Lessons learned

Are textbooks obsolete? And is the structure of the academic book trade about to fall apart?

I think it is. Our experience of running the University Bookseller in Plymouth points that way. This bookshop, which I started 42 years ago, has provided a living for 39 years. I was actually surprised that we survived the first three very tough years, but with hard work, clever work, we expanded into the premises next door, opened the basement up and even had an office and accounts area above the shop. It provided the springboard for us to open Falmouth Bookseller and St Ives Bookseller. We prospered. We grew with the expansion of the University of Plymouth as it introduced courses in marine science, business, psychology , biology, medical, law—all strong subjects. We became HMSO (Stationery Office) and British Standards Institution agents, and the business felt permanent.

But the academic trade has evaporated for us, even though less than 100 metres away there is a massive organisation devoted to teaching. Each autumn we used to be beseiged for six weeks of frantic, crazy, full-on trade: working packed eight-hour days, not answering the telephone, shutting the doors because we were physically full of customers, not stopping for lunch or even a cup of tea. The volume was such that the appalling academic discounts did not diminish its viability. But nowadays trying to run a bricks-and-mortar bookshop on 30% discounts from publishers is not possible: bookshops need 50% to run an effective business.

I always told folks: “It’s better to sell books to people who have to have them”, but that isn’t the case now. Information is available for free and I believe the textbook has no commercial future. Its demise has, of course, been catalysed by many sources but the beginning of the end was the extraordinary price increase in textbooks over the past five years. This caused a breakdown in trust between teaching staff and publishers and led teaching staff to question the structure of the academic trade, as well as to make their own course notes, to challenge the actual process and be super-selective in actually recommending a text that would really do its job.

Even when staff did recommend a text, its price (usually circa £60) would stop most students from visiting the nearby academic bookshop and purchasing. Even the Amazon price was too high. The web also made second-hand texts easier to source, but that stock will soon be exhausted and I doubt that much investment will be aimed at academic texts now. That source of revenue, the textbook, has been both over-mined and undermined by the very publishers who created it. Information now is free via the web and alongside that information are the issues of plagiarism and academic integrity.

When student fees rose again in 2012, many universities decided to buy first-year texts for their students. Daniel, my clever son, developed our own in-house electronic card system, which enabled us to sell and track sales to individual students who received monies from their respective departments. That was very successful, but eventually the spectre of cost-saving came up and the university switched to purchasing e-books for its first-year students. We couldn’t compete with technology, price, know-how etc—all alongside direct selling. It wasn’t much fun, and in my book our business has to be fun.So we took the decision to close, and did so quietly in December. I wonder where or how learning will progress without the commercial incentives of writing and publishing. I doubt revenues will be attractive enough to warrant investment in the future. We know many students prefer a paper text, and most never even open the free electronic version given to them as an incentive to study.

As for us, we are very lucky. Our publishing arm, Mabecron Books, is flourishing; we sold the lease to the University Bookseller premises; our general bookshops are doing very well—with a new opening in Padstow scheduled in the spring. I now sell to happy customers who mostly don’t need the books; they actually want them.

Ron Johns is the owner of Mabecron Books and bookshops in Dartmouth, Falmouth and St Ives.