Thursday, September 04, 2014

The Empty University Book Store

Gill & Macmillan anticipate a future in which university students do not need textbooks.

The books are expensive to buy, expensive to produce, and expensive to replace when new editions are published. For those struggling to meet the costs of third-level education, it would be a good thing if it were possible to do away with books and the costs that they represent.

Gill & Macmillan sees that day coming. It has become impossible for the publisher to compete with the development of e-books, which are lightweight, easy to carry and easy to update. E-books give professors more flexibility in course content by allowing them to put what the student needs to know online, to be downloaded to a laptop or tablet. No need to write copious notes to add to material already printed in a heavy book. And once everyone has grown accustomed to the convenience, they won't want to go back to the old days of the musty textbook.

Authors who wrote textbooks published by Gill & Macmillan have been informed that their publisher is out of the university textbook business.

It is a business decision, based on the lack of suitable return to the high investment costs of creating a textbook that students are increasingly shunning in favor of digital media.

But what of the professor, the career academic who must publish or perish? Where are they to go with their knowledge?

Some other publisher, perhaps, but the market is shrinking as demand declines. They can turn to e-books, of course, and accept a far lower royalty, so that all the effort put into writing a textbook does not yield the same economic benefits. It will become a labor of love for the Ph.D.s of the world. They'll go off on their sabbatical, armed with references sources and an idea, and return with a book that won't earn them much at all beyond the satisfaction of having done it.

Other publishers will step into the gap left by Gil & Macmillan, but the gap is not a large one and it is shrinking. Even though the population of third-level students has increased over the decades, the glory days of academic publishing are fading into the glow of a digital reader that can store an entire year's worth of books in a few kilobytes and leave plenty of room for photos and music.

A business that used to make money doesn't any longer. Will the time come when university book shops are empty of books?

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