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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Doing It Right

[Overheard regularly at Titles Bookstore McMaster University on a daily basis for the past couple of weeks]

Student: "Excuse me, sir. Do you sell this Chemisty textbook on its own?"

Me: "I'm sorry, we only sell it as a package. The textbook on it's own sells for anywhere between $120 and $190."

Student: "Gulp. So how much does this three part package cost?"

Me: "$97.95. You get the hardcover textbook, the paperback solution manual and an interactive software media pack."

Student: "Oh!"

There's a reason the student's reaction is typically a really stunned look or that they eye me suspiciously for a long time and usually back away slowly, careful not to turn their back to me.

It's because by the time they find this package, which is being used in almost all of the first year Chemistry courses being taught at McMaster, they're used to being ripped off. But I think this is a case of an academic institution and a publisher working together and doing it right.

I'll be the first one to admit -- the textbook industry is broken. It's a horrible mess. It's a legacy monopoly environment that keeps spiraling out of control. For the longest time academic publishers sold millions of books because instructors "adopted" them and students had no choice but to buy them. But in the past ten years particularly, sales stopped going up. The price got to a point that students couldn't afford the books and so started looking for other solutions, which include buying used books, using the library, international editions or other illegal methods, or simply opting NOT to purchase the textbook at all.

In fact, unit sales of textbooks have consistently been going downhill for many years now and publishers are spending more and more to try to stay relevant, produce additional value in their course materials and compete with one another for the elusive "textbook adoption" -- but the additional millions upon millions of dollars they are spending to compete with one another is having a negative effect on the textbook price -- it's driving the prices upwards. And thus the frustrating death-spiral.

CCRA (Canadian Campus Retail Associates) stores across Canada launched a great promotion last year called WeirdBlame. With the phrase "Don't blame the bookstore, we didn't pick your roommate either" the site attempts to use humour to help educate frustrated students on where things went wrong.

CCRA and other campus stores are doing their best to work with student groups and publishers on solutions to help fix this broken market. Titles Bookstore at McMaster is a member of many such groups and we are constantly looking for new solutions to these problems before the textbook industry goes the way of the auto industry. The writing should be on the wall -- it's too bad so many intelligent people who DO know how to read aren't seeing it.

But in the meantime, rather than point out the obvious negatives, I wanted to return to spotlighting one particular approach taken done by a faculty at McMaster which I think created a win-win situation for students, the publisher and the bookstore.

Three years ago, the Chemistry Department at McMaster negotiated a deal with Pearson Education Canada. As I understand it, it was done after a lengthy RFP-type plan put out to a number of publishers. But, in a nutshell, McMaster's Chemistry department agreed to "lock in" the same textbook package for the majority of their first year Chemistry classes provided that the publisher whose textbook was chosen locked in the textbook package at a reasonable price.

The result is that first year Chemistry students at McMaster for the past three years have been able to purchase the Petrucci Package for a fantastic and very reasonable price.

The package includes the 9th edition of the Petrucci General Chemistry textbook (which normally retails on its own for between $120 and $190 -- if you don't believe me, check out Amazon's listing for the book, which at the time of me writing this, lists the book for $140 US), plus the paperback Solution Manual (which I've seen listed for between $60 and $90), plus a software Media pack (a kind of interactive "Study Guide" to assist students, which usually retails for under $30 on its own) for the price of $97.95.

I applaud the wonderful efforts made by McMaster's Department of Chemistry as well as the folks at Pearson who made this possible. When I think of the millions of dollars that both parties have helped to save students over the past three years at McMaster it makes me proud to have been a part of it.

But what, business-wise, is the end result?

From the bookstore's perspective, I can tell that in the past three years we have sold thousands upon thousands of units of this package. Having personally unpacked thousands of boxes and broken down dozens of skids of the textbook (that were selling like Cabbage Patch Dolls or the lastest iPhone release from Apple), I have continually witnessed the effect of a reasonably priced textbook package.

And even though our bookstore is admittedly aggressive in the pursuit of used books in order to save students money, and we did sell a lot of used packages for about $73, more than 90% of our sales in this case were for the NEW BOOK PACKAGE.

Simply put, this is a textbook package that the students can easily see the value in and which most are willing to purchase new. (Value is tough to nail because it's weighed on two elusive tiers. On one side, the price needs to be "reasonable" and on the other, the students need to actually use MOST of the material in the book. When both things are true, the students tends to find "value" in their purchase. If you ask the average student to define what a good priced book should be, most are likely to say "it depends" because of these elusive factors -- that is one of the things that makes the business of creating textbooks at a reasonable price so frustrating for publishers. There are no hard numbers to rely on.)

I don't know the figures at Pearson with respect to this package and sales at McMaster, but I'd like to believe that they did okay and actually made some money on this deal. Despite all the arguments I often get into with publishers over outrageous textbook prices, I respect the money they invest into their products and recognize that they are businesses and need to generate a profit in order to stay in business. I just prefer that the profits are made from making smart business decisions and when expenditures aren't placed onto the backs of the students.

So I really would like to believe that Pearson also saw this as a worthwhile return on their investment. I'd like to believe that because I think that THIS is one of many solutions that can help publishers and help students at the same time. And if a publisher can make money while students can spend less and get a good deal, then that's a good thing that can last and break the vicious cycle of what the textbook industry has devolved into.

Since we're at the end of the 3 year commitment for this package at McMaster, I am eagerly awaiting to see what the Chemistry Department does next and which publisher will step up to the plate this time around -- but I truly hope that a similar deal can be struck for the next three years.

For the sake of students and for the sake of the death spiral this industry is so desperately trying to avoid.

1 comment:

lime said...

yay for your store and the chemistry department for being so active in working to get the best deals for your students. we got a crash course in how crazy textbook prices have gotten since we graduated when our oldest had to buy books this semester as a freshman. zowie!