VitalSource Acquires Akademos
The higher education course materials landscape has largely remained unchanged over the last several decades. However, there has been a seismic shift in the industry over the last five years. The pervasive adoption of Inclusive and Equitable Access programs has changed course materials acquisition and delivery forever. More recently though, structural changes at and to industry titans may prove just as impactful as the revolutionary course materials models themselves. Among other things, the recent VitalSource acquisition of Akademos will alter the landscape for vendor managed and independently managed college campus stores for quite some time.
Over the last six months, the course materials industry has seen Follett Higher Education acquire Willo Labs and the shuttering of a century old industry staple in Nebraska Book Company. While these events are significant in their own right, the news out of VitalSource this past week could shake up the whole industry. Akademos and VitalSource have suggested patience as questions mount about the details and logistics of the acquisition. However, as someone who investigates course materials models, I thought it might be interesting to do some semi-responsible speculating on how this move may/might/can/will shake up the course materials market.
I think the first question is why? Why did this acquisition happen? VitalSource is seemingly the leading digital course materials provider in the industry. Akademos has seemingly found their stride in winning new and bigger accounts with their Equitable Access focused model. Both have strong, sophisticated technological pieces that make them leaders in their own areas. Why not continue forging their own paths to individual success? I think the answer to that question is knowledge.
I think the answer to the question of why is industry or domain knowledge. Each company has knowledge of specific aspects of the course materials landscape. The VitalSource technology products have spread far and wide in higher education. They have vast knowledge and experience delivering digital content through their platform. Akademos has a vast knowledge of delivering physical content through decades of building vendor relationships and servicing all aspects of the campus store. Not only does Akademos have the physical delivery pipeline, but they also bring the experience of building relationships with campus faculty and administrators. This isn’t to say VitalSource doesn’t have the capacity and capability to do that, but Akademos has a different experience flexing that muscle. I also don’t think it was an industry secret that, with the launch of their VerbaOne product, VitalSource might have been looking to for ways to build out physical delivery into their offerings. So, this acquisition of Akademos seems to have accelerated that process or intention.
So, now that they have merged industry technology with industry knowledge, what’s next? What can we expect to see over the next six months to two years? Are the big two now the big three? Does this put VitalSource in a new category of service provider? How does this change the competitive course materials management landscape? I think the impact we are going to see is more about a re-imagined independent campus store than it is about changing the game in the leased campus store space.
Offloading Course Materials
VitalSource has communicated their commitment to the independent campus bookstore segment and they say that this will only enhance independently managed stores. I am not exactly sure that is what is going to happen. I think what the VitalSource acquisition of Akademos does is give the independent campus store the ability to more easily and seamlessly offload or outsource one of the most challenging parts of their operation: Course Materials. With the physical delivery capabilities of Akademos under their umbrella, VitalSource can now manage all aspects of a campus store’s course materials, not just the digital component.
I grew up in the vendor managed or leased campus bookstore space, so I will not pretend to completely understand how independent campus bookstores operate or think. However, I know course materials. I know the painstaking process of collecting and entering adoptions, ordering, receiving, stocking, and reordering, among other things course materials related. Course materials management is by far the hardest aspect of the campus store. *If you are a course materials manager reading this, I want you to stand up and pat yourself on the back for the work you do each and every day to support your students and your store.* Outsourcing course materials would change how independent stores operate and what they focus on in their day-to-day operations. Essentially, outsourcing course materials turns the independent campus store into a de facto spirit shop. We would need to re-imagine what the independent campus store looked, felt, and acted like.
I hate to use an ambiguous phrase like ‘a lot’, but I think ‘a lot’ of campus stores might welcome this relief. If the primary goal is to serve students and the campus community, offloading course materials to someone who may be able to deliver course materials more efficiently and effectively might not be a bad thing. Current independently managed campus stores who use VitalSource will need to continue monitoring new developments to determine the best course of action for their stores and their campus.
I think the other major impact to course materials management and the campus store is that this acquisition may allow campuses to take back their bookstore operations from lease operators. From my perspective, a lease operator is a company who manages all aspects of the campus bookstore, under their name, from course materials to general merchandise to staffing to proprietary operational software. If a campus is not happy with their lease vendor, for whatever reason, but they want to continue serving their faculty and students with all course materials content types, the acquisition gives them that ability. A campus can retake local control over general merchandise while still providing faculty, staff, and the campus community with the course materials experience they expect. However, if I had to guess which is more likely, I think it is more likely we see more independent stores offloading their course materials management than taking back their campus bookstore from a lease operator.
Secondarily, now that VitalSource has acquired Akademos, if a lease operator decides to drop a campus, they have a fallback option. There is a push from lease operators for campuses to move to an Equitable Access course materials intervention model. If a campus is resistant to this shift, it is likely the campus and lease operator may decide to part ways. If that happens, VitalSource may be in a unique position to step in and support that campus – at least with their course materials management.
Current Vendor Partners
My first initial reaction to this news was that current lease operators (Akademos competitors) who use VitalSource will need to immediately drop them and find another digital content provider. I have softened on this a little over the last few days, but I still think it could be problematic from a competitive standpoint. If you are a competitor of Akademos and you are using VitalSource, what kind of information about your operations or technology do they have access to? Before the acquisition, that type of information might not have been as relevant to VitalSource, but now having that information might put you at a competitive disadvantage or potentially expose your confidential intellectual property. Am I being a little hyperbolic? Sure. But, the point remains the same, by adding a competitor to their capabilities, it’s reasonable to reassess the relationship with VitalSource to determine how it will impact your competitiveness in the marketplace.
There truly does need to be a sense of patience as the details of this acquisition emerge. Today, there are more questions than answers. The VitalSource acquisition of Akademos has the potential to significantly change higher education course materials acquisition and delivery. There are implications for a variety of stakeholders and it will be important that everyone does their due diligence moving forward. Personally, I think this is a positive development because the combined technology and knowledge will benefit students and campuses. I want to see students succeed and getting course materials in their hands and on their devices is truly impactful to their success. As always, thanks for checking in and I’ll see you next time.