• August 28, 2015

As Textbooks Go Digital, Campus Bookstores May Go Bookless

College 2.0: As Textbooks Go Digital, Campus Bookstores May Go Bookless 1

Eli Reichman for The Chronicle

The face of the director of the U. of Kansas bookstore, Estella McCollum, is reflected in the console for a print-on-demand service she helped to set up. Called Jayhawk Ink, it could clear shelf space for other products.

Enlarge Image
close College 2.0: As Textbooks Go Digital, Campus Bookstores May Go Bookless 1

Eli Reichman for The Chronicle

The face of the director of the U. of Kansas bookstore, Estella McCollum, is reflected in the console for a print-on-demand service she helped to set up. Called Jayhawk Ink, it could clear shelf space for other products.

As students cut costs by buying books from cheaper online retailers or by downloading e-textbooks, campus bookstores sell fewer and fewer textbooks. That's triggering an identity crisis for one of the oldest institutions on campus and leading some college officials to ask: If textbooks go digital, does the campus even need a bookstore?

"Book sales are declining—they're down tremendously this year," says DeAnn Hazey, executive director of the National Association of College Stores Foundation. "The college stores have to find other ways and other categories" to make money, she says, "otherwise they won't survive."

So bookstores at many colleges are preparing for a bookless future with new services they hope will keep students coming: performance spaces for in-store concerts, multimedia stations for printing digital photos, and even dry cleaning. Most store managers I talked with hoped to drop the word "book" from the sign out front.

"I say I'm a buggy-whip salesman," quipped Liz Hale, manager of bookstore services at Bellingham Technical College, in Washington, where she has been advocating changes in the campus store. "I personally believe that the textbook in its current incarnation is as obsolete as buggy whips that people used to steer when we had horses and carriages."

Buggy whips aren't on the shelves, but walking into many campus bookstores does feel like stepping back in time. Many are run directly by the nonprofit colleges they serve, so they've had little financial pressure to make the cosmetic improvements in lighting and shelving that chain retailers have. Some look like relics as a result.

But their success has never been measured purely in dollars. The main mission of most campus bookstores has been to give students a convenient source of textbooks. For generations that role went unchallenged.

College Bookstores Get a Makeover

As sales of printed textbooks decline, campus stores are considering new services. Here are some:

  • Dry cleaning
  • Flu-shot clinics
  • Performance space
  • Expanded snack sales
  • Photo printing
  • Study space

Now students have many options for buying those old-fashioned textbooks, thanks mainly to online retailers like Amazon.com and Half.com, which can ship textbooks on even the most obscure topics overnight. And some publishers now sell cheaper electronic versions of their textbooks, either through their own Web sites or through CourseSmart, a commercial service supported by major textbook publishers. Or students buy and sell used textbooks on Craigslist or other classified-ad sites.

The trick for college stores, then, is to find a place for themselves in the digital landscape that both brings in paying customers and convinces college leaders that their services are essential.

That's the challenge issued in a report from the National Association of College Stores, called "Defining the College Store of 2015." It mixes suggestions for new services with advice on how to capture hearts and minds on campus. "College stores must earn students' 'love' by being relevant to their specific, evolving needs and expectations," the report says. "Growing share of campus life must be a top priority for campus stores—followed by communicating this valuable role to key stakeholders."

For many stores, that means building their own technology services—seeking to become sales hubs for digital textbooks or buying print-on-demand machines in the hope that some students will always want printed textbooks. Book-rental programs are growing as well. Just last week, the college-store association announced that 11 college bookstores had received nearly $9-million in federal grants to test rental programs.

Soon walking into a college bookstore might not feel like a trip down memory lane.

The Downside of Digital

For one futuristic vision of the college bookstore, visit the University of Kansas. Its bookstore sports a bright, modern look and can print its own books. It was the first to join a pilot project with Hewlett-Packard to test print-on-demand machines in college stores. That lets KU Bookstores dodge the riskiest part of its business—ordering loads of printed textbooks in advance and hoping that students buy their required materials on campus. The store has put its new printing facilities on display, letting curious students see the process.

