With the inevitable rising costs of printed textbooks, students are generally keen to use digital material that is considerably cheaper even than secondhand or rented textbooks.
The challenge for publishers is to provide superior digital products at prices that will appeal to students and yet be financially viable for their businesses. As a result, the idea of flat fee models for textbooks is gaining traction as a growing number of academic publishers realign their strategies in a fast-changing market that has been transformed by an ongoing digital content revolution. But there are variables that affect the current offerings. This, in itself, impacts individual solutions, making some more attractive than others.
Nevertheless, the advantages of textbook flat-fee solutions generally outweigh any disadvantages.
Comparing Flat Fee Solutions for Textbooks
To be able to weigh up the pros and cons of textbook flat-fee solutions, it is essential to have a broad understanding of what academic publishers offer. While flat fees are undeniably an identifiable trend, only one company, Cengage, has devised a Netflix-type flat-fee model that will provide unlimited digital course material to students on demand. The system is set to literally come online in August 2018, while the company has pledged to be 90 percent digital by 2019.
Currently, flat fee solutions include:
- Flat-fee subscriptions for specific online books that are based on usage. So the more frequently a book is accessed, the more a participating publisher will be paid.
- Set-fee subscriptions to access digital publications for a single semester or the whole academic year. This may be available with or without additional course content.
- The Cengage (Netflix-type) option that gives students access to a vast range of digital textbooks and higher education learning material for a flat fee that is based on a time period: one semester, one year, or two years.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Textbook Flat Fee Solutions
The most obvious advantage (or pro) of any flat-fee solution is that students have the opportunity to access more learning material for less money. However, the way these various subscriptions are structured, they only allow access for a limited period of time. A student who is willing and able to purchase the same product in printed format would pay more for it but would have the advantage of being able to keep the book for the duration of his or her studies, and if desired, add it to a personal library for later reference. Alternatively, students can recoup some of their costs by reselling books – unless, of course, the curriculum changes.
The fixed-fee model is also an attractive one for publishers because it allows them to bundle products together and enable them to potentially make higher profits. This approach could backfire in the textbook industry though unless all the material is relevant to specific courses.
Another potential disadvantage of flat-fee solutions for students is that they apply specifically to textbooks produced by individual publishing houses. So, for instance, even though Cengage will be making tens of thousands of publications available, that will cover more than 675 different courses in about 70 disciplines, if the college or university prescribes textbooks from a different publishing house, there will be no real benefit.
Some translate this situation as a potential disadvantage for the academic publishing industry as a whole. They argue that because not all publishers offer the same deal, educational institutions will be influenced to switch to those that offer better rates. Of course, this argument cannot stand alone since it is vital for higher learning institutions to evaluate the quality of material in the context, not only of cost but also content.
The ironic truth is that the digital content revolution has made it possible to incorporate added value to textbooks in various forms, including audio and video files, questions and answers, and even virtual tutoring. So cheaper can really become better.
As Gutenberg Technology’s new white paper, Flat Fees for Digital Textbooks Set to Revolutionize Academic Publishing, states, “With the increasing demise of printed textbooks, there is no doubt that flat fees for digital textbooks will revolutionize the industry sooner rather than later. “