Welcome to The CITE -- a blog on Course materials, Innovation, and Technology in Education, created by Mark Nelson and now part of the Publications Department of the National Association of College Stores. CITE is a pun with multiple meanings - referring to cite as in citation, something people reference; site as in location, website, or place people go to; and sight as in foresight or looking ahead to what is coming. Comments, discussion, feedback and ideas are welcome.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

E-Books Not So Popular at CSUF

Here is an article an article from The Daily Titan, the school newspaper at California State University Fullerton, that reports that e-books are not catching on at their campus.  While the bookstore offers e-textbooks, CSFU students are not taking that option when purchasing their course books.  “If there are 100 students in the class, about 3 to 5 will buy the e-books,“ says Text Adoption Manager Mike Dickerson.

One of the reasons for the slow adoption is that there is a significant lack of availability of e-book versions of the most popular textbooks on college campuses, said Jeff Cohen, CEO of CampusBooks.com.  Cohen also said e-book prices aren’t as good as people believe them to be.  Other reason for the lack of enthusiasm about e-books is that publishers make it hard for students to bypass paying for e-books by imposing restrictions that limit e-books’ usage, expiration dates, and printing limits.

Of course, as we have reported on this blog in the past and in presentations elsewhere, there are a variety of other factors also influencing the adoption of digital texts by students.  Many of the larger adoptions are now available through sources like CourseSmart, which has partnered with many campus bookstores.  However, the majority of titles are still not available, or easily available, though a consolidated source.  Digital sales require more consumer and faculty education, due to differences in DRM and licensing terms.  Type of institution also matters, with sales higher among for-profit schools and adult commuting populations.  Student expectations of digital are also not "pdf-equivalents" of the text and in response we increasingly we see more emphasis by publishers being placed on "born digital" versions of course material resources.  In short, there are many reasons why adoption has been slow, but many of those factors are showing signs of shift.

There is also a question around the true size of the digital course materials market.  Take MyMathLab by Pearson as an example.  It probably outsells the leading print textbook product by 3-to-1 (that is in dollars if not units).  It is a top selling product for many stores, but few stores (or publishers) would count that as a "digital textbook sale."  As more products are available in digital format, and as more of those products provide richer learning contexts, digital sales will increase.  There are also a percentage of sales that happen directly through other sources, which college stores cannot track.  A case of "we may not know what we do not know" -- and that relates to market share.  We do not know what percentage of digital sales we are losing to other sources.   Recall that record stores were not seeing big sales of digital music back in 2003.  What a difference less than a decade makes.  What is the true size of the digital course materials market across all digital products (not just .pdf substitutes for print)? 

So my question regarding the original article cited in this story -- were students surveyed to find out if they are using digital course materials, and if so where they were being acquired?  How many students at CSUF are using digital course materials accessed through the library or purchased someplace else?  The number may still be small, but if we are trying to track trends, the data might provide for a more accurate picture.  The move to digital is certainly more a question now of "when" rather than "if." Despite currently low in-store sales it is important for stores to continue to monitor digital sales and experiment to learn how to transition to new forms of content delivery.  Failure to do so will likely mean increased channel obsolescence with time.

BTW -- I tend to consider CSUF a well-managed college store.  My comments are not intended to be a critique of the store's performance around digital, but to provide a different perspective on the low digital sales many stores report.  I know a number of stores take the low sales numbers and use that to justify not doing anything with digital.  Such decisions weaken both the store and the channel in terms of future positioning.  Even well-managed stores like CSUF's find that digital course material sales are not yet comparable to digital trade book sales in other channels, but they are experimenting and tracking so that when the shift does come they will be better prepared with viable solutions.

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