Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

September 30, 2009

A View From the Front Line

Ah, ebooks.  The literary bloggosphere’s favourite subject.  One of my favourites too, but today I have a little bit more to offer than hysterical doomsaying: today I would like to report the results of a case-study I have informally conducted over the last month.

Under the general header of “ebooks” we actually have a number of issues.  Amazon selling popular hardcovers for $9.99 for their Kindle is a wildly different issue than Google scanning orphaned academic works, or textbooks converting to digital, expiring formats.  It is the latter I have had a startling new experience with – the former, and other issues, can wait for another post.

I work in a bookstore, one which specializes in academic texts – that is to say, books on subjects of remote and specialized subjects, hard to find but invaluable to the very small audience.  I challenge anybody in Toronto to find a better and more well-stocked selection of the works of Giorio Agamben or Jean Baudrillard.  Of Anthony Giddens or Hannah Arendt.  We have an African Literature section that, at this writing, exceeds five bookshelves.  Our best-selling title of September 2009, so far, is Amartya Sen’s Theory of Justice.  You get the idea.

In order to finance our indulgence in this very small, specialized field we also carry course books and, occasionally, text books for the Toronto universities.  I am absolutely sympathetic to the plight of the textbook publisher.  Textbooks take a lot of time and expertise to publish and then sell only to a limited audience; that audience is absolutely hell-bent against buying the product and do everything they can to buy the books used.  Textbooks wind up expensive and publishers feel pressured to release “new” editions as frequently as they can in order to gain market share back from the used market.  If anywhere in publishing there is an ideal place for an electronic book, this is it.  Students get the books cheaper than they would the printed version, publishers have fewer overhead costs, and the limited licensing allows them to keep the product up to date and salable without the cost and nonsense of printing a whole new edition.  And, there’s no textbook to move into the used market and become next year’s competitor.

Well, here is the front line reality.

First, a note on my research methodology.

We have the textbook for a large graduate program – roughly 1200 students.  The book comes in two formats: a physical textbook just like we all remember from school, and a “code” which retails for $30 less than the book and which gives the student access to the book in an electronic format for 12 months after the code has been activated.  (The physical book also includes the “code” for the e-version bundled with it.)

Every student needs this book in some format or another.  The book they used is custom published for them, and we have the exclusive right to sell it.  So if the students want the book, short of buying it directly from the publisher, they have to come to us.  The book is a new publication this year, so not only are there no used versions available, the students would not have been able to inspect either the physical or the electronic versions before buying.  Further, I am one of only three people who ring books through the cash register and I am nearby or present even when I am not physically doing the selling, so I can safely say I have seen the vast majority of those books actually sold.

How did 1200 students choose to purchase their textbook?

After one month we have sold approximately 900 physical books.

We have also sold approximately 8 “codes” for the ebook.

Two of those ebook purchasers later returned to buy the physical book.

Now, it is true that at first – for the first 100 books, let’s say – I was selling the hardcopy book pretty hard.  I gave the students the full run down of all the ways that the e-version was lacking.  But after it became clear that overwhelmingly they wanted the book in any case, our tactics switched – suddenly we were hard selling the ebook to absolutely no avail.  We ran out of the hard copy book at one point and even though we still had hundreds of the ebook codes in stock, nobody wanted them.  They all left their names for hard copies.

What can we say about this?  Despite the usual caterwalling about the price of the textbook, it wasn’t, apparently, enough to persuade them to use the ebook even though it was $30 cheaper.  The students were turned off by the look of the thing, a flimsy envelope of cardboard with a scratch-off number on it.  They talked about how they couldn’t read on a screen.  How they needed the book with them in class (despite having laptops with, presumably wireless connections).  Some didn’t like the fact that after 12 months they would have nothing to show for their purchase, as the license to use would have expired.  The two who bought the textbook after trying the ebook both didn’t appreciate that they couldn’t print it out – I guess they thought they could create their own textbook at home.

But first and foremost, they didn’t like the price.

Yes, it was $30 cheaper than the textbook.  But it was also still over $50.  Hundreds of times I heard the phrase “For that much money, I might as well get the book.”   This one blindsided me, I’ll admit.  I know students that will drive to downtown Toronto from Aurora to return a book because they found it for $3 cheaper on Amazon.  I thought a $30 savings was a no-brainer.  So, apparently, did the textbook publisher.

This is going to be a tricky one for the publisher to negotiate, because even an ebook of a textbook isn’t going to get much cheaper.  Students have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that the majority of the cost of a textbook isn’t the paper (and how often have I heard “wow, all that for such a small book?” or “But it isn’t even hardcover!” as if the book is a bag of almonds bought from the bulk store and priced by weight).  A textbook is – or ought to be – a high-end work of scholarship requiring one or more highly educated people to devote several years of their career to write.  The book needs to be peer reviewed and fact-checked by equally-qualified people, then marketed and distributed as usual to a very limited audience.  In short, you need to pay for the intellectual property, not the paper.  Eliminating the paper will yield some savings but will not reduce the book to a $9.99 blowout.

(It bears mentioning that this illusion that an ebook is etherial and costs nothing to produce is perpetuated by Amazon, who keep their ebook prices artificially low for some unknown but no doubt nefarious reason.  Novels are also created at great cost of time and effort and should also cost something, regardless of dead tree content.)

So this year, at least, the book held its ground against the rising tide of electrons.  Is this representative?  Did the textbook publisher mess up in some other way?  I am going to be satisfied saying that I no longer consider the battle for the textbook market cut, dried and determined.  I suspect the publishers will cry themselves to sleep over this one.  We’ll see what they come up with next year. ..

2 thoughts on “A View From the Front Line”

  1. Axel says:

    I think that while the price will be the primary named reason for not wanting it, the major reason the electronic versions won’t sell is that they are controlled by DRM.

    The music industry has spent the last decade repeatedly trying to convince people to choose DRM and failed every single time.

    When people buy something, they expect to be able to control it’s future. Telling them that it’ll expire after a year & they can’t print it out (presumably even sections) creates strong negative feelings.

    Price is relevant in that the customer is being offered an inferior product for a lower price. The customer doesn’t believe that the price is sufficiently lower compared to the reduction in quality of the product.

    Paying $50 for a 1 year book rental compared to $80 for an actual book strikes me as a bad deal.
    What would put me off, emotionally if not rationally, is that if I need to repeat the course, I have to buy the book all over again. Come to that, if I want to refer to anything from it after the year, I’m fucked.

    With a hard copy book, at the end of the course, I can decide if I want to keep the book or resell it. If I can resell if for $30 then I’ve paid as much as if I’d chosen the e-book, and I can photocopy the really important bits to refer to in future.

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