The New York Times is not usually known for burying the lede, but it seems like it might have done so in this case. After spending most of an article discussing New York college Stony Brook University’s decision to drop textbooks from its campus bookstore in favor of textbooks ordered online via Amazon, it adds at the very end of the article that, oh, by the way, said bookstore is run by Barnes & Noble.
The article does note that “Barnes & Noble College” hasn’t actually called itself a “bookstore” for several years, and that 98% of B&NC shops do still carry textbooks and course materials, but even so, it’s interesting.
“We firmly believe in the importance of a physical store,” Lisa Malat, the chief marketing officer, said. “Millennials and Gen Z are still very much committed to the physical shopping experience.”
Though perhaps not only for books: In recent years, Barnes & Noble College has been offering engagement programs to bring students into its bookstores nationwide, like “V.I.P. shopping nights,” for students who want help in the textbook aisles or advice from peers, and “de-stress events,” where students can spend time coloring, or play with puppies.
I already covered B&NC’s decision to stop carrying the Nook e-reader and tablet line earlier this year. One wonders if the stores are going to end up having anything at all left to sell by the time this is finished? Perhaps they should change their name to “B&N College Souvenirs and Clothing.” I did notice the B&NC I visited earlier this year had an awful lot of space devoted to merchandise with the IUPUI Jaguars mascot on it.
As for why the Stony Brook B&NC stopped carrying textbooks, well, that’s because Stony Brook has decided to partner with Amazon for its textbook sales, which can be ordered for delivery to an Amazon area at the college. It’s cheap and convenient, the article notes, but it also gives students only limited recourse if Amazon should decide to send them the wrong material.
At The Digital Reader, Nate Hoffelder notes that the NY Times also ignores the startups running all-digital textbook stores at some of the other campuses whose stores have dumped physical textbooks.
That would be Akademos, a company which I had always associated with digital textbook solutions. It now offers a virtual bookstore platform and has signed deals with at least a half-dozen schools. (They had announced the deals in press releases, but no one was paying attention.)
Akademos offers a more limited solution than MBS Direct or eCampus, each of which want to replace a college bookstore completely while Akademos just wants to solve college students’ most critical financial issue – textbooks.
Whether colleges are replacing physical textbooks with digital ones or an Amazon pickup, it’s interesting to ponder why textbooks are going away. From a retail point of view, it would seem that, until now, college bookstores have only devoted all that space to textbooks because they basically have to. Colleges have to have textbooks. But textbooks only really sell once or twice a year. The rest of the year, they basically just sit there waiting for the next semester, taking up space that could instead be used for things people might want to buy more continuously—like souvenir mugs and keychains.
When you consider that online stores like Amazon have been able to offer consistently better textbook prices than physical bookstores thanks to their endless warehouses, at the same time digital textbooks don’t take up any room anywhere at all, it seems a fairly obvious proposition that physical textbooks aren’t “needed” anymore—or if they are, those just-off-campus third-party bookstores can have them. Either way, it frees up a lot more space in the central bookstore for other high-margin items customers might want more.
And that’s a proposition to which Barnes & Noble is clearly already no stranger. Just look at how its consumer stores’ book sections have shrunk in favor of toys, games, cafés, and even wines, under that same sort of pressure from Amazon on its mainstay product.
It remains to be seen how widespread the idea of textbook-free college bookstores will become, but I suspect we’re just seeing the beginning of a trend that will soon encompass most or all college campuses sooner or later. It just makes too much sense from a retail standpoint to use that space for stuff that moves faster and more frequently if they possibly can.
None of these changes addresses the problem that college textbooks are not only hideously expensive, new “editions” come out often and prevent a supply of used textbooks from developing.
My late 1960s STEM physics book, which I still have, cost $8.50 used, which was about three hours of work at the then-minimum wage—and it was good for three quarters, so my textbook cost was about $3 a quarter. Its current equivalent costs about $160 and takes three-times as long at the current minimum wage to pay back.
Unfortunately, the widespread availability of student loans keeps students from developing sufficient anger about this to demand change. They only discover the real cost of that $160 textbook when they graduate and have to pay that loan back.
Nor do I think Amazon is the answer. There prices may be a bit cheaper than campus bookstores now, but when they have a near monopoly, that’ll no longer be the case.
The Campus Store, as it is now commonly referred to, is just one of many commercial entities with an exclusive presence on campus. Essentially, the college or university is selling access to students as potential customers. Textbooks of the paper kind are no longer the great profit center that they once were. The internet generally and Amazon in particular have taken care of that.
However, there are schemes afoot that aim to reestablish the monopoly that colleges and universities shared with publishers. This time around, the campus bookstore or campus store need not apply. With digital materials, they are no longer needed.
Here’s how one of those schemes being developed now works. By virtue of contracts between institutions and publishers, faculty will no longer adopt physical or digital textbooks. Instead, they will select from an array of “learning content” packages. In one fell swoop this destroys the secondary market and guarantees 100% sell through. The 100% sell through is achieved by incorporating the cost of learning materials with tuition. The cost of a course will vary slightly.
The institution’s Learning Management System (LMS) and its Student Information System (SIS) will work together to manage the entire process. Student interacts with the SIS to enroll in available courses and the SIS will calculate tuition and fees that, when paid, cause the SIS to communicate with the LMS which creates a “seat” for the student in the course which may be fully or partially online. The LMS also arranges for the appropriate learning materials to become available to that student resulting in payment to the publisher.
This and other, similar systems are being piloted today with generous support from (surprise!) publishers. If this becomes a reality, there will be no textbooks and the Campus Store will only sell physical goods like school branded sweatshirts.
So Stoney Brook is simply ahead of the curve
What B&N Education runs at Stony brook U is not a bookstore.
It’s a gift shop: