No-One Cares About the College Bookstore

by Kieran Healy on January 30, 2012

Some more IT-in-Education nerdery. I want to rebut an idea that’s been doing the rounds as people have been thinking further about Apple’s strategy in the education market. On last week’s Hypercritical, John Siracusa discussed a recent post by McKay Thomas which argued that Apple is following a “brilliant strategy” in education of “going high school first [and] applying the heat to university textbook publishers and bookstores”. John Gruber linked to it as well. Here’s Thomas:

The new iBook textbooks are being marketed in a way that circumvents the university bookstore. Brilliant. Go right to the student in high school. Make them a true believer. Give them an amazing textbook experience starting in 9th grade. By the time these students hit university in 4 more years they aren’t going to know how to not use an iPad while studying.

I don’t think this is right. The bookstore isn’t nearly as important as Thomas imagines. In fact, colleges are much more open to adoption of new technology and curriculum than grade schools for the simple reason that university faculty decide the content of their own courses. This isn’t to say every worthwhile innovation is widely and rapidly taken up, or that everything that diffuses is worthwhile. But when it comes to textbooks, colleges are far more porous than schools.

The key issue is, who decides what textbooks and devices will be used? In public schools, there is a bureaucratic process that sets required texts for entire districts, even whole states. Before they can get kids used to having iPads, Apple needs to get iPads into their hands, and that means engaging with and obtaining the approval of the often strongly politicized curriculum-setting bureaucracy. They may well succeed in doing this, of course. But they must convince administrators, school boards, and state-wide textbook authorities that the iPad is the future. It’s not that Apple can’t do it, but gaining entry to this market necessarily involves winning over these quite powerful gatekeepers.

The situation at colleges is very different. College bookstores make a lot of cash from textbook sales, but this is irrelevant because it’s not accompanied by any means of control. Middlemen may skim a tidy profit, but they are far easier to disintermediate than true gatekeepers. Again, who decides what textbooks and devices will be used? For textbooks, it’s not the bookstore. It’s not the University’s central administration, either. Individual faculty decide. I get to assign the required texts for my classes, up to and including deciding not to assign a book at all, or deciding to write and require my own. (This is something now made easier by iBooks Author.) A consequence is that there is far more opportunity at the college level for the textbook market to shift itself via the uncentralized, independent choices by faculty (to assign books) and students (to purchase hardware). If my students have iPads and I assign an iBooks-authored textbook, the college bookstore would simply be bypassed. No-one would care. Or rather, the people who cared wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. College stores make most of their money from merchandising anyway. If there really are universities that are, in Thomas’s words, “fighting hard for the publishers to maintain the current model” where the bookstore is the middleman and profit-center, I’d like to hear about them. I’ve taught at a large public University and now at a smaller private school. In neither case is there any means by which the school administration or college bookstore can intervene prescriptively in textbook selection. It’s a core principle of academic freedom and university governance that the faculty control the curriculum, and that obviously includes choosing which books to assign.

For devices, the situation is a little different but the same basic priciple applies. As a rule, individual faculty can’t require students to buy iPads as a condition of participation in class. Some universities do require students purchase a laptop, and most at least strongly encourage it. But college administrators are not generally in a position to forbid students from buying an iPad as well as, or instead of, a laptop. They are not gatekeepers of the sort we see at the K-12 level. So, again, while Apple will be happy to partner with colleges that wish to promote iPad use amongst students, they don’t have to worry about resistance of the sort Thomas has in mind.

It’s worth noting that colleges have witnessed two broad changes relevant to the iPad’s prospects. First, over the past twenty years desktops and then laptops have diffused to the point where most college students now own or have access to one. And over the past decade, many schools have seen a second shift as students have begun to choose Macs over Windows PCs, without any centralized decision being made to prefer one over the other. A similar transition could easily happen with the iPad, if students and teachers judge it a compelling enough product and buy accordingly. There would be an intermediate phase—we used to make paper copies of readings available in course reserves or offprint libraries, then for a time those existed alongside PDFs, and now we assume everyone has a computer to read them on. A complete shift to iPads might not occur, of course. I think the main barrier is the amount of long-form written work college students have to do, which makes it harder to rely solely on an iPad. But that’s not my point here. What matters is that at the college level there’s no gatekeeper willing and able to forbid students from purchasing iPads or keep faculty from assigning textbooks (not necessarily exclusively) from the iBooks store. There is such a gatekeeper at grade-school level. When it comes to the contestability of the textbook market, universities are much more porous and disaggregated than grade schools. The iPad may well win the hearts and minds of kids, but first it will have to get past the curriculum bureaucrats. For this reason it makes little sense to say Apple has brilliantly chosen to begin with the easier, more open K-12 market because they can’t yet take on the College Bookstore.



