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Visiting Speaker: Dr Simon Frost, Bournemouth University

November 14th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | Comments Off on Visiting Speaker: Dr Simon Frost, Bournemouth University
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Simon FrostAs an extra addition to the Visiting Speaker series, Dr Simon Frost, Senior Lecturer in English at Bournemouth University, came to talk to us about his current research project. Entitled ‘Private Gains and Retailed Literature: Pathways to a Sustainable-Economic Account of Reading‘ (though Frost pointed out that his subtitle keeps changing!), this ambitious project is being undertaken in association with John Smith’s, the higher-education bookseller familiar to most students for their on-campus shops.
It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that Dr Frost’s project is quite a complex and, in some ways, esoteric one and that it is very much ongoing and developing, so at times it became a little difficult to take on all of the information he was conveying. The seven-and-a-half pages of notes I took during his presentation are testament to this! However, I’ll do my best to cover what he had to say.
First, Dr Frost outlined the aim of his project, to produce a defence of literature (the project is focused on fiction) in economic terms, rather than the cultural terms in which arguments for literature’s value are usually expressed. This was one of the trickier ideas to get our heads around but Frost put it in layman’s terms, saying that he’s trying to find out why a customer would choose to buy books, rather than booze! Essentially, his belief is that pointing to literature’s cultural importance does not mount a strong enough defence for the funding and resources allocated to it and that we require a discussion that engages with the economics of literature in sustainable terms or, in other words, attempts to discover what readers gain from the books they buy in more practical terms.
We then looked at the structure of Frost’s project, which is organised into three ‘threads’:
  • ‘theorisation’ – produce a model of how readers gain from books, bridging the literary and economic by investigating the idea that books meet intangible needs for readers.
  • ‘tuition’ – a number of students will be involved in the research for this project, particularly in compiling the results of an extensive survey, aiming for 750 completed surveys.
  • ‘professional practice’ – working in conjunction with John Smith’s, examine the shift from ‘bookseller’ to ‘book-based supplier of solutions’, in particular the move to provide new services based on outcomes/gains.

John Smith's BooksIn order to explain how he became involved with John Smith’s, Dr Frost gave us a potted pre-history of the current bookselling situation in Britain. John Smith’s has been around since 1751, so it has survived and responded to the major changes that have happened in the bookselling industry over the last several centuries, from the 1899 establishment of the Net Book Agreement (NBA) and its encouragement of dedicated bookstores, to the collapse of the Agreement in the 1990s which led to the downfall of almost all chain booksellers on the British High Street. More recently, the rise of online bookstores (themselves largely a result of the NBA’s collapse) has forced John Smith’s to rethink its business, as Amazon and its ilk have disrupted the traditional tutor-student-campus bookstore relationship. Their response has been to stop thinking of themselves as ‘booksellers’ at all and instead re-brand as a provider of solutions for students and Higher Education (HE) institutions. Indeed, their website is tagged as ‘John Smith’s Student Store’, with no reference to bookshops at all.

In effect, this has resulted in John Smith’s working with HE institutions to provide students with all the resources they need to successfully enter, negotiate and exit higher education. Their Stirling store, for instance, lists 15 departments, providing products from art supplies to bikes, mobile phones to university-branded clothing. They are no longer thinking about how they can sell the most books to students but about how they can meet all the needs that students might have, how they can become the main provider of solutions to students’ demands and problems (as well as aiding HE institutions to meet their outcomes). In this way, their rethinking of their business model fits neatly with Dr Frost’s project, as it relocates books as one part of a service that anticipates and provides everything that students will gain from appropriating. So, a copy of ‘Mrs Dalloway’ is no longer just a tool for education and cultural influence but also a product that can be analysed and quantified in economic terms.

aspireFor the final part of his presentation, Dr Frost went into more detail about how the relationship between students, their HE institutions and this new incarnation of John Smith’s works. An essential part of this is the distribution of bursaries to students in England (introduced as a mitigating response to the raising of tuition fees). Universities receive a sum of money from the government and parcel this out to selected students in bursaries, often around £300, which are intended to widen opportunities for students from low-income backgrounds (and, ideally, to be spent on university-related goods and services, rather than down the pub, though we did have a discussion of whether or not the social environment provided by pubs – and cafes, equally expensive though perhaps less stigmatised – is a valuable part of the university experience!). John Smith’s have become involved in this process via their ‘Aspire‘ smartcard, which can be pre-loaded with the bursary money and limits what it can be spent on. This allows for a number of interesting features, from each card being tailored to its recipient’s needs, to facilitating data gathering and feedback to the institution. Of course, as several members of the class pointed out, this has some moral and legal implications, particularly with regards to privacy (the idea of tutors being able to keep tabs on whether you’ve purchased their reading list or not is more than a little Big Brother!) and this is an area that Dr Frost will be looking into as his study develops. At the moment, though, his main questions in this area are:

  1. Is the diversity of purchasing agency (i.e. those involved in the process of purchasing) now so great that it produces a break from the linear rational-choice model of purchasing?
  2. Do the limits imposed by the ‘Aspire’ model constitute an interruption of free will or free exchange? They limit the convertibility of one resource to another (the bursary can be turned into books or bikes but not beers) but do they also limit free choice? Such limits are common in the public world but how do they function in the semi-commercial and commercial spheres?
It was fascinating to hear about a project still in progress, with Dr Frost acknowledging that he is still in the process of gathering information and developing the theories and concepts that will form his ultimate conclusions. His observation that his ‘inner critic’ was working even as he spoke was one that I – and I’m sure most of us – identified with, but it’s reassuring to know that the pros suffer too. It was also great to feel that he was genuinely interested in our responses and in engaging in conversation with his audience – it’s always encouraging to feel that we’re being taken seriously by people already working! I’ll be interested to see the results of his project and how it shifts and develops as it progresses.