For Mark Nelson, digital content strategist for the National Association of College Stores, who spoke at the CAMEX show and NACS meeting last week in San Antonio, Tex., digital change could come as quickly as the iPod became a staple of college students: in four years, iPod adoption by college freshman went from 0% to 85%. The signs of an iPod moment for digital material are strong, he continued. E-readers are becoming more sophisticated, the volume of inventory is increasing, standards are emerging, and digital rights management (DRM) is becoming less cumbersome. In addition, "We're seeing more consistency and direction from publishers and interest from others outside the industry," he said.
Technologies that are about to take off in popularity show a kind of "knee-in-the-curve" jag on adoption graphs, he continued, and something like that may be occurring with e-books. According to NACS's own Student Watch survey and other sources, some stores are reporting digital adoption rates that average 10% of the enrollment for some courses and, for a few courses, as much as 35%-44% of sales. In the last year, there was a 2%-3% shift to digital from print. Some 18.5% of students strongly prefer e-texts over the print version of the same books, and 18% have purchased or accessed digital material. More students want a digital option, and 17% of them have said they would pay more for a print book if a digital version is included. Book industry e-book sales grew 37% in 2007 (to $31.5 million), and audiobooks in digital format are particularly popular among people aged 18 to 24
Among other indicators of change: there are now 1.2 billion Internet users compared to 48 million in 1996. Computing power will get cheaper, faster and better, and there will be more applications. In 2006, the content created and copied online equaled three million times all the books ever written. "There is more and more connection between technology and the pace of knowledge increasing," Nelson observed.
Most people believe college stores are in the business of selling textbooks. But "we are probably not in the business of selling textbooks," Nelson said. He noted several telling examples of the contrast between an industry's perceived business and "real" business--or at least a way of looking at it that offers a path to the future. These included camera stores and film developers, considered to be in the business of photos but actually catering to "shareable memories." Likewise, people think telecom companies are in the phone business, but they're in communications. And cemeteries are thought to be in the business of burial plots when they are actually in death care and memory preservation.
Nelson suggested that booksellers need to listen to and meet the needs of their customers. "Customers typically get what they want, especially in the participatory computer age," he observed. And these days, college bookstore customers "want lower prices. They don't want to buy a whole book if the professor doesn't want them to read it all. And they want shareable content that they can interact with." He cautioned, "If we don't find a solution to these questions, someone else will."
In addition to the bookstore, students are already getting digital material through the library via an e-reserve system or an e-book collection; a course management system or professor's site; off campus; or direct from the publisher. "In most cases," Nelson said, "we don't know where we're losing digital sales to."
Emerging models in the textbook industry include direct to consumer; institutional; and the traditional bookstore. Among the programs and companies working in the area:
California State University's Digital Marketplace, which emphasizes affordability, accessibility and choice for students. The OhioLINK eText Project is similar to Cal State's and likewise focuses on large introductory courses.
CourseSmart is "a very interesting experiment" founded by six major text publishers. It sells to students but has opportunities for affiliate programs. The pilot has had positive results with sales "roughly 10% of enrollment."
Amazon.com is beginning to sell textbooks over the Kindle and has approached five institutions to sell textbooks through their IT departments. Amazon, Nelson said, is an example of "a big player who could enter the industry and offer a different model."
VitalSource, the Ingram Digital unit whose VitalBook offers "a growing inventory of content," is piloting with institutions.
CafeScribe wants to partner with stores through an affiliate program. Tools include online readers with annotation and social networking elements.
For its part, NACS is "doing a little bit of everything" and "trying to provide a wide range of tools because it has a wide range of stores as members," Nelson said. The association has created a digital content strategic planning task force that includes people from outside the industry and has met with associations representing college libraries and college IT departments.
NACS is also working with the Caravan Project and looking for about 10 stores to participate. The NACS Foundation has given a grant to help develop education and marketing materials for stores.
At the show, the NACS board approved a three-part strategy to increase partnerships, especially with publishers, CourseSmart and other campus groups and institutions; enhance trade infrastructures; and increase education and awareness.--John Mutter