Thursday, 17 March 2011

A Big If: Key Take-aways from the Academic & Professional Booksellers Group Conference 2011

As it's book industry conference season here in the UK, here's another quick overview. I'm just home from the academic & professional bookseller's group conference where (tellingly) I was a lone tweeter. (You can find my somewhat patchy summary at #apsba2011). This conference is renowned for it's collaborative and collegiate atmosphere. As one of my new colleagues remarked - it's like being the new girl at a school where everyone else has been there for several terms - thereby pointing out that what is one of the meeting's strengths is also its Achilles heel.

You know you're at an academic booksellers conference when the session chairman remarks that one of the slides gave her a "Proustian rush". However the pervading bonhomie was dispersed in an instant this morning by an address from Waterstone's MD Dominic Myers. In half-an-hour he brought the room to a total - and eloquent - silence. Myers warned of a tipping point for academic books on the high street, and for the second time in two weeks (cf. the IPG Conference) pointed to over-capacity in the supply chain as an area of huge wastage in our industry. He also called for academic books to be supplied to stores on consignment if they are to be stocked outside of peak selling season. There are probably several full-length future posts in unpicking the implications what Myers had to say, so I'll save that for when I have time to think them through properly.

So here in the meantime are my ten key take-aways, which include some unexpected (to me anyway) nuggets:

1. Whilst cuts in government higher education funding coupled with escalating student fees/loans are a very serious concern - it is possible that they present an opportunity. Students will have less face-to-face lecture and tutor time - and therefore to get their grades they'll need to access and use other learning resources (e.g. books!).

2. We talk about today's students being "digital natives". Based on the student panel interviewed, I'd say that we aren't there yet. Today's 14 -year-olds are digital natives. But today's students in higher ed still show a marked preference for the print book. One even made a call for "bigger margins" for her notes. (Whereupon one wag in the room quipped that we all need bigger margins).

3. We all mean different things by "e-book". To students"e-book" means anything available digitally whether it is sourced via a publisher, library or from any one of a variety of free online sources (or their peers' memory sticks).

4. Students are not interested in dedicated e-readers. They already have an e-reader. It's called their laptop. Academic publishers do not need to wait for an e-reader tipping point to deliver electronic materials.

5. Higher Education is diverging between vocational courses and academic courses, and the resource requirements of the two different types of course are also diverging. (The more academic the course, the more likely the student still to engage in immersive reading).

6. Students aren't interested in e-books that don't add value through enhancements (video, sound, graphics, interactive test modules). Flat reproductions of the printed text don't cut the mustard.

7. Academics are going to come under greater scrutiny as their students become increasingly aware of their status as customers of the institution.

8. Changing pressures on academics and institutions mean that institutions are going to become more interested in getting involved with publishers at a product development stage.

9. Academics are under pressure about how they spend their time, and their free contributions to the publishing industry (peer review) are going to come under closer scrutiny.

10. In my view the other side of (9) is that academics need to acknowledge the extent to which publishing props up the structure of academic career progression and tenure (where tenure still exists). Publishers and institutions need to engage in a dialogue about what the impact of financial pressures upon their fundamental symbiosis is going to be. I don't hear that discussion happening yet.

So I end today reflecting that we live in interesting times. But that publishers are still highly relevant to the academic and student community, and will become more so if they can get their delivery channels, customer services and business models right. Which could be a very big if.

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