College Store Textbook Sales Plummet in 2012


By Emily Singer

Textbook sales at the College Store have been declining in recent years, with only approximately 55 percent of stocked textbooks sold in the fall 2012 semester, down over 20 percentage points from the previous semester. While the College has yet to identify a particular reason for the decline in sales, it is likely due to students choosing to purchase their textbooks elsewhere.

According to a December 2012 study by the Pew Research Center, the population of e-book readers is growing. The study reported that 23 percent of Americans read e-books due to increased ownership of e-reading devices. E-reader ownership grew from 18 percent in 2011 to 33 percent in late 2012.

With this information at hand, Library and Information Services (LIS) has been exploring methods of appropriately adapting to the increasingly digital educational shift, namely by participating in an e-textbook pilot program and increasing e-book rental offerings at the College.

In fall 2012, the College signed up for a McGraw-Hill e-textbook pilot program through EDUCAUSE, a company focused on exploring the potentials of new technology in higher education. With LIS funding, professors who had requested that the College Bookstore order McGraw-Hill textbooks for the fall semester were able to offer students free e-textbooks. Professors using McGraw-Hill textbooks took part in the pilot program by choice, as did students in the participating courses.

“We didn’t want to be perceived as asking the faculty to do something,” said Director of Library and Information Services Terry Simpkins. “We wanted to leave as much of the control up to them.”

Approximately 500 students in over 20 classes were offered e-textbooks. The bookstore’s online textbook catalog indicated which texts were covered under the pilot program, and the College Store ordered fewer copies of the bound textbooks available through the pilot program in anticipation of lower sales.

“We left it that if a student preferred to have the printed copy, we would order a copy for them,” wrote Bookstore Manager Georgia Best in an email. “I think we received three or four requests for printed copies.”

The e-textbooks, accessible online with any Internet-enabled device, contained the exact same material as their printed and bound counterparts, and offered interactive and share-able annotation capabilities. Readers had the option to highlight the e-text, take notes, link to secondary articles and share them with their professor and classmates.

According to Simpkins, most students and professors opted not to use the interactive capabilities, due in part to the pilot’s limited duration and uncertainty about the continued use of e-books in the future.

“The [faculty] were not interested in totally rethinking the way they teach with this technology, especially if there’s no guarantee that the technology is going to be here the next semester,” Simpkins said.

“Somebody who’s been teaching a class for five years and knows how they’re going to approach the class isn’t going to want to rethink their syllabus just for one semester,” he added.

In speaking with students who participated in the pilot, Simpkins concluded that cost was the driving factor in students’ decisions to opt for the e-book.

“All else being equal, i.e. cost, I got the sense that students would actually prefer print,” he said, noting the inconvenience and difficulty of long-form reading on a laptop as opposed to a printed book or even a Kindle, Nook or iPad.

Alison Maxwell ’15 used a McGraw-Hill e-textbook in her ECON 0155 introductory microeconomics class and cited the convenience of being able to complete homework readings when she had her computer with her, regardless of location, as one of the pilot’s main perks, but had difficulty adjusting to studying material on a screen.

“Without the cost saving, I don’t think I would use them because it was actually harder to study with,” said Maxwell. “Flipping between pages was cumbersome because I would be constantly scrolling up and down between pages. If the text refers to something on the opposite page, it’s inconvenient to have an e-textbook where you can only view one page at a time.”

Students were able to print pages from their e-textbooks and had the option of purchasing loose-leaf copies of the textbooks made of unbound high-quality monochrome printouts.The loose-leaf copies cost $28 for texts with fewer than 600 pages, and $34 for longer books. The loose-leaf copies also gave students the ability to maintain access to the text after the digital version was no longer available.

“In the end, a number of my students didn’t use the e-text as their primary text,” wrote Professor of Economics William Pyle in an email with regard to his ECON 0255 micro theory course’s e-textbook pilot participation. “But instead, perhaps one third to one half sent away for the loose-leaf hard copies that they could store in a binder.”

The ultimate goal of the EDUCAUSE pilot was to learn how students and faculty might use e-textbooks, and to establish the pros and cons of e-textbook usage.

While students seem to prefer printed books to e-textbooks, Simpkins noted that improved communication, more training sessions for faculty and a long-term pilot period would have likely changed the program’s reception.

While the EDUCAUSE e-textbook program has ended at the College, some students have found their own e-textbook resources through booksellers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

More commonly, however, students seek alternate book purchasing methods instead of going directly to the College Store.

The mail center has noted an especially great volume of incoming packages as of late, with over 650 USPS packages processed on Feb. 20. While the source of incoming shipments cannot be tracked, Mail Center Supervisor Jacqueline Galenkamp believes that many of the packages contained textbooks.

In addition to purchasing books from outside retailers, students have begun to rent textbooks from the College Store with greater frequency.

In Spring 2011, 12 textbook titles were available for rent and 58 copies were rented out for the semester at a significantly lower cost. Four semesters later, in fall 2012, students rented 582 textbooks from the 53 titles available for rent.