A Lesson in E-Literacy
The education market has made major technological strides—but in some ways, it’s still a bit behind the learning curve.
You hear it all the time—the joke that kids these days come out of the womb with a laptop. More than making for a painful birth, it signifies that the Internet is the future of business, in both sales and marketing. Still, most educational publishing orders are made through paper channels, and direct mail continues to be the major method to attract sales. Then again, teachers are making these purchases much more frequently than the more tech-entrenched students.
“You’d think the Internet would be the main source of revenue, but the numbers say not even 10 percent of our business comes from it,” says Jay Castelli, vice president of marketing for the Benchmark Education Company, whose most notable series is “Reader’s Theater.” “I think we have to keep an eye open for the day it changes, but you can’t cut back on sales reps or catalogs when that’s still clearly the effective way to approach teachers. … Right now we have 85 reps and send out big catalogs every three weeks to teachers.”
However, despite paper’s hold on educators, there are other online opportunities that have shown major gains—and publishers are clearly the ones resisting. According to Charlene Gaynor, president of the Association of Educational Publishers (AEP), one company revealed to her a 20-percent to 30-percent sales-revenue gain on a book it offered for free online––not a free excerpt, mind you, but the entire title. “It makes a lot of sense to me,” says Gaynor. “Even if you get the information for free, it’s much more convenient to get it from a bookshelf than from a computer. If your book is quality, being able to see it all [online for free] can only help the sale.”
E-newsletters also are a strong opportunity for branding and exposure for paid products, but only if the frequency of the e-newsletter is regulated and it contains information that is usable beyond products being sold, says Rosalind Iiams, director of marketing for Primary Concepts. “I offer informational content [in e-newsletters] that’s different–—you need content and links to scholarly articles and downloadable activities that make your newsletter more than an ad,” she says. “You have to make it about branding and showing your knowledge of a serious curriculum.”
Online Communities: Fostering Used-Book Sales
Dave McConnell, president of Hillsdale Educational Publishers, which specializes in Michigan-focused books, suggests textbook publishers may need to make some changes to continue to be profitable. “For the sake of efficiency, you’d like to limit how often a new edition comes out, but there’s tremendous pressure to have the very latest book,” he says. “At the same time, how many new editions can you make on the speeches of Abraham Lincoln? Do his speeches somehow change over time? Does he make new ones?”
College students also can take advantage of the logic that some new editions may not change much from earlier editions. Many are using online message boards to sell the older (used) editions to other students, allowing the buyer to avoid the high cost of buying the new versions and the sellers to recoup at least a portion of their initial investment.
Last year, in the first comprehensive study of used-book sales, industry organization Book Industry Study Group reported that revenues from used-book sales in the United States had topped $2.2 billion in 2004, representing more than 111 million copies sold and 8.4 percent of total consumer spending on books. Jeff Hayes, vice president and general manager for InfoTrends and principal analyst for the study, had commented on the results, saying, “The rapid growth of the general trade used-book market is a direct result of the Internet eliminating much of the friction in the buying and selling process. Used books are now a factor in the business equation for publishers and booksellers.”
“We’ll have to pay closer attention to this over time,” says McConnell. “It may mean lowering the prices on textbooks or creating our own communities like the students have and finding ways to limit our losses.”
Chat Rooms: Essential, but
Speaking of online communities, Castelli says chat rooms are becoming more a part of his company’s offerings, though he sees them presently as a value-add as opposed to a revenue driver. “We’ve set up ‘ask the expert’ sessions online where we have literacy experts do a 20-minute presentation and then entertain questions at the end from people in the audience. It’s been modestly successful, but it’s more a way to add to the relationship with our customer,” he says.
Greg Koenig, marketing communications manager for Siboney Learning Group, which publishes educational software for schools, believes publishers need to catch up in this underused territory. “My college-age daughters have Facebook and MySpace as a part of their daily lives, so imagine how it will be for young children of the future,” he says.
Still, Koenig says that while online tools may be essential, they will not become the only means for book marketing and reader engagement. “… We can’t underestimate the effect of a live book signing. I think chat rooms have to be seen as an extra, but not something that should substitute for that face-to-face meeting—that can gain a reader for a lifetime,” he says.
E-books are another area in which the learning curve is low, says Iiams. “I have heard publishers praising e-books, but we’re [a] primary [education book publisher], so [at that level], kids are just learning to read,” she says. “I don’t think kids are using technology in the classroom as much as some would like to think.”
Castelli says his company will have 192 e-books this fall. “They are of interest in the English Language Learner market, once known as ESL. They demanded audiocassettes in the past to hear how words are supposed to be spoken, and we’re taking it to the next step by having the e-book for easy text reading.”
Protect and Serve
Gaynor says one challenge looming is the protection of copyright and intellectual property. “It’s the Wild, Wild West in understanding what copyright protection means for educational material, and we need tighter definitions,” she says. “Publishers are being forced to show digital-source files, but what happens downstream needs to be clarified. The Napster model has given us an idea of how to do it, and I think we’ll see this way of selling books increase with educators who are younger and grew up on this. Buyers will pay 99 cents for the material they need, as they do with downloading music. But once again, we need to catch up to other industries who’ve already caught on.” BB
Eric Butterman is presently writing the book “Turning the Corner,” with NFL football player Ike Taylor. You can reach him at email@example.com.