Kieron Smith, Academic bookselling

by Nicole Finucane

A recent addition to the team at Blackwells, Kieron Smith, Digital Director, has a background in the industry stretching over 20 years, having worked at virtually every major bookseller in the UK. With his vast experience in the field and his very candid views on the future of the bookseller in the Higher Education market, his take on understanding the academic ebook buyer proved to be a fascinating one. Blackwells launched their ebook platform about 18 months ago, which is run through their own technology and development team.

It may come as no surprise that Blackwells, the renowned academic bookseller, serves up to 1.2 million students every year. What many of us might not realize is that more 18-year-olds have entered university this year than ever before. Texts have become far more functional, with students opting only for instrumentalist content. Students in the UK these days are focusing their reading on set chapters or handouts, and this, as Smith highlights, varies radically from the behaviour of their predecessors, who might have read more widely.

I think many of us who are currently studying within Higher Education are aware that most students are now opting for degrees with more vocational outcomes. Education for us has become the necessary step that we need to take in order to guarantee ourselves a well-paid profession. This financial sacrifice means that many of us are no longer interested in paying upwards of £9,000 to spend three years discussing, say, theology, but are rather opting for a degree in business and management, which has become the most common degree in the UK

Yet despite this surge of interest in the importance of education from many young adults, Smith states that the percentage of students who actually spend money on books is extremely low. Many students feel that since they are paying such a substantial amount of money on their fees each year that their required texts should be included as part of the package. And whilst Smith does not disagree with this argument, it is when neither the institution nor the student is purchasing the material that booksellers find themselves in trouble. To be honest, the figures that were showed are quite staggering, even for a student like myself who has attempted each year to scrape by with the bare minimum of books possible. With 78% of computing students, 54% of law students, and 67% of business students, not purchasing any academic textbooks, and with no increase in library use to counteract this, Smith shows just how difficult the market has become.

This, as you can imagine, has had a huge effect on the marketplace, with retail sales dropping last year. Smith was keen to highlight, however, that despite this having other effects in the market, what it has not done is to create a significant transformation to digital. Though there is definitely a will for such a move from publishers, they have simply found that students still prefer to use a physical book for their studies - if they desire one at all. Smith made a strong plea for publishers to realize the importance of booksellers in the academic market, as they help to sell many other titles, not just those on reading lists. With many publishers attempting to undercut booksellers, and sell direct to the institutions themselves, Smith warns that they are being very short sighted in their approach. However, Smith’s true plea in this statement was for the importance of the bookseller, as selling direct to institutions will ultimately remove the need for a campus bookshop, and its presence in the life of a University.

In order to counteract this effect however, Blackwells have been experimenting in their sales channels. Most notably they have begun providing attachment offers in some institutions, with students who purchase a physical textbook also receiving access to the ebook version on their platform. They have also partnered with Edinburgh University and Palgrave to create a custom textbook to be used within the university’s international relations course, having it solely available through their platform.

To conclude, Smith was extremely passionate, especially in highlighting the real danger that he saw in benign concepts such as ‘accessible’ texts and how misguided attempts by the institution or the publisher to provide these are excluding booksellers from Higher Education. Yet despite his fears, he truly sees the possibility of a digital marketplace as an exciting opportunity for academics, students and booksellers to work together to link subjects and concepts. What I found really interesting and important is the realization by publishers and booksellers alike that students are ‘consumers’ of education and that by now investing their money and time into their education, they are no longer afraid to dictate what they read and how they will read it. 

About the author of this article

Nicole Finucane is an MA publishing student with her roots in Ireland

Edited by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 16 Mar 2016 around 9pm

Last edited: 17 03 2016