A Race to the Bottom, the End of Online Textbook Sales

Okay, the sky isn’t falling (yet), I just wanted to get your attention. But with rush almost over, we need to discuss an alarming trend that is starting to come into clearer picture: Internet prices for textbooks are falling and while this may sound like a good thing, I don’t entirely think that it is. According to numbers recently reviewed, the average sale price of a book dropped from $46 to $41, a decrease of just over 10%. Based on several conversations I have had with others in the industry, this trend is being seen by Internet retailers, rental sites, marketplace sellers, and price-comparison sites. The other alarming trend is that transactions are holding steady, not increasing as prices decrease. So we are doing the same amount of business but making less money . . . what gives?

This is a trend we have seen coming for a while. As I’ve discussed in the past, rental prices are driven in large part by used-book prices and quantity. As used-book prices go down, rental prices have to decreases to remain competitive (now you see where I came up with my headline of “a race to the bottom”). In addition, more and more campuses are experimenting with digital books and custom materials. So the reason we are seeing flat growth is because the Internet has fewer print copies of fewer titles to sell.

So what we have here is a mixed bag. The good is that some students are getting books for less money. The bad is that other students are paying more for books because fewer options are available to them. Most in the industry will not argue with the stat that 70-75% of sales still occur in the bookstore. With custom and direct bulk purchases, we may see students’ options decline as prices increase. But that only benefits the publishers.

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