President’s Message: Five major changes that altered the face of textbook publishing

Mike KennamerRecently I had a conversation with a friend about how textbook publishing has changed over the past several years. In our conversation, she recalled a time when publishing companies were small, specialized, and focused on a particular market. It was a time when publishers hired full-time employees which developed relationships with their authors, who they valued as experts in their fields. The author was consulted on anything from marketing to cover design and the publishing team listened to author opinions.

What changed? I submit that there are five major