Ducks 'n a Row: Changing the Cover of the Textbook Industry

21 March 2014

Changing the Cover of the Textbook Industry

The reach of the Internet has now extended to the multi-billion dollar textbook industry, an industry that represents a mere sliver of education spending. With the Internet and legislations getting involved in the textbook business, students could potentially receive a better education while saving money on textbooks.

college textbooks, digital textbooks, open textbooks

The Textbook Battlefield
K-12 and higher education are the two sections that create the textbook industry, and each section has their own dominating publishers.
Studies have shown the cost of textbooks has increased more than an estimated 800% over the span of the last 30 years, and that students are spending nearly $1,000 for their books. While students see an increase at the register, textbook publishers see an increase in their profits.

Changing Times
With the involvement of the Internet, it’s now possible for a student to buy or rent a used textbook. Now textbook publishers not only have to think about the used books being sold at on-campus bookstores, they also have to think about the used books that are available through online retailers like Amazon.
Instead of purchasing their books, students can rent them at a lower price for anywhere between 30 and 180 days. While publishers will still see revenue from the number of books sold, any future revenue they might see will be lower because of books being rented out.

Digital Domain
digital textbooksAnother Internet textbook revolution that’s started is the implementation of digital textbooks. Since there’s no printing cost to increase prices, publishers can’t sell digital books at the same high price as their physical books. When it comes to K-12 schools, school districts have to pay publishers a subscription fee for a textbook, which lowers the publisher’s profits. A physical textbook might cost $85, but the subscription fee for the digital version of that same textbook might be $22. What this means is that it will take several years for the publisher to make the same profit from their digital textbook as they do their physical textbook.

New Marketplace of Ideas
Another major change brought on by the Internet to the textbook industry is the opportunity for different competitors to stake their claim on the textbook publisher playing field. Some of the new competitors offer less expensive textbook alternatives and also allow college instructors to personalize textbooks to suit their class, which is similar to the Open Educational Resources (OER) approach. Students have the option of either buying a single textbook or paying more for access to a full catalog.
One of the reasons that an open textbook approach will be beneficial to students and school districts is that it will save them money. It’s also easier to update and personalize an open textbook. In California, legislation was signed that facilitated the creation of 50 open textbooks that are intended to be used by lower-division classes and students who could either buy or download their books.

With open online education, students don’t even have to buy a textbook, they have all of the necessary course materials available online. Even if open online education doesn't completely replace the textbook industry, it can still be used as a supplemental learning tool.


The Affordable College Textbook Act
In 2013, the Affordable College Textbook Act was unveiled in the hopes of speeding up the implementation of open textbooks. The act would create grants for the creation of pilot programs that would develop open textbooks as a way for higher education students to save money.

One potential issue with this act is that a traditional textbooks publisher might argue that the legislation ruins the fundamental concept of the free marketplace. The problem with this argument is that it removes the fact that the US government is a participant in that free textbook marketplace through the form of school districts and government subsidies.


All of these new changes to the textbook industry have forced traditional publishers to alter the way that they conduct business, such as offering course management and other education services.

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Photos courtesy of Freedigital Photos 

  • Isolated Stack of Books by Super trooper
  • Teenage Guy on Computer by imagerymajestic
  • Classroom of Students by Ambro
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