Trends in college textbook publishing: 5 Tips for navigating the digital transition

Color photo of an stack books and mouseMany college textbook authors are experiencing declining print unit sales and diminishing royalty checks. Regular price increases previously helped college textbook publishers offset shrinking print sales, but that strategy is no longer effective. Consequently, some publishers are cutting budgets to offset revenue shortfalls. They’re also diverting remaining investment resources into new digital products and services that offer a measure of protection against the depredations of used, rental, and pirate competition. As a result, those publishers are rebranding themselves as software or learning science companies and setting very public goals to eliminate or scale back their print publishing programs in favor of fully digital product models. What are the key forces driving college publishers’ online publishing strategies? What are some steps higher education textbook authors can take in response?

Over the past thirty years the textbook distribution model has shifted radically, greatly impacting publishers and authors. The formerly local trade in used books has become global, facilitated by the Web, retailers such as Amazon and Chegg, and online divisions of Follett and Barnes & Noble. Rental options have become ubiquitous, and with every passing year piracy takes a larger bite out of print and simple eTextbook sales. As a result the largest college textbook publishers are striving to quickly transition to fully online product portfolios. When these products require personalized user interactions, such as integrated graded homework assignments that count toward a student’s grade, the resulting online learning products cannot be shared, resold, or pirated, thus shoring up sales.

What are some of the steps authors can take to better align themselves with publishers’ inexorable move to online product models?  I recommend five tips for successfully navigating the digital transition, adapted from the forthcoming publication Writing and Developing your College Textbook: A Comprehensive Guide:

1 – Understand your publisher’s digital product offerings and determine how to best integrate with them. Publishers’ online learning systems deliver personalized learning experiences through digital learning objects, instructional modules, assessments, and adaptive learning paths. Study your publisher’s proprietary learning system (note that some maintain several), understand how it works, and determine how you can optimize your content within it. If your publisher doesn’t possess a proprietary learning system, research which third-party learning management system (LMS) or homework system it is using by requesting access or studying the company’s website. Determine how your content can best work within your publisher’s preferred learning system(s) and discuss your ideas with your editor or product manager.

2 – Understand adaptive learning, how your publisher is leveraging it, and how you can optimize it with your product.  Online adaptive environments provide the user with a guided learning path by delivering tailored content.  Guided learning paths are based on users’ responses to periodic, interim assessments as they work through the course. You can contribute to the success of adaptive learning products by ensuring high-quality test items accompany your title. Your publisher will tag those assessment items with rich metadata (machine-readable information about content as learning assets) and key them to a content taxonomy (a system for classifying content into asset categories). Metadata often indicate the level of difficulty or link an assessment item to a learning objective, and a typical content taxonomy generally parallels a standard textbook’s table of contents. If your publisher invites you to contribute to its metadata definitions or taxonomies to better match your own product, it could be well worth the additional effort.

3 – Write or supervise assessment items to accompany your work. Credible assessment programs and effective adaptive learning paths depend on high-quality test items. Publishers’ traditional strategy for preparing assessment items is to hire a faculty decision maker at a large, potential adoption to write a product’s test bank. Unfortunately, publishers’ staff members who manage test-item writers are often unprepared for the task and the writers themselves may not be proficient at composing assessments. The result can be unreliable or poor-quality test items—a perennial source of adopters’ complaints. Authors who understand how to compose excellent test items should write or closely supervise the creation of all assessment items and answer feedback for their works.

4 – Leverage social media to build your personal brand. Textbook publishers have been sometimes slow to leverage the enormous capabilities of social media, but they will certainly catch up. In the meantime, you can use social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) to build customer loyalty, arrange for student and instructor feedback during product development, and add the “cool” factor to your book or online course content. Begin by exploring the social media platforms commonly used by faculty and students. Buy the domain for your name and the title of your book, and set up a website for your product you can link to your publisher’s site. Use social media to reach out directly to potential adopters and students. Highlight your talents as a teacher, scholar, and author to promote your product, develop your personal brand, and influence adoption decisions.

5 – Provide value-packed products that consistently exceed customers’ expectations. Your publisher will determine your product’s price. It’s up to you to ensure it’s packed with value. Make the features and benefits of your content clear to customers and easy for marketing and sales staff to explain. Remember to build key learning features into your writing or revision plan from the start—features invented at the last minute are less effective and can disrupt the narrative flow. Ask yourself, what course elements do learners and instructors value, what topics do they struggle to understand or teach, and how can you improve the core learning experience? You should remain current with how general teaching and learning principles are being applied in your subject area. Such information will help you craft a more value-packed product.

Finally, if you stay abreast of the evolving educational publishing marketplace you’ll be in a better position to create a winning product. In addition to The Chronicle of Higher Education, online clipping services such as Education Dive or EdSurge, and the online publication Inside Higher Ed are excellent sources for keeping up with higher education digital developments and their impact on textbook authors and publishers. These and other professional resources recommended by colleagues or your publisher can help you successfully navigate the uncertain but exciting digital future of college publishing.


Sean Wakely

Sean Wakely is Vice President of Product and Editorial at FlatWorld. Academic Author Advisers helps higher education textbook authors and content writers get the best return and greater satisfaction from their writing experiences. He is also co-author of Writing and Developing Your College Textbook: A Comprehensive Guide.