Turning the page on a bookselling tradition

May 19, 2000

Online retailer Swotbooks.com plans to revolutionise the student textbook market. Anne Sebba reports

Imagine being a law student, told you must buy a Pounds 40 textbook, but you will only need chapters one, three and seven. Then imagine a way of downloading just those chapters via the internet at a fraction of the cost. Tempting, yes?

The concept is only a click away, according to Swotbooks.com, a new United Kingdom-based internet bookseller that will target the academic and professional market. The technology already exists and the company hopes to be able to offer such a service to students on British campuses within the next 12 months.

Swotbooks will start trading this summer, selling discounted textbooks to students online. The site will also offer all UK books currently in print, but plans to focus on the academic market.

"There are a whole series of supply-and-demand factors in the UK academic textbook market that make our proposition extremely attractive," says David Taylor, formerly director of Blackwell's Book Services and a past chairman of the College and University Booksellers Group.

"At 850,000, student numbers are higher than ever and predicted to grow by 40,000 a year for the next five years. Students are heavy internet users - 50 per cent log on at least three times a week. The internet is part of university life," Taylor says.

"At the same time students face enormous difficulties financing themselves through university now that maintenance grants have gone and with the introduction of tuition fees. Many finish their courses with debts of more than Pounds 5,000."

Taylor says that although there is great demand for academic textbooks in the UK, most are still sold through a model campus bookshop, which makes little financial sense. "Their margins are so thin that they don't want to discount. At the same time, the customer is desperate to save money. The online seller of textbooks is able to offer discounts of up to 40 per cent because of low overheads - neither warehouse nor retail outlet is required. We work through website and wholesaler, selling direct to customers," Taylor says.

The website, which is still under construction, has a jokey, retro look to it because Taylor believes many of its customers will be 18 to 24-year-olds "who almost resent having to buy these books and do not necessarily come from a book-buying background. We are aiming to be fun and slightly irreverent."

He acknowledges the existence of one or two other student lifestyle sites, such as Student24-7.com, but says these are much broader based and will not be able to offer the same price advantage for textbooks.

Swotbooks was inspired by US examples, where more than a dozen niche internet booksellers operate. However, VarsityBooks.com - the first on campus in the US - is shifting away from selling textbooks online towards marketing services. Its stock price recently hit a new low of $2.00 (Pounds 1.33).

Even Amazon, the biggest name in general internet bookselling, has taken a knock recently. A number of publishing houses have started experimenting by launching their own e-novels: Stephen King's Riding the Bullet recently attracted 400,000 customers who each paid $2.50 to access and print the book. This may be the direction in which Swotbooks hopes to travel but it has not yet finalised agreements with the necessary academic publishers, some of whom will not welcome its approach.

Taylor and his partner Raymond Gray, formerly chief executive of the Bertram Group, the UK's largest book wholesaler, point to one advantage Swotbooks already has over any potential imitators: an exclusive partnership with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. This will make Swotbooks Ucas's official e-bookseller. The partnership gives Swotbooks access to the vast Ucas database. In addition to eight full-time staff it plans to commission student representatives on campuses.

Addresses: www.swotbooks.com; www.student24-7.com

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