Pete 01.30.12 at 3:16 pm

I think it’s worth distinguishing between the specific and the general here: while electronic textbooks may be a great idea, giving Apple the vast majority of the money and locking the texts away inside DRM and restrictive licensing agreements isn’t.


Kieran Healy 01.30.12 at 3:39 pm

I’m not talking here about whether I think having schools tied to Apple’s platform is a good idea or not—just the question of what their strategy is is, and why they’re pursuing it.


Chris Bertram 01.30.12 at 3:50 pm

My university closed its bookshop a couple of years back. A very sad day. I’m now supposed to be evaluating various ebook platforms, which seem to be “stream to device” thing rather than the students owning a permanent copy. Certainly the distinction between borrowing books from the library and owning a copy looks blurrier.


Neville Morley 01.30.12 at 4:11 pm

My understanding, Chris, is that it was a branch of Waterstone’s that simply paid rent to the university for a space in the precinct, not any sort of a university enterprise, and that it closed for financial reasons because it wasn’t getting enough business. Possible explanations for that: (i) the library has improved so much that students don’t need to buy books; (ii) students are switching over to e-books; (iii) students are getting their books via Amazon; (iv) students are buying fewer and fewer books. I know which one I’d favour…


soullite 01.30.12 at 4:24 pm

You overlook the fact that this is America, and that Apple has a ton of money. They won’t even bother arguing with school boards. They’ll just bribe enough legislators to strip the power to make these decisions away from the school boards.

I love how the people here still think we live in a world were pesky-little things like ‘rules’ or ‘tradition’ make any kind of difference. The ‘law’ doesn’t even matter anymore when it comes to corporations getting what they want these days.


tomslee 01.30.12 at 4:39 pm

This probably doesn’t need saying, but to describe an unproven initiative as delivering an “amazing textbook experience” is typical sales-speak, and does suggest that McKay Thomas is not to be taken seriously.


Eric 01.30.12 at 4:41 pm

In K-12 public education, the school purchases the textbooks. In a university setting, the students purchase the textbooks. Apple is probably counting on districts buying iPads for their students. (My local middle school has a pilot program that does this.)


rm 01.30.12 at 4:42 pm

Yes, what soullite said, but and also too, once you win over the K-12 textbook market you win the whole thing. It’s a giant herd of cattle. It’s hard to get the herd to move your way, but once they start moving you have all of them.

College professors are the proverbial herd of cats. I think I see both strategies working. Thanks to their reliance on indentured labor, Apple can pursue both at once.


Marc 01.30.12 at 4:42 pm

I agree that university textbook policies are far more decentralized than at the K-12 level. This will make it more difficult for any particular platform to gain favor. Our department would probably vote to abolish any required introductory text well before they’d agree to anything requiring an Ipad, etc. This is in no small part because we don’t want students using gadgets in the classroom, as these are rarely being used for the topic at hand (as opposed to social media, web surfing, or the like.)


Squirrel Nutkin 01.30.12 at 5:22 pm

I’ve never heard of McKay Thomas (sorry) so I don’t know whether tomslee’s conclusion is fair. But this is Apple, so surely the correct phrase would be an “insanely amazing textbook experience” and thus Resistance Will Be Futile.

There again, having recently been given the gift of redundancy from an STM publisher and consequently enjoying a thorough drenching in occasionally well meaning techno/econo/managerial ocksboll, many things seem pretty futile right now.


Western Dave 01.30.12 at 5:47 pm

I hear tell that students have to buy clickers to be in certain college courses. Why not an e-device?

And so far the e-textbooks are pretty weak in the humanities in K-12. Our science department shifted over to them a couple of years ago, but they don’t seem any better than regular except for the weight issue (a big concern in k-12 where students often have to carry all their books back and forth every day). States or districts usually have a list of approved textbooks but don’t dictate the form (one volume, two, e-book). The history e-textbooks we’ve seen so far are pretty crummy. Just pdfs of the regular textbook with no additional links or sources.


