Increased Piracy Among College Students Means A Shrinking Market for Digital Textbooks
The Book Industry Study Group (BISG) has a new report out this week on the buying, non-buying, and reading habits of US college students. I only have the press release and not the full report (it costs $$$$), but if the report matches the driblets of info in the press release then I would be trying to exit the college textbook market right now.
According to the BISG, piracy (including photocopying of textbooks) is up among college students. A larger percentage of the survey group reported downloading pirated course content from an unauthorized Web site than in previous surveys. 34% of respondents indicated that they’d done this, from 20 percent when this was first measured in 2010. And just to make things even more interesting, the percentage of students saying they photocopied or scanned chapters of textbooks belonging to other students rose to 31% in this survey (from 21% in 2010).
Update: A friend passed me a few more details, and now I can tell you that this report indicates that faculty are seeing a decrease in adoption of core digital textbooks (30% in Feb 2012 to 16% in June 2013). I can also tell you that piracy has been trending upwards since at least November 2011, with the latest data from March 2013 showing an increase use of unauthorized websites (40%), scanning (37%), illicit sharing between students (28%), and outright piracy (26%).
I would think that the cause of the increase in piracy is obvious, but before I spell it out let me share with you the BISG’s explanation:
"This is important behavior to track, especially since it’s coinciding with other data that show declining student commitment to owning current editions of assigned texts," said Len Vlahos, Executive Director, BISG.
Yeah, that’s not what we’re seeing here.
Students are pirating more textbooks because they can’t afford to buy them. (Do you think they would go through the hassle of photocopying a textbook if they had another choice?) This is part of the reason why digital textbook purchases lag behind digital adoption.
Prices continue to go up every year in the core titles. This is one of the dirty little secrets in textbook publishing, according to one of my industry contacts:
Big pubs averaged approx. double digit price increases on active titles in the last 12 months. By the way, this is one of the publisher tricks when talking about pricing. They may say that their prices are flat or have only increased slightly, but they are including average prices of all books, front and back list, and they often discount or don’t raise prices on the majority of titles. But active titles – big sellers and gen Ed books that represent 80% for revenue – continue to see aggressive price increases.
If I were in textbook publishing I would be getting out of it right now. Thanks to the major textbook publishers, the college textbook market is in a bubble. This is a trend that has been going on for over a decade now as textbook prices rose faster than the CPI, faster than the housing bubble, and even faster than healthcare:
That is not a sustainable trend. And so long as prices continue to increase, the various efforts to encourage adoption of digital textbooks (like the volume license pilot programs of this past school year) will slowly meet with greater and greater resistance as students realize they cannot afford to participate.
Textbook publishers are pushing more and more into digital textbooks and digital textbook rentals. They’re doing it for the obvious reason; there’s no used digital market so there’s no competition from former customers selling off old books.
But as you can see from the survey data earlier in this post, students can’t afford to prop up an unhealthy industry. Instead they are finding other sources, including piracy.