After reading contributions from students, an academic and a librarian, I’d like to share some thoughts from another link in the ‘recommended reading’ chain – the campus bookseller.
Academic bookselling in the 21st century is a challenging pastime – the days of “pile it high, and they will come” are gone. Nowadays Blackwell’s is a multi-channel retailer: we operate ‘bricks and mortar’ bookshops but also sell online; we sell print books and e-books; our shops stock a variety of products, all the while keeping academic books at the core of everything we do.
What continues to be our lifeblood is information about recommended texts and our booksellers pursue this information all year round. While we love to receive reading lists from academics in a neat spreadsheet, with details of the publisher, edition and how highly the title is recommended, we will take the information in any form we can get it – a single line in an email, a conversation in the queue at the coffee shop, or whatever the 2015 equivalent is of “on the back of a fag packet”.
Invariably, despite our best endeavours, we will always have a customer asking for a recommended book we know nothing about. We’ll act quickly to source the book as soon as possible, but finding out late reduces the opportunity to negotiate the best price with the supplier (which we can then pass on to the customer) or to obtain an edition with exclusive content, which is becoming increasingly common in academic texts.
Taking steps to find out about recommended readings and responding quickly enables us to compete with Amazon, who are often assumed to be the cheapest supplier. While they may be for a short time, the price of textbooks can fluctuate alarmingly and titles will often go out of stock. We work hard to ensure a consistently low price and we work with the lecturers and publishers to produce ‘custom books’, only available at Blackwell’s Manchester. We can also bundle course texts together, with further price reductions for buying the pack.
We’d have to bury our heads in the sand to ignore the growth of e-books – indeed, Blackwell’s has been selling e-books in various forms for many years and we have our own e-book platform, Blackwell Learning.
There’s a swathe of research on the subject of e-books, some of it mentioned in earlier posts on this blog. My personal view is that that while e-books now take up a serious chunk of the general book market (fiction, biographies etc), the consumers of academic and professional books have been slower to migrate, though this will accelerate over time.
We work closely with the University of Manchester Library and have been observing this pilot scheme with interest. Of the free e-books made available so far, a couple have seen a big drop in print sales in the bookshop while other titles have stayed pretty level. One or two titles actually sold more than last year, so nothing is clear cut.
We’ve been consolidating content from multiple publishers (in other words, running bookshops!) since 1879 and the Blackwell Learning digital platform is a continuation of this work. Our role as campus booksellers is to continue to offer the right book at the right price, at the right time and – increasingly – in the right format.
Paul Thornton, Manager, Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Manchester