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Academic “Book” Selling: A Misnomer in the Making?

By Helena, on 2 March 2017

With Pearson making headlines earlier this year with their announcement of falling textbook sales, people in the industry are yet again speculating how academic book industry will change. What is not being discussed so thoroughly is how academic publishers are moving away from the traditional idea of ‘book’ selling altogether.

Pearson rebranded early January 2016 to show that “Pearson is 100% focused on global education”. What people got less excited about was, as the The Bookseller noted, how this rebrand was also designed to reflect ‘Pearson’s transition from traditional book publisher to a digitally-minded, services-led learning business’.

Pearson are not alone in this change of model. Elsevier now describes itself as ‘a world-leading provider of information solutions’ before discussing its journal and book offering. While Springer Nature still identifies as a publisher, they say that they offer a ‘range of innovative product and services for the research’ as opposed to books and articles. This digitally-focused, holistic business model continues to be adopted across the industry.

Yet this is more than a case of diversification of business and products; it is a fundamental change in what materials are required for education in today’s world.

One aspect of this is that publishers have realised that they can no longer only sell books as their sole carrier for education. As lessons and lectures are on the way to becoming more dynamic in both content and tool use, so do the materials. The need remain competitive in the field, has led to academic publishers selling a package of education materials, rather than books in isolation. This can include countless extras, such as training, online support, lesson plans, case-studies, all geared towards meeting all the needs of the educator.

The second aspect of this is that, while books are still available separately from publishers, as publishers become more digitally-minded we see that the inherit nature of the book is also open to change. ‘Enhanced eBooks’ are books that are infused with multimedia, something becoming more common in journals publishing. Videos, interactive media, sound, and other customisation are common. With these enhancements, books may move so far beyond the traditional idea of the ‘book’ may be fundamentally different to what we know today.  Jaki Hawker, academic manager of Blackwell’s Edinburgh, notes that the most successful products have been “mixed media creations, available on at least two platforms, containing text which includes a high degree of personalised content [and] structured towards active rather than passive reading”

As evidence points to the benefits of enhanced eBooks, many companies and publishers are looking to expand in this field. One example is Apple’s iBook, who are focused solely on providing enhanced eTextbooks. They have already partnered with publishers such as Pearson and Oxford University Press.

Yet there is resistance to these developments. In 2016 a study found that 92% of students preferred paperback to eBooks, especially for serious reading. A Scholastic study published a few months later showed that the children set to replace these students will follow the same trend, as number of children aged 6-17 who are ‘always wanting to reading books in print’ had increased from 2012 to 2016. This is on top of the commonly accepted fact that budgets for academic institutes are being slashed, leaving less budget for wider and/or enhanced materials.

Ultimately, this means innovation in the academic bookselling industry may not be driven by the potential of the ‘book’ at all.

Lauren Ferreira is a student with UCL Publishing – you can find her on twitter @LaurenAFerreira