Patrick 01.30.12 at 5:58 pm

Going to high schools is thinking bigger. They’ll have students demanding iPad versions in a few years, it guarantees better market coverage. If they go straight to colleges and leave it in the professors they want get the coup that they are looking for. Some professors will early adopts, but many others will decide that there is something intrinsically superior about a paper textbook, or reject apple on the basis of their business behavior, or decide that modifying the course materials that they’ve been using for the last ten years is too much bother. That pretty much caps the success of apples endevour if they rely on professors directly.

So instead they aim to create customers that associate iPads with the quality of education and if students(and parents) are demanding ipad textbooks, university administrations will make sure that it happens. This makes an effective mechanism for persuading those professors that wouldn’t be persuaded before, and ultimately, making a full market takeover a possibility.


Patrick 01.30.12 at 6:01 pm

I apologize for the awful spelling in my post. Ironically, I’m typing while walking on an iPhone and clearly I fat fingered a few keys.


Billikin 01.30.12 at 6:02 pm

Apple might not be around today if it were not for the fact that a lot of people were provided with cheap Apple clones as schoolchildren. Apple was very much in the shadow of Microsoft for decades. And they were expensive. The fact that many potential customers got to like them as children was a big help, I am sure.


FromGreece 01.30.12 at 6:03 pm

What exactly is “a textbook experience ” and why should we want one?

The more engrossing the experience of interacting with the textbook, the less time there is to engage with the material in the textbook.


ragweed 01.30.12 at 6:30 pm

I am surprised that anyone is buying the notion that if you give K-12 students I-pads they will demand them all the way up. Wasn’t that Apple’s plan back in the late 80s and early 90s – get into the schools, and people will take them on to college and life. But it didn’t work – business was captured by Microsoft due to the lower cost of equipment, students found out they needed to be familiar with windows to get a job, colleges also liked the cheaper prices. For a while there Mac was becoming a specialty tool for graphic designers and animation.

There are, at this point, so many avenues for college students to get textbooks – Amazon, E-bay, and a dozen on-line textbook discounters. Plus many textbook publishers have already seen the future coming and offer e-books (at least the dumb kind – PDFs of the paper verson) for considerably less than the print version. Students have the choice of using a pad or a traditional computer.

With the proliferation of different pads and e-readers out there, I cannot see many colleges requiring Apples exclusive platform. More likely we will see publishers coming out with more e-textbooks that work on multiple platforms.

I’m now supposed to be evaluating various ebook platforms, which seem to be “stream to device” thing rather than the students owning a permanent copy.

The second-tier finance program I am currently doing uses Books 24/7 for many of the textbooks. It’s an online-only streaming uption – you read the books in a standard web browser, with little ability to download them. I have figured out a way to download them to my Nook, but only through a long, cumbersome manual process. On the other hand, the whole library of titles on Books 24/7 is available, not just the few titles that are assigned or required readings. Sadly, many of the titles are business-school pap that really aren’t worth reading, but there is some good wheat among the chaff.


Matt 01.30.12 at 7:03 pm

All DRM schemes are broken or bypassed sooner or later, generally sooner. Apple has managed to sell DRM-free* music at such reasonable prices and convenience that their customers would rather spend a dollar than spend a minute searching for Rapidshare freebies. If publishers want to charge what are perceived as unfair prices for electronic textbooks, there is no demographic better prepared to use free pirate copies than college students**. Revenue per textbook in use is going to decline — either by publishers setting lower prices to attract legitimate sales, or by official prices staying high but offset by rampant piracy.

What are the likely effects of declining revenue for textbooks coupled with digital delivery? Will there be less profit-incentive to keep churning out new minor revisions, or will the revision frenzy become more intense to compensate for revenue-decreasing forces?

*The iTunes Music Store started out with DRM but it was completely abandoned 3 years ago.

**This is actually the case with paper textbooks as well — low quality (but perfectly readable, serviceable) scans of popular textbooks are easily found. It’s even cheaper and more convenient than the “order the cheap Indian-market version from overseas” approach popular when I was still in school.


Barry Freed 01.30.12 at 7:38 pm

tomslee said what I wanted to and better but anyway “amazing textbook experience” is not exactly something that comes to mind when I think about high school.


