Educational publishing is not what it used to be. From the massive shift to online learning to the introduction of affordable online rental programs, the academic publishing business has changed…big time! Over time, it has also changed in a more ominous way: pricing. Over the past 40 years, textbook prices have shot through the roof. As a student, this is an obvious annoyance, but can the cost of textbooks hurt publishers too? To answer this question, we must explore the roots of the issue and how it impacts the industry as a whole.
A Brief History Of Textbook Costs
Before the 1970s, textbooks were relatively affordable. However, as the need for textbooks increased, things changed. The publishing industry wasn’t an easy one. Several fixed and variable expenses exist that puts a dent in sales. At the time, even with over 20,000 copies sold a publishing company would be losing thousands. To survive, companies had to do two things: increase price, and publish new editions frequently. While this worked perfectly for the publishers, it hasn’t worked so well for students.
How This Affects Students
College students are considered a captive market. If they want a degree, they have to buy books. They don’t have the option of searching around for a different product. The textbook assigned is the textbook they buy, end of story. Think of your last trip the airport. Maybe you needed lunch during a long layover, a pack of tissues, or a travel pillow. Consider the huge markup on those items; a small $12 sandwich, tissues for $4.99, and an average travel pillow for $39.99. Those prices are crazy, yet if you’re like most travelers, you still bought the overpriced sandwich. Businesses could charge almost anything, and customers would buy it out of necessity. While this might seem like a business owner’s dream, those who take it too far run into trouble.
This brings us back to college students. Tuition is already prohibitively expensive. Now students must take on textbook costs that have ballooned over 1000% since the 70s. Economic pressure is a real risk for educational publishers.
The US Public Interest Research Group conducted a survey of over 150 college campuses. They found that over half of students choose not to purchase a required book because they could not afford it. Over 90% admitted that they were worried how that decision might affect their grades. You can raise prices as high as you want but despite the captive market, at some point sales will begin to drop. Not because students don’t want to buy books, but because they literally CAN’T.
How This Affects The Publishers That Serve Them
That level of economic pressure does not bode well for students, and it doesn’t look great for publishers either. When new textbooks become unaffordable, publishers can expect to see a corresponding drop in sales. Students aren’t quite as captive as they once were, either. Book rentals are a popular option that offer books in good condition for a fraction of the cost of a new textbook. Used books also provide an affordable option, and one that can be resold at the end of the course. This doesn’t apply to new editions and books for more obscure classes, but a large number of textbooks are available on Amazon textbook rental or to purchase used.
The tactic of publishing new, required editions of textbooks still works to some extent, but only to a certain point. It’s clear that the vastly inflated prices of the textbook market are not sustainable. A better option for publishers is to offer textbooks at the most competitive prices they can afford. Most students do prefer new books to used if there isn’t an overwhelming price gap. Another option is to begin rental programs of their own, or to place more of a focus on the development of their online content. Online content offers an experience that many of today’s college students gravitate towards. Traditional textbooks cannot match the interactivity and flexibility of online learning programs. Because of this, online learning material remains the greatest hope for publishers to excel.
As publishers, it’s imperative to keep in mind who our customers really are. Most of them are young students with little money of their own, already struggling with student debt. These are the people we must learn to serve. If prices are hurting them, they’re hurting us too. If we want to succeed, we have to make sure they can to. To do this, we must provide them with attractive and affordable textbook solutions. If you’re considering moving into the online publishing arena, consider using a high-quality authoring tool like myEContentFactory to help you make the most of your investment.