Posts Tagged ‘ Custom Publishing ’

Who’s Screwing Whom? – The Great Textbook / Bookstore Debate

As we’re in the midst of back-to-school rush, I’m reading some interesting industry-related articles and posts. While many are the standard “how to save on college, dorm decor, food, textbooks, etc.,” types of writings, a few more-detailed (and more honest and daring) posts have caught my attention. I wanted to take a moment to share them with you.


The New Republic, “How College Bookstores Are Killing College Bookstores”
In this post, Mark Athitakis explores how the college bookstore has gone from being dependent on selling textbooks to a vendor of anything but — namely a services outpost selling everything but textbooks.

Luke Thomas, “The Textbook Industry & Greed: My Story”
This is a firsthand account of a student trying to purchase books and the hassles and hurdles and confrontations he and his wife faced trying to do so without breaking the bank. It’s a real-life account of the cruel world of academic book-buying, and it isn’t pretty.

And of course, something from the vault . . .
The Textbook Guru, “Why Can’t I Buy My Books Anywhere But The Bookstore?”
My take on the bookstore’s attempt to move to custom publications and the negative impact on students.
Part 1:
Part 2:

Why Can’t I Buy My Book Any Where But the Bookstore? Part 2

The other day I started a rant, i mean blog, on custom textbooks. If you didn’t read part 1, here it is. As we look forward we pick up speaking about custom and its growth. Please enjoy.

The custom model is not new and actual numbers are difficult to determine as nobody produces a list of all the custom ISBN numbers and the related main editions (the unmodified text and original ISBN). Thus, it is nearly impossible for any third party to index all the ISBNs that are associated with the main core text, which is actually kind of scary. I mean, publishers and bookstores are terrified of so-called pirated editions yet they are creating something that isn’t so very different in that it’s a variation of an original for which there are repercussions. Sure, the copyright is legit, but a custom edition has about as much buyback value as a pirated scanned PDF of the core text, which is to say, likely none and it cannot be sold through most channels.

As the world of custom grows, so do the players in the space. Flat World Knowledge has taken a big step in this world with the MIYO (make it yourself) model. In this model, the professor is given one of the core texts in the Flat World Knowledge catalog. From there, the professor can add custom notes, videos, and other features to make the book a unique and relevant edition. The student can then access the book for free online, pay for one of two online access subscriptions, or upgrade to a printed version. While these offer significant upfront savings, such books have no value at the end of the course.

The National Association of College Stores announced earlier this year an initiative to grow custom publications. They see the importance for this product and keeping the sales in the store. In the report, NACS states that “it’s more important than ever to create an exclusive channel for course materials through customization.” Really? It’s more important to provide a product that can only be purchased through one particular channel than it is to figure out how to reduce the costs to students and provide a truly valuable product? Yikes!

The kings of the custom model are for-profit schools who realized early that if they worked directly with publishers, they could create a direct profit channel with 100% sell-through. It seems to me that we should be working to determine how to lower costs and provide a better product, not fighting change and forcing students to purchase books through a single channel and leaving students with a valueless product come end of term.

At this point there’s not much students can do. My advice: If you find that your book is a custom edition, try asking the professor if other books are acceptable for the course or just how much the custom edition differs from the main text. Try going to the bookstore and looking at the cover, title, and author, then do a search online. Or even try to find a student who took the exact same course with the same prof last term and go with a grassroots buy if the custom edition hasn’t changed. Any of this will require a bit more effort but the savings could be substantial.

Why Can’t I Buy My Book Any Where But the Bookstore? Part 1

As back-to-school time gets closer and closer, many students will seek the ISBNs of the books they need for classes. This generation of college students has grown up with Internet shopping and they have been well trained to understand barcodes and SKUs and ISBNs and other retail codes that identify product.

But to the shock of many of these well-informed students, they will not be able to buy certain books anywhere except the school bookstore, no matter how accurately they record or scan an ISBN and how many places they try to shop it. No, they’re not crazy, they’re just in a bind. For many years, publishers and bookstores have been pushing customized editions as such format (even if modified only on a single page) increases sell-through for both parties by creating exclusive product sold through an exclusive channel. Both publishers and bookstore managers will argue that it lowers the cost for students . . . but does it?

The easy answer is to agree and say yes, yes it does. I mean, if a publisher looks at a $175 list-new print textbook, the company (in collaboration with a specific professor and institution) can produce a slightly modified custom edition and sell it for $145. This book will have a unique ISBN and be relevant only to the course and school for which it was specifically produced. So the discount is a nice savings and theoretically the student is paying for what s/he needs and not what s/he does not need. In many cases, this is how the argument is made to the professor and it is how the idea for customized content is sold.

The issue is the bigger picture. Simply put, customized editions don’t have buyback value because they are such limited-edition one-offs particular to one course, professor, institution, etc. In addition to a student being unable to purchase a custom publication anywhere but the official university bookstore, s/he can’t sell it back anywhere, including the bookstore most times! The best the student can hope for is a peer-to-peer transaction if another student on campus is taking the exact same course with the exact same professor and the book hasn’t been modified again. Bottom line: without custom, the student has the competitive world of the Internet to both buy and sell a book with a globally recognized ISBN. In the custom world, the student is forced to buy this book at the bookstore for the full retail price (however discounted based upon customization) and hope that the stars align and the bookstore or another student on campus is using that exact same customized edition next semester. Spoiler alert: not likely given that it all hinges on professors using the exact same material AND submitting adoptions before buyback.

Check back in later this week for part 2 on Why Can’t I Buy My Book Any Where But The Bookstore!

Custom Publications — The Next Rental?

Recently, NACS released an announcement about a new initiative put in place grow custom publishing. The “Grow Custom, Grow Green” program was launched with 10 initial sponsors (mainly coming from the publishing world). You can read a good follow-up on the program from Mark Nelson, a fellow blogger.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I view custom as a perfect way for the publishers to increase profits while fighting competition in the form of the used book. In some cases, custom is a win for the student, bookstore, and publisher, but all too often it only benefits the last in that group of three. So what would it look like to do custom the right way, the way that would make these publications of value to more than just publishers?

If custom is an extension of the class or the core textbook, it is a benefit to the student. If it is a replacement for the textbook, it’s very possible that the student will pay more in the long run. While the initial cost of the custom book will be lower than that of a used book, the tailored edition will have a small, if any, resale value and will only be available from a limited number of sellers and for a limited number of students within one school and maybe even one section of one course.

The press release mentions “smart custom” and “examining the content” instead of just “creating another ISBN.” Sure, that sounds good, but who defines the difference and holds publishers accountable? To me, the jury is still out as publishers have proven in the past that they are more interested in bottom-line profits. Remember, the rental and the used book are threats to the publishers’ business model where new print is king. Publishers desperately need to reinvent how they sell their products directly to the student and remove the third-party players eating away at their profits. Keep this in mind when considering custom pubs.

Dispatch From the Trenches: January 2012 Rush Report As It Happens – Part 3

Over the past two days I’ve covered a few trends from January rush including the increasingly competitive campus bookstore, custom publications, and average order value and the rental factor. Today I am going to discuss homework/learning systems.


If you are not familiar with homework systems or learning systems, you need to get up to speed because I feel certain in saying that you’ll see them increasingly used over the next 12-18 months. These systems are not new to the market but publishers have new reason to make them work. Let’s look at a Wiley title as an example.


A traditional accounting class may use the Kieso’s Accounting Principals (10th edition). The book has a list price of $176.49. In a traditional model, the publisher would sell about 30% of the books new with the other 70% being sold as used and rented. Remember, the publisher doesn’t make money on the used or rental books. Now, let’s switch it up: instead of getting the school to adopt the physical book, Wiley gets the school to adopt Wiley Plus, an online teaching and learning solution that includes this title and others. The cost of this product per title is less than the list price for the title. While you may think this is bad for the publisher, it isn’t because the sell-through increases from 30% to 100%. While online retailers may have access to these titles, they will be limited in their ability discount the price. Furthermore, students will be able to buy this from the campus bookstore or the publisher themselves cutting traditional middle players out of the market.


As the market has changed, the publishers have adapted with custom publications and new learning systems to maintain their market-share and protect themselves from new pressures that enter the market. Expect more as competition gets even stiffer.

Dispatch From the Trenches: January 2012 Rush Report As It Happens – Part 1

My phone has been busy lately as merchants contact me to see how rush is going and if I see any trends or issues that are exciting or alarming. As I’ve been answering these calls, I’ve realized that sharing this information would make a great post. So while I normally wait to do this after rush, I thought I would share a few observations a little earlier and as rush comes to a close. I will try to publish one or two thoughts a day for the next few days.

On-Campus Bookstores Becoming More Competitive
Over the past three years, Internet booksellers saw massive growth as they were able to offer services that local campus bookstores didn’t offer and to align themselves with the marketplace concept in addition to having their own stock. But now many bricks-and-mortar stores not only have strong online presences where students can order books, the stores also offer digital and rental options and their prices are much more competitive with those of online sellers.

The Custom Publications Factor
Another reason that campus bookstores are increasingly competitive is their hold on custom editions. As I speak with colleagues, I often ask them how much of the market is comprised of custom publications. From what I can gather from the array of responses (there is not hard data on the subject), almost everyone is comfortable saying that it represents around 30% of the market. With regard to individual campuses, I have been told it can be as high as 75%. Keep in mind that only official campus bookstores carry custom publications, thus ruling out other local bookstores and all online venues.

It seems that academic publishers were smart with the Higher Education Opportunity Act and they put a lot of resources into custom pubs and selling the benefits, namely that in some cases custom pubs can be beneficial to the student and the school as they remove unnecessary content from the book and reduce the upfront costs to the student. But they don’t put much emphasis (or sometimes they “forget” to mention) that there is no buyback value and the book has a one-time use. My guess is that the sales pitch has gotten pretty good and professors are choosing custom for this reason. It seems like a good deal at the time. But did the publishing rep take time to explain that the custom book has it’s own ISBN and is only available on that campus? That outside of that campus, the ISBN and the book don’t exist? That even if that same course is offered again, the custom pub won’t be of any use for students taking another professor’s section? Did the rep say that the custom edition is competing with the unmodified standard core edition, one that may cost more upfront but that the costs could be recouped at the end of the term, actually making the standard edition cheaper than the custom?

%d bloggers like this: