Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Correction on projections on etextbook sales

Okay. A couple months ago there was the piece in Campus Technology entitled Can Tech Transcend the Textbook. A good article but it contains a line which has been quoted in a number of places, most recently in the technology section (page 8) of the May issue of the CACS newsletter. Here is the quote:

According to the National Association of College Stores (NACS), digital books currently account for less than 3 percent of textbook sales. NACS expects that percentage to reach 10 to 15 percent by 2012.
Here is the problem: statistics that are quoted out of context or incompletely -- which then tell a very different story. The odd one here is that as the lead digital content person for NACS, I am certain I was not interviewed or addressed as part of the original story, or for any of the many follow-ups. Thus a set of statistics have been attributed to me or us and I have yet to find the source. Here is probably the more accurate interpretation or reporting of these statistics...

Stat1: digital books currently account for less than 3 percent of textbook sales. This is true. What it should say though is:

In cases where digital is an option, typical sell-through (i.e., the percentage of students purchasing the digital option as compared to number of students in a class), is typically around 3%.
We do have some institutions where this number goes as high as 7% as an average. And there are a growing number of cases where adoption in a particular class goes much higher (even over 90%), but those larger percentages are still more the exception. However, from the institutions we have sampled, typically over 80% of the titles adopted are not available in a digital format. We expect this number to change, and quickly, but inventory access is still a challenge -- and why few schools could go "all digital" in the next two years.

Stat2: NACS expects that percentage to reach 10 to 15% by 2012. This is possible, and one scenario we have evaluated. I think the challenge here is the use of the word "expects." It would be more accurate to say that we anticipate that it COULD reach as much as 10-15% IN 2012. I think that it is unlikely that we will hit that level by the end of the year (i.e., by 2012) -- it is possible, but not probable.

Actual expectations are harder to pinpoint. It does seem realistic to expect that we will hit 20-25% penetration of digital in 2015, at which point the early majority is moving toward adoption and penetration rate will likely begin to climb very quickly. We saw this with online sale of books and now digital trade books. With the right set of factors in place, this COULD happen sooner. It is possible that by fall of 2012 we could start seeing average digital sell through nearing 10% or more.

Whether we are talking 2012, 2015, or some point later -- I think the point of interest is that the shift is coming. Retailers, publishers, and institutions that choose not to prepare or keep abreast of the changes and technologies will be at risk. I think the last paragraph of Kirk Jarvis's piece in the previously referenced CACS piece sums things up well:

The textbook industry is definitely at a crossroads. Where will it end up? Only time will tell. What I think will keep our industry from going completely digital right now is simply the confusion factor. There are just too many digital platforms and e-readers out there. We, as industry peers, must remain informed of new technologies and changes in the market.

Finally, kudos to CACS for creating an ad-hoc technology committee focused on investigating and reporting back on new textbook technologies that may affect our business. The more we as an industry engage in experimentation and widespread environmental scanning -- and share what we learn -- the better positioned the channel will be to evolve with the world around us.

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