A safe space for academic bookshops

A safe space for academic bookshops

Last week The Bookseller reported that the textbook market was in “turmoil” - a result of the creeping digitisation of the marketplace, the raising of textbook prices, and the opportunity that now exists for publishers to bypass the campus bookshop.

In a column for The Bookseller following the closure of his independent academic bookshop in Plymouth after 42 years, Ron Johns argued that the structure of the academic book trade was “about to fall apart” and that traditional print textbooks have become “obsolete”.

The textbook has no commercial future, wrote Johns. “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.”

He also cited the availability of free material online, the growth of the second-hand book market, as well as direct selling to institutions. “That source of revenue, the textbook, has been both over-mined and undermined by the very publishers who created it.”

Not everyone agrees with this assessment. Other physical retailers appear to be adapting to the changed market: campus book chain John Smith’s reported a company-wide increase in book sales last year; Blackwell’s reported like-for-like sales were up in its key campus branches; and Waterstones maintained that the academic trade was still “very important” in some of its locations.

Statistics from Nielsen BookScan partially support this; sales in its Non-Fiction: Specialist category in 2015 grew by 2.9% to £158.4m, the first time the category has seen year-on-year growth since 2009. But that comes after the market’s nadir. The £158.4m is the sector’s second-worst year since BookScan records began in 1998. The best came in 2009, when the market reached £209.6m.

The publisher view is also different. A spokesperson for the Publishers Association contextualised: “The fact is that here, and in other areas of book retail, the ecosystem is changing. Margins are being squeezed across the whole supply chain and UK publishers are responding to customers’ needs by selling physical and digital textbooks and learning resources across a variety of channels, with many sales being direct to educational establishments.”

It is not hard to understand the different viewpoints. The retail figures can also be contrasted with those provided by publishers to the Publishers Association. According to the PA, sales of physical goods have declined from 2010’s £947m to £822m in 2014; digital has risen from £134m to £252m.

Yet, we should not over-estimate the impact of digital on the sector - just yet. At one quarter of total sales (similar in fact to digital’s make-up of trade sales), there remains plenty of room both for retailer and publisher innovation. Yet just as high street booksellers blanched at the rise of the e-book (and consequent shrinking of their bestseller market and creeping dominance by Amazon), so academic bookshops are right to be wary of how digital inevitably benefits the bigger publishers over smaller campus bookstores.

But book markets don’t always behave rationally, and I wonder whether there is yet a sting to this tail.

In her fine essay on the academic marketplace written as part of The Academic Book of the Future initiative Jaki Hawker, academic book manager at Blackwell’s Edinburgh, wrote that “academic texts, and platforms for disseminating academic texts, have changed faster and more fundamentally than any other sector of the bookselling market”. Yet she cautioned about blindly expecting digital to supplant print. It was a view I also heard expressed at the academic panel we hosted at the FutureBook Conference in December. The demand is not in one direction. As Johns put it: "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."

Hawker went on to say: “If you had asked me five years ago, I would not have predicted that in 2015 I’d still be working in an academic bookshop whose primary source of income remains physical textbook sales, supplemented but not replaced by digital sales. Now, I’m beginning to wonder if in 2020, students and academics will still prefer paper to pixels. It may look as though I’m arguing for the traditional print book, but what I’m actually saying is that it’s very easy to be seduced by the bright lights of technological innovation without considering what readers want. And what readers want is choice, both in learning material and in format.”

The different views suggest to me that, rather like the trade, the academic sector’s digital transition is likely to be, to coin a term once used by the mobile analyst Benedict Evans, “lumpy”. In his analysis of 2014 and published in last year’s PA Stats Yearbook Jonathan Glasspool, managing director, Bloomsbury Academic and Professional, said that “what we are seeing is the ratchet effect of a number of systemic changes in the market over the past five years. The cumulative effect is to speed up the rate of decline of traditional publishing revenues”.

Of print publishing, he said: “A slow motion car crash driven by helpless automata is perhaps an apt metaphor for the sector’s print publishing (and some of its senior managers), which over the past five years has declined by 24% in unit terms, and by 13% in value. This fall sped up in 2014.”

Turmoil doesn’t feel like quite the right word for this market, and neither does obsolete. Pearson’s recent travails show what can happen when expectation of how a global digital marketplace will develop overreach customer demand, institutional need, or just local mores. This is a marketplace changing fast, but not yet in ways that seem fixed.

There are also parallels with trade where the recent resurgence of print and Waterstones is giving all publishers a safe space from which to re-align their businesses to the new normal. But this new-found confidence risks making fools of all us: it was only three years ago that with Kindle on the march, and Waterstones struggling for life, that the then c.e.o of Foyles Sam Husain implored publishers to better support high street booksellers with improved trade discounts and longer payment terms. Many have forgotten, but trade publishing was perhaps one Russian oligarch away from its own car crash. 

I've yet to be convinced that publishing can thrive in a world without booksellers, and yet as companies such as Gojimo have demonstrated, there is an area beyond the traditional academic textbook that remains untapped and underexplored. If Johns is even half-right, the academic book business will need to find its own safe space to secure the future.