"It's kind of like watching a Krispy Kreme doughnut being made. It's fascinating," says Estella McCollum, director of KU Bookstores. The store's machine can print a book in about 10 minutes, and students often remark that the resulting tomes are still warm when they buy them.

The on-demand approach can mean noticeable savings for students. Ms. McCollum says she recently reduced the price of one psychology textbook by about $37 per copy with the new equipment, and she can print collections of articles for classes, often called course packs, as well. Plenty of college stores sell course packs, she says, but most have to contract out the actual printing. Her store has cut out the middleman.

Sales of e-textbooks have recently risen, and some see that as a sign that digital will soon replace print. But Ms. McCollum is convinced that the trend is driven by price rather than students' desire to give up physical books. "What I hear more than 'I want digital' is 'I want a better price,'" she says.

And when it comes to price, college bookstores suffer a disadvantage, according to many store managers. After all, textbooks have become synonymous with high prices, scorned by students, professors, and legislators as their costs have risen far faster than inflation. And since college bookstores have been Textbook Central, many students assume that prices on everything there will be high.

So the Kansas store recently added a price-comparison tool to its Web site. Students click the courses they're taking from a menu, and the site pulls up a list of required textbooks and shows what each title would cost in the campus bookstore, on Web retailers like Amazon.com, or from a textbook-rental service that the university recently formed a partnership with. The comparison tool was made by Verba Inc., a company started by recent Harvard University graduates who are working with college bookstores around the country.

In more than 80 percent of cases, students who tried the comparison tool chose to buy a new or used textbook at the traditional bookstore, says Ms. McCollum. And when students clicked through to the Amazon.com link, the bookstore at least made a small commission for sending them. "We are building that trust with the customer that we're trying to provide a service that is relevant to them," she told me.

The Dreaded B-Word

If college bookstores survive, something else is likely to change: their names. Some store managers told me they hope to call their places of business "spirit shops" or "campus stores." Anything that doesn't used the dreaded B-word.

Bookstores at colleges already make far more profit on college-themed merchandise and on food and other convenience-store fare than on books. Textbooks may have high prices, but store managers say they see little of that money.

"We get a lot of bad press—the mean old nasty money-grubbing bookstore," says Ms. Hale, of Bellingham Technical College. "But the margin on textbooks is one of the lowest margins around." In terms of profit margin, she does better selling chips.

At Bellingham, all the bookstore has to do is break even—by Washington state law, college stores must be self-sustaining. But some students have begun using the store as a lending library of sorts, buying a textbook there when a course begins and then returning the book as soon as a cheaper copy arrives from Amazon.com. "I can't afford to be that lending library," Ms. Hale says. So she is tightening her return policy, though that was one selling point of the store in the first place.

Many colleges try to make money from their bookstores, contracting them out to Barnes & Noble, Follett, or other chains. Those companies have bet heavily on digital textbooks in recent years.

This summer, for instance, Barnes & Noble unveiled NOOKstudy, its own software for displaying e-textbooks, in partnership with many major publishers. It also added the ability to sell electronic textbooks directly via its Web site. Barnes & Noble even makes its own e-book reading device, the Nook.

"Before that we sold e-textbooks in the store, but we had never sold them online," says Jade Ross, vice president for books and digital storage at Barnes & Noble. "We saw our August and September e-textbook sales exceed all expectations."

Follett offers a competing platform for e-textbooks, called CaféScribe; company officials did not return calls for this article.

If those high-tech gambles pay off, a bookstore chain could emerge as the de facto standard for online textbooks, driving more colleges to switch to its stores. At least that's the chains' hope. But the National Association of College Stores is building its own software to deliver e-textbooks, so that nonprofit stores can at least have the virtual shelving if they move to cyberspace.

In the end, though, someone else may end up winning the role of course-materials broker. Perhaps the college library will take over, buying licenses for online textbooks. Or colleges will charge students a course-materials fee that will go to buy e-textbooks, as a few colleges are now trying.