David 01.30.12 at 8:20 pm

You might want to learn more about the relationship between financial aid and bookstores. One reason colleges don’t do more online is that federal financial aid money must be spent at and tracked at the college bookstore. Bookstores are also pretty big sources of discretionary funds for presidential projects so there is no incentive to push for lower costs to students.


Kieran Healy 01.30.12 at 8:30 pm

“amazing textbook experience”

I’ve expressed my skepticism on that front already.


chrismealy 01.30.12 at 9:25 pm

At my second-tier flagship state university back in 1990s the econ department had six profs who wrote their own Econ 101 textbooks. At least then you had to convince a publisher to print your books. Now they can all have their own $100 ipad book.


Ludd 01.30.12 at 11:58 pm

Thomas: “By the time these students hit university in 4 more years they aren’t going to know how to not use an iPad while studying.”

IOW, they’ll be close, or closer, to being print-illiterate. This may be inevitable; is it desirable? For whom?


Tangurena 01.31.12 at 5:09 am

The last time I worked at a university was back in the mid 90s. Most campus bookstores were really owned by B&N (while appearing to be an official part of the university), and there were a lot of lawsuits by off-campus bookstores trying to open up the availability of texts. B&N was on both sides of those suits. When they were the campus bookstore, they’d argue that the assembly of booklists was a value-added work and the work would be copyrighted by them (arguing the side of Rural in Feist v Rural). When they were the off-campus bookstore, they argued that the booklists were public domain information as the university was a state organization (and basically argued the side of Feist).

It’s a core principle of academic freedom and university governance that the faculty control the curriculum, and that obviously includes choosing which books to assign.

That is the case when the instructors are faculty. If they’re adjuncts, then they are stuck with what the assigned text is. The university I worked at was one of the state universities in Florida, and in that system, any class with the same course number was supposed to be interchangeable with the exact same numbered course at every other state university (for example FROG 1234 at FSU would be the same as FROG 1234 at UCF). I’m not sure how you’d do that without setting the curriculum at some level other than at the university. There is a committee that handles the naming of courses, and we had a discussion about it over the name of one of the courses – the instructor wanted something so inflammatory that the committee would object, but instead they said “OK” to the course.


maidhc 01.31.12 at 7:30 am

College students have a lot of options when it comes to textbooks. There are lots of places that sell used textbooks. The publishers like to bring out new editions frequently, but in reality they don’t change that much and it’s easy to get by with an older edition. Also there are cheaper editions of many texts (often softcover) sold in places like India and Taiwan, and it isn’t too hard to figure out how to order them online.

This is assuming that the faculty aren’t even trying to make students’ lives easier. There are quite a few cases where people have written a text but they can’t get it published, so they just put it online. Even if it’s not an ideal text to buy for $200, it may have some good chapters in it which might combine with a couple of other online texts, or be perfectly good for supplemental reading.

Textbook publishers are trying to create some online content that has to be unlocked with a code that only comes with a new copy of the book. But I think it’s an uphill battle because it’s so much at variance with traditional teaching methods.

At lower levels and even community college there are courses that are entirely based on a paid subscription model. That’s a big money-maker, and that’s what they would like to push up to the university level.


ajay 01.31.12 at 3:15 pm

22:“By the time these students hit university in 4 more years they aren’t going to know how to not use an iPad while studying.”
IOW, they’ll be close, or closer, to being print-illiterate.

That’s not what “print-illiterate” means.


p mac 02.05.12 at 7:22 am

Don’t buy it. The “cost” of reading on a laptop ca an iPad does not remotely compare to the cost of writing on an iPad compared to a laptop–never mind a netbook.
There are legitimate reasons to buy an iPad over a netbook, but reading texts is not one of them.
That said, I agree that the monopoly of the University Bookstore is over. However: it has more to do with Amazon than with Apple.


tomslee 02.06.12 at 11:45 am

Looks like there has been a change to the EULA:


tomslee 02.06.12 at 11:47 am

Here’s a bit from the linked story:

“A particular source of antagonism so far has been the notion that, if an author decides to charge a fee for their iBook, then Apple will claim exclusive distribution rights and prevent them from publishing their work anywhere else… Now though, … Apple will only demand exclusive distribution rights over .ibooks files that are created with iBooks Author, rather than the book’s content itself. “

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