt and stop the exploitation, I have no sympathy for them.
*I don’t feel right to end this article without briefly mentioning the price tag of Apple’s source of delivery. The iPad is still $500 (although I’ve seen them for as low as $300 on Amazon). I realize that. It’s not an economically feasible acquisition for many students. Still though, students often pay $500 for a semester’s worth of books. Consider that. I would really like to see Apple develop some kind of textbook reader similar to the Kindle Fire for under 200 bucks. I think they might. If they do, you heard it here first.