College bookstores occupy prime real estate on campus and have huge advantages, like access to data on students and the ability to accept campus debit cards, often paid for by parents. So what should they sell now?

College 2.0 covers how new technologies are changing colleges. Please send ideas to jeff.young@chronicle.com or @jryoung on Twitter.


1. wkay7 - November 15, 2010 at 12:45 pm

I like the idea of extra study space. If the University store put in an after hours coffee shop, students would use it. At least from my experience, students were always looking for more places to study. A coffee shop with University wi-fi would drive students into the store and get them to buy more snacks and maybe another t-shirt. For now, companies like BookRenter (http://www.bookrenter.com/) are helping bookstores stay relevant with rental platform for University stores.

2. plebar - November 15, 2010 at 05:56 pm

As the manager of a small liberal-arts college BOOKSTORE, I take issue with Jeff Young's premature obituary. Take the 'book' out of our store name and sell more potato chips? Please. How about asking publishers to stop the insanity of two-year revision cycles? Or working with faculty to ensure that when a student does pay a hefty price for a textbook it will actually be used as an integral part of the course structure? I think we've all -college stores included - birthed a student culture of (justified) cynicism about textbooks over the years, and until the online sellers reached critical mass about 3 years ago it didn't really hurt us in the pocketbook. But now the rough beast arrives...
I see some promise in the open-source textbook model, and I see a LOT of promise in e-textbooks that use web components in smart ways we still haven't thought of. For a viable future, though, we need to quit gouging our students. $200 for the umpteenth edition of a standard econ text that the prof only references casually is not providing value to my customers. Don't have a good answer, but (best Bert Lahr imitation front and center) I do, I do, I DO believe in the ultimate value of books and campus BOOKstores. Pete LeBar, Allegheny College

3. eserfeliz - November 17, 2010 at 06:29 am

As plebar so eloquently commented, the answer to the future of the college "book"store is to stop the price-gouging. The price savings realised by students isn't limited to online retailers and craigslist. I can go across the street from Florida Atlantic University to the non-University affliated bookstore and save $30-$50 a textbook, new or used.

At any rate, who needs a textbook? The professors lecture and test directly from the Powerpoints anyway. I think this subject is a microcasm of American society as a whole: corporations (publishers) screw the little guys (students), the managers (professors) dumb down the processes for the peons (undergrads). It's such a tired narrative, but the more you see it, the more you understand why our society, academically and economically, is going down the tubes.

4. dank48 - November 17, 2010 at 09:19 am

Survey after survey shows students given the choice prefer paper to ebooks about four or five to one. Yet the establishment is panting to bury books; the obituary is already written.

When is everybody going to wake up to the fact that "cutting-edge technology" is being shoved down people's throats? Do you think this isn't about money? Get real.

As has been said, when the automobile came along, nobody felt it necessary to pass a law against horses. The proprietors of the companies that have bet everything on the glittery new toys they want to sell us want to tilt the board in their favor. If they could, by God, they'd have laws passed making it illegal to print, sell, buy, or own paper books. They'd probably claim the damn ebooks are "greener" too.

In the country of the blind, the one-eyed is an unacceptable seer.

5. mwalex251 - November 17, 2010 at 10:43 am

Let's not overlook the fact that the used book market has been partly responsible for driving up the price of new books.

6. dnewton - November 17, 2010 at 11:27 am

RE:mwalex251 (Let's not overlook the fact that the used book market has been partly responsible for driving up the price of new books.)

Just where do these used books come from and how did they become so popular? Simple answer is that publishers continue to increase the cost of new books to such an extent that publishers, on their own, have given financial success to anyone who owns a used book. Over the past several decades publishers have been regularly increasing prices of their books twice each year. The average annual increase has been close to 10% each of the past 5 years.

Used book prices are based on the price of new books. If publishers reduced the cost of a book by 10% each year, rather than increasing it by the same, there would be very little financial incentive for the used book companies. The spread between new and used prices would be reduced, and profits on used books would fall ast the same rate. Peer to peer and campus bookstore exchanges would be the only viable market for used books. Instead, publishers are financing the growth of the used book industry by increasing the value of used book inventory twice a year.

