Retailers prep for e-book education push

The growing popularity of e-readers and increasingly interactive educational materials are pushing publishers and retailers to plan for a not-so-distant future when digital textbooks overtake their physical counterparts.

Stakeholders in the production and sale of learning materials largely agree they must position themselves for a shift away from printed books, although there is debate over just how prevalent e-textbooks will become in the next few years. The transition will force publishers and college bookstores to focus more closely on e-commerce.

“If more than half of students have [e-readers], most of them are going to want content for those devices,” says Mark Nelson, digital content strategist for the National Association of College Stores (NACS), which represents about 1,500 bookstores. “At that point, most textbook content should be available in digital format. So it wouldn’t be unrealistic that we could see almost half of course materials be digital in five years’ time.”

E-books currently account for 2% to 3% of the total course materials purchased by college students, according to the NACS.

Other experts see digital text e-book sales reaching 18.4% by 2014.

Jim Kourmadas, VP of strategic marketing at McGraw-Hill Higher Education, says his company has seen sales of e-textbooks double each semester over the past two years. The company offers electronic versions of all volumes through CourseSmart, an e-commerce site launched by several publishing companies.

Other developments could drive a quicker migration to e-textbooks, industry experts say. For one, the quality of e-readers must improve. Currently, only the iPad offers color displays, and without color, a pie graph, for example, becomes challenging to read. Learning materials are also expected to become more interactive and adaptive — not like today’s static, electronic versions of printed books.

“A lot of things have to happen in terms of the right tools out there,” says Tracey Weber, EVP of textbooks and digital education at Barnes & Noble. “Obviously, kids already do a lot of research and work online, as part of their college experience. So this would be a natural extension.”

E-textbooks would also help students avoid hauling several hefty volumes in their bookbags, and they cost 40% to 50% less than new textbooks. Nelson, however, says they may not result in savings when rentals or buybacks of traditional books are factored in.

With those possibilities in mind, it’s no coincidence that Barnes & Noble and both announced student-centered initiatives this month. Barnes & Noble released free NookStudy software, a work flow program that allows students to import e-textbooks and other course materials. also began to offer free two-day shipping to students who join its Amazon Student free membership program. Barnes & Noble, a major e-retailer and operator of 650 college bookstores, could benefit from a shift to online sales or risk losing business, if it doesn’t stake a claim in the e-textbook market. It plans to conduct in-store marketing and on-campus demos to promote NookStudy, which runs on PCs and laptops.

On-campus bookstores are also fighting to ensure they won’t be squeezed out by iTunes or other online media-selling giants. After an NACS study found that about half of students did not know their school’s stores sold e-textbooks, some began to offer “personal book lists.” When a student registers for classes online, he or she is given a list of the various forms in which their required textbooks are sold.

To engage students, publisher McGraw-Hill is also changing its marketing strategy.

“In a lot of respects, the student is emerging as a consumer and decision-maker. So from a marketing perspective, in the last couple of years, we’ve started paying a lot more attention to students,” Kourmadas says.

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