Will Digital Textbooks Save the Academic Publishing Industry?
A growing number of college students are saving money by not buying the textbooks required for their courses. Some buy secondhand books instead, others lease books, some find a way to downloaded pirated copies of textbooks, while other students simply find similar content online and make use of that instead.
This dramatic change in attitude not only impacts the traditional educational publishing industry right across the board, cutting revenue and therefore profits, but also affects the income of booksellers, universities, and even state governments (in the form of sales tax revenue).
A recent report by Student Watch™ shows that students had spent, on average, $579 on required course materials during the 2016/17 academic year. This was $23 less than the previous year, and $122 less than the 2007/08 academic year. While the use of digital materials and rented textbooks has increased, “new print” is currently still the most popular textbook format, the report states, with:
- 74 percent of students buying new books
- 70 percent buying secondhand (or used) books
- 23 percent buying digital
Of course, the apparent disparity in numbers is because students will often use a mix of options, buying some new, some used, and a few digital books to cover their courses.
The report, which is titled Attitudes and Behaviors toward Course Materials: 2016-2017 [http://www.nacs.org/research/studentwatchfindings.aspx], also shows that the drop in expenditure is partly due to to the use of free materials, some of which are assigned by faculties. This figure increased from 19 percent in spring 2016 to 25 percent in spring 2017.
Textbook Options for Students
Following the introduction of the US Affordable College Textbook Act in 2015, traditional educational publishers have been increasing options for students, largely by providing digital, often interactive, course materials combined with additional learning tools. At the same time, professors and faculties at many institutions are adding their own digital notes to existing books and ebooks, and many college bookstores are offering ebook rentals. Additionally, the Student Watch report shows that 82 percent of students buy their textbooks and course materials from campus stores.
The use of open educational resources (OER) is growing too, with more and more publishers, colleges, and libraries forming partnerships with OER providers and related businesses.
But, even though a large percentage of students are still buying printed textbooks, an alarming number are not buying textbooks at all.
Why More Students Are Not Buying Textbooks
This is not a new trend, but rather one that has been increasing in popularity over the past decade as the prices of college textbooks has continued to soar. There have been numerous studies that have looked at this phenomenon over the years. These have assessed the reasons why so many students are not buying printed textbooks anymore and evaluated the impact on publishers switching to digital products both for their business survival, and to enable the many students who simply cannot afford these growing costs to access course material.
One of the organizations that do ongoing research is the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). Early 2016, the Student PIRGs released a report entitled Covering the Cost: Why We Can No Longer Afford to Ignore High Textbook Prices. Written by Ethan Senack and Robert Donoghue, the motivation was part of an ongoing campaign to “make textbooks affordable.”
Compared to the “normal” book market, they pointed out that the price of college textbooks has increased by 73 percent since 2006, which is more than four times the rate of inflation. This, they said, was because:
- Five major academic publishers control 80 percent of the market.
- Students (the consumer) do not have a choice of the textbook they are assigned to buy.
In the traditional book industry, competition and consumer choice are the levelers.
This study found that about a third of students (amounting to more than 5.2 million students in 2013) had to get financial assistance to be able to pay for their printed textbooks. In real terms, they found that students were using around $300 per semester from that financial aid on their textbooks. This, they concluded, played a negative role for students, many of whom dropped out for financial reasons, albeit often when they owed a relatively small amount of money (often less than $1,000).
In 2015, the Student PIRGs had published another report that showed openly licensed educational materials (referred to as “open textbooks”) had the potential to save learners more than $1-billion every year. Open Textbooks: The Billion-Dollar Solution by Ethan Senack
[https://studentpirgs.org/sites/student/files/reports/The%20Billion%20Dollar%20Solution.pdf] stated that a “textbook monopoly” was undermining the market and that even secondhand books, rentals, and e-textbooks (which carry a fee) were not sufficient to solve the problem. Educational materials had to be delivered via an alternative model, he said, proposing that faculty-written, peer-reviewed textbooks and open licensing (for example Creative Commons) be that alternative. This would provide the educational opportunity for students to find textbooks free online.
While lack of competition in the traditional textbook industry was a negative factor, Senack and Donoghue, in Covering the Cost, said digital open textbooks will not only lower costs and increase the potential for students to access course material but will also improve competition in the market.
A Top Hat white paper released in 2018, The Death of Textbook Publishing & The Future of College Course Content by Canadian Philip Preville [https://tophat.com/ebooks/death-textbook-publishing-future-college-course-content/] quotes a survey showing that 65 percent of college students admitted they had not bought a required textbook because of cost. The paper also states that textbooks have increased in price by more than 1,041 percent since 1977.
But will switching to digital textbooks be enough to save the educational publishing industry?
Digital Textbook Strategies
There is no doubt that learning institutions have been disrupted by the ongoing 21st century digital revolution, but unless the educational publishing industry helps their customers (the students) achieve their objectives, simply switching from print to digital textbooks will certainly not save the industry. The problem is a very complex one.
There are varied textbook models and strategies on the table, with many publishers and OER providers redefining their business approaches, including offering inclusive access programs where students pay a reduced flat fee and are guaranteed delivery of course material on or before the first day of class.
This first day strategy is a direct result of the Higher Education Opportunity Act that demands that course materials are available when students register at college. While publishers and other course material providers are, in general, rising to the Day One challenge, there are issues that need to be overcome to make it work.
Then there is the strategy that broadly encourages the use of OER.
Highlighting digital textbooks and the OER concept, Preville predicts that ultimately it will be the students who will identify which digital materials will best support their required learning outcomes.
And certainly, there is a strong argument in favor of ensuring that in addition to the need for affordable textbooks and course materials that are accessible, strategies must be outcomes based. This in itself would likely represent a quantum leap for the industry.
Gutenberg Technology Offers a Lifeline
Since it is clear that a large percentage of students currently still want printed textbooks, to survive and thrive educational publishers should consider streamlining their print and digital publishing processes.
Gutenberg Technology (GT) has developed ground-breaking technology in the form of MyEcontentFactory (MEF), a software as a service (SaaS) platform that enables publishers to streamline print and digital projects and produce them simultaneously. Not only will you meet the needs of students, you will also minimize timelines and in this way increase profits.
Our case study shows how you can implement a powerful strategy that will dramatically improve your ROI. Feel free to contact us to see how we can help you improve your digital textbook strategy.