Books, as we know them, will probably never die out; but authors will probably be finding new ways to publish and do it through publishers who understand supply and demand economics.

7. aidanakelly - November 17, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Having spent 30 years as a book editor, in addition to teaching, I know firsthand that textbook publishing was and is the most mendacious aspect of publishing. It always involves high-stakes gambling (millions of $) and is driven by pure greed, not an idealistic seach for (or even interest in) truth. If these new technologies drive some of those guys out of business, I'd say that karma is still working well.

Publishers in general are going to be decimated by these changes. The only advantage a "real" publisher has over self-publishing is being able to pay for huge promotion campaigns--but most big publishers then cheat their authors by not promoting their books at all. I saw somewhere that in 2009, there were 250K books out from "real" publishers, but 750K were published as ebooks, print-on-demand, and so on. Buggy whips indeed! I like that!

There was an amusing anecdote in McLuhan's "The Gutenberg Galaxy" (no italics available) that soon after printed books became available, the wealthy families (the only ones who previously could afford books) would send the family scribe out to buy one, have him copy the book onto a scroll, so that it would be a Real Book, and then throw the printed book away. We're dealing with just about the same mental processes here.

BTW, I teach composition for a proprietary college. We get a lot of crap for not upholding traditional liberal-arts standards. To which I reply, "Oh, so you're teaching your students Latin and Greek?"
"No, of course not."
"But those languages have been the foundation of liberal education since the fourteenth century! Why are you flouting that trdition!"
"Don't be ridiculous! Ancient languages are of no use to students now."
I reply, "Precisely my point."
Exempli gratia, I edited at least 100 books (maybe 200) by people with Ph.D.s. Almost none of them could punctuate restrictive clauses correctly, or hyphenate compound adjectives. And so on. Let's be real. Complete, correct sentences are still essential in the real world. Very little else is.

8. spotsalots - November 17, 2010 at 01:01 pm

Excellent comments. Ebooks and used books have their place (come on, I bought used textbooks 30 years ago, so it's hardly new, just more expensive), and so do print-on-demand books. I think it's ridiculous to try to get rid of campus bookstores. Sure, sell chips at the cash register. But have plenty of non-textbook book offerings too, especially in towns where there aren't a lot of bookstores. One reason I seldom go into my university's bookstore is that it mainly has (besides textbooks) clothing and munchies. I used to go to my grad school's bookstore periodically, because it had good books, art supplies, stationery, and tech items. And gifts. I bought in all those categories.

9. chron7 - November 17, 2010 at 01:48 pm

I love the bookstore not only for the texts but also the Uni paraphernalia, other reading etc. I can see downsizing, but I hope we won't see an end to the bookstore.

10. thirtyeyes - November 17, 2010 at 04:06 pm

The end of the print book has been fortold for the past 15 to 20 years. I for one am tired of waiting for the digital book to take over.

To argue that new books cost more because of used books is a silly thing. You cannot have one without the other. It is like making an argument that the sky would be bigger without the earth. If a bookstore refused to sell used books then someone else would fill the void ie book exchanges, internet, and off-campus stores. This is precisely because a textbook (for out of major subjects) is a commodity that most people are forced to buy but have no interest in keeping beyond a very short fixed period.

11. archman - November 18, 2010 at 11:04 am

April Fool's Day is not in November. This crank article was released too soon.

12. duchess_of_malfi - November 18, 2010 at 04:06 pm

I am among those who would like to know what is the Chronicle's interest in pushing e-books. My students don't use them and are not interested in using them, and when I've done price comparisons for the textbooks I use, buying new and selling has often been cheaper than renting or using the e-book service.

Our bookstore already segregates textbooks and trade books to a small, out of the way area. It's been a while since most campus bookstores were bookstores rather than logo merchandise stores with a book area.

13. mehaynes - November 19, 2010 at 09:53 am

WHy is there no discussion of how students read and learn, as part of this article?

14. sand6432 - November 19, 2010 at 10:22 am

The used-book problem is what forced textbook publishers into creating new editions in ever shorter cycles, thus driving up costs. Eliminate used books as competition and publishers can bring out textbooks much less frequently at much cheaper prices. Used print books cannot compete with e-textbooks that include video and audio clips, hyperlinks, etc., so eventually e-textbooks should be able to take over the market. One role for bookstores might be for students to bring in their e-book readers, iPads, or laptops at the beginning of the semester and have the store install all the semester's e-textbooks for them. Or at universities that can afford to do so, the devices will be provided free to students already loaded with their course materials for the semester or year, and the students can then exchanges those devices for new ones fully loaded the next year, and so on.---Sany Thatcher

15. linear - November 20, 2010 at 10:45 am

"College bookstores occupy prime real estate on campus and have huge advantages, like access to data on students and the ability to accept campus debit cards, often paid for by parents. So what should they sell now?"

Beer and wine, of course. ;-]

16. anna1239 - November 20, 2010 at 10:23 pm

I like reading books, but sometimes I need to sell less, only in online research.cabal alz

17. patoh - November 23, 2010 at 01:14 pm

I like the university bookstores, I like to see the books I rent or buy. And I think every good univerity needs a bookstore. But I also have to say that I sometimes use the online services to sell or buy used university textbooks because it is easier and sometimes you get better deals. But I never could imagine UBC without our bookstore!

18. bobpaver - December 02, 2010 at 10:33 am

If current college bookstores added value to the process of selling textbooks they could compete with the Amazon's of the world. Students desire, even require, convenience and rapid delivery of products. Why should the purchase of textbooks be any different?

Additionally, textbooks are often stacked on warehouse shelving where it is difficult to locate the textbooks that one needs. Some are located in space that feels like a medieval dungeon.

Let's modernize the book buying process. Allow students to order via the web, pay with their credit card or campus card (with cleverly named "logo" bucks.)

Here's the best part, deliver the books to the student or make their pickup extremely easy (Think distribution stations conveniently located to residence halls for a starter or the student union/campus center. )

If a student can receive their books TODAY or even tomorrow, you are delivering faster that any Internet based retailer, especially the used book sellers, and are saving the student much money that would otherwise go to overnight shipping. Don't force them stand in line for an hour before they can even get to the shelves. I am confident that today's students, who value convenience so strongly, would jump on this.

I'm sure that there are details that I am overlooking. Perhaps others will respond and point them out.

However, if a retailer cannot provide more value than its competitors, especially in a market that is all about cost, the chances of survival diminish considerably.

If you are only interested in the challenges facing campus bookstores, you may stop here. What follows is a lengthy comment on the future of the printed book.

Lastly, e-books are INEVITABLE. Before you react too strongly, know that I treasure bound, palpable books with the musty smell of the library.. I don't think that traditional books will disappear nor should they. Nevertheless, the e-book is coming -- quickly and not necessarily because they MIGHT be less expensive. Other benefits will accrue like content updates for some period of time, sophisticated textual analysis, convenient access to a dictionary, self-indexing, commenting, outlining. The list goes on.

Why not benefit from such features? We know that books were not always printed on a press. Would you like to read hand-lettered scrolls? When was the index determined to be a useful idea? Did people resist that feature because it somehow changed the book experience? How about the card catalog? Surely no one wants to go to the library, wait in the queue, and then thumb through drawers of cards.

Progress and change are beneficial in many cases, but not always. The nostalgic idea that printed material is required for the integrity of the academy or even that current students must experience the library stacks to be considered an educated person is, in my opinion, nearly archaic.

Current graduates, whether they move on to graduate studies or enter the workplace, may never visit a library again. Please don't be horrified. Do our graduates that are working outside the academy go to a physical library to complete research that is part of their responsibilities? I think not.

Too long already.

My hope is that my spiel is provocative and not interpreted as an indictment of faculty or librarians or anyone else in the system that has served us well for so many years.


Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.