Changes to the ways students find and use information are causing structural shifts in the academic bookselling market

<p>Fiona Ramsay</p><p>The academic bookselling sector was gloomy in 2005. Publishers struggled to maintain unit sales in campus bookshops, while booksellers faced the combined threats of online competitors, a booming market for second-hand textbooks, and students buying fewer printed resources.</p><p>UK publishers sold 32 million academic books in the UK market in 2005--a decline of 6.4% compared to 2004, according to PA statistics. Now campus booksellers are reassessing their strategies in an attempt to shore up their businesses. The sector needs "a new way of thinking and a new trading model", says Terry Field, m.d. at John Smith&amp;Son.</p><p>Strengths and weaknesses</p><p>In what new ways are academic booksellers approaching the current back to university (BTU) season? John Smith is continuing to test new retail brand JS Campus, selling stationery, sweets, snacks, cigarettes and soft drinks in addition to textbooks. Field believes that campus booksellers should "stop moaning", and expand into new product lines to drive up footfall and become "destination shops" for students all year round. "We are going into BTU up on last year and I am more confident than last year," he says.</p><p>Blackwell's, with a new management team led by c.e.o. Vince Gunn, is building a brand under the strapline "The Knowledge Retailer". The brand emphasises service and product knowledge over price, with point-of-sale focused on core categories such as medicine, law and business. Its reward card and "10% off everything for students" campaign last September increased sales by 2%, with online business up 10% - the chain's most successful back to university campaign for three years.</p><p>Lee Morgan, group sales director at Compass, the academic sales force, sees Blackwell's as a focused specialist. He says: "One of the major strategies is to get each store to focus on its major subject strengths front of store." </p><p>But some publishers have yet to be convinced. Catriona Murray, head of sales and marketing at Edinburgh University Press, says: "At the end of June, our sales to Blackwell's were 23% down on the previous year to date (our financial year runs August-July)." Strong-performing stores at Broad Street in Oxford and Edinburgh South Bridge are viewed by suppliers as the exception rather than the rule.</p><p>Meanwhile, the campus operation at Waterstone's has also struggled, with six of its stores closed earlier this year. A further 17 have been brought under the control of their nearest high street managers for the current season. The chain has just launched its 10% discount offer for students.</p><p>Neil Broomfield, sales and marketing director for higher education at publisher John Wiley, believes that academic booksellers must play to their strengths if they are to survive. "Given that campus stores will find it challenging to compete with online stores for price and range, they need to focus on their key assets--proximity to the student body, outstanding product knowledge and excellent service," he says.</p><p>At present, online booksellers appear to be gaining an edge in the battle for the academic market. Abebooks.co.uk expects each back to school season to yield greater sales that the last. "It looks like at least half of UK students are now going online for textbooks at some time during their studies," Richard Davies, Abebooks spokesman, says. Amazon.co.uk, which has picked up a huge slice of academic book sales during the past five years, is gearing up for another strong season (see box).</p><p>With 17,000 fewer students applying to UK universities between 2005 and 2006, the market is likely to become even more competitive this year. Mark Potter, retail operations director at Warwick University, forecasts "nothing great" for this season, after sales at Warwick Bookshop fell 2% for the year to end-July.</p><p>Second-hand season</p><p>Foyles is also battling with challenges in the academic sector. The London-based independent is shrinking its academic range overall to give more space to general trade titles, but there will be a strong academic promotional thread nonetheless, including adverts for medical books in the Student BMJ.</p><p>"Medical is our most significant section, and sales are looking pretty healthy this summer," Kate Gunning, Foyles' product manager, says. Foyles has tables piled high with a new edition of Kumar and Clark Clinical Medicine (Saunders), as well as Concise Medical Dictionary (Oxford) and the Harrison's series of medical textbooks from McGraw-Hill.</p><p>A window display at Foyles Charing Cross Road currently has an eye-catching skeleton (right) to highlight the medical section in the basement. The independent will also use text message marketing this year, to target students with its special offers.</p><p>Second-hand bookselling is a significant new strand for campus booksellers, particularly since online providers have enabled this market to flourish.</p><p>At Warwick, Potter introduced a buy-back service last term, following similar initiatives from John Smith and Blackwell's. "We had a soft-ish launch. It will be interesting to see what happens as second-hand books are a growth area," Potter says.</p><p>The rise of a market for secondhand textbooks largely reflects price increases during the past few years. Although last year saw volume sales decline, sales of academic books by value rose 2.8% to &#163;376m; meanwhile, the average r.r.p. rose by 9.8%.</p><p>Custom publishing</p><p>Pricing is a thorny issue in the academic market, and this year there is a good deal of unease about it, particularly in relation to custom-published titles.</p><p>As the textbook market becomes more competitive, publishers are working with academics to produce bespoke books. Neil Broomfield says: "The traditional textbook adoption and sales model is fragmenting: second-hand sales, custom-published products, virtual learning, content licensing deals and direct sales to academic departments are all nibbling at the edges of the traditional textbook market." He adds that "one size no longer fits all", and publishers must now customise their offers to individual university requirements.</p><p>Booksellers are relaxed about selling books at higher prices if the product is specifically relevant to courses. Field says: "A good adoption might sell 40 copies but a custom product could sell through 70 copies." However, campus stores have been angered this year by a letter from Pearson Education, stating that it will offer a "standard level of 25%" discount from July for its custom products, which amounts to a reduction of 6-8% discount.</p><p>"This is a 6% reduction to our usual discount," one campus bookseller says. "Pearson has spent months talking to my contacts [academics] in the university and giving them an expected retail price." Booksellers would be forced to increase prices above academics' expectations if they wanted to protect their margin.</p><p>Christine Ozden, Pearson Education m.d. of higher and professional education, says the publisher is in "ongoing discussions with booksellers" and is "listening to their concerns"; but she adds that the discount on offer will not change. </p><p> Publishers are uncertain how textbook orders overall will shape up this BTU. Broomfield says: "Many lecturers are still finalising their reading lists for September and October." But they are cautiously optimistic--Pearson Education, Informa and Elsevier have all reported sales growth in 2006.</p><p>John Fallon, Pearson Education c.e.o. for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is particularly upbeat: "Last year was difficult in the UK, partly because traditionally it has never had a second-hand book market, or at least it was small, and the internet has made it much easier for people to buy and sell second-hand textbooks online. But we know from the US that second-hand sales reach a plateau at a certain point and we are close to reaching that point here. I think the market will get better."</p><p>Next week: academic hotlines</p>