A study conducted at Griffith University recently determined that the average university student in Australia will spend as much as $500 a semester on textbooks. So, in a three year degree a student could be expected to spend up to or beyond $3300 on textbooks alone throughout their course. With textbooks averaging around $100 a pop, it seems like one of the nation’s most budget orientated communities has been forced into a corner.
Not surprisingly it seems that this situation is fairly unique to Australia. With cost saving alternatives in the US and Europe including the large adoption of EBooks and other electronic substitutes, as well as the widespread use of textbook rental through organisations such as Chegg, students are provided with a larger range of choice as to how they can save and use their money.
Textbook rental especially has had very promising results. Most textbook renters are able to offer as much as a 70% discount to the retail price of their books often saving students over $100 a book. A student who rents throughout the whole term of their degree can be expected to save around $1800, versus someone who buys, no small sum given the average income of a university graduate. This degree of saving has been a godsend to the majority of students, textbooks being as they are, a grudge purchase; most people are overjoyed to be stripping the cost down to bare minimum. With this new evolution to the industry this process seems easier and easier.
But why is this not the case in Australia? In 2009 there were over a million students involved in higher education, with the total operating revenues of higher education providers in excess of $15 billion. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of students are already practically partaking in renting by buying and reselling their books at the end of use. Yet, with the call for change echoing out, Australia seems, as usual, to be lagging behind.
But this hasn’t stopped Australian publishers from pleading for help. It seems everywhere you look there is talk of some inexorable wave of technological revolution, that is sure-fire to wipe the industry clear off the earth. However, hidden somewhere behind the veil of this victimised mentality lies the simple fact that Australian students are still paying through the roof for their textbooks. The question that I ask in all of this is: where is this inevitable destruction of which there is always talk?
So far the printed book doesn’t show so much as a scratch. In the face of digital competition book sales have not decreased, in fact they have increased. Bookseller and Publisher Magazine’s Weekly Book Newsletter reported trade sales of books in Australia in 2009, as recorded by Nielsen Bookscan (from 85 per cent of the trade market), increased 6 per cent over 2008 in both value and volume, totalling $1,291 million in value and 64.8 million books. Some sources including the Australian productivity commission estimate this number to be even higher, ranging somewhere around $2.5 billion annually.
This, combined with the continuing recorded increases to profit before income tax in the industry, surely causes us to ask just where this panic is coming from.
It seems in this technological age people are always quick to put their bets on any form of technological revolution. In the case of most industries it is true that reform in the past decade has been more dramatic than the accumulation of the past century. But the written word has been around for far longer than that, and whilst it is clear that the way we access information is rapidly changing, I do not believe this should be a cause to abandon the book trade to a premature death.
Indeed many surveys including a trial at Princeton University for Kindle (an electronic eBook reader), came back with surprisingly negative results. Users stated: ‘the inability to quickly navigate between documents and view two or more documents at the same time frustrated them. About two-thirds of participants said they would not purchase a new e-reader if the one they were using broke.’
So what is to become of the textbook trade once it is all but ignored? Recent trends in the USA have lent toward textbook rental as the most prominent section of the industry. It’s cheap, easy, efficient and easily able to compete with the new electronic revolution. It seems whilst information is becoming more freely available electronically, students are still more than willing to pay reasonable prices to have a hard copy in their hands.
However Australia, as usual, will have to fend for itself if it wishes to implement market change before it is too late. But it seems the call has fallen not only on deaf ears, and with new emerging companies such as Zookal book rental, students in Australia can be assured that we will not be ignored. That whilst some imaginary beast forces a supposedly dying industry to abandon ship, there will be a reasonable alternative to emptying your wallet in the closest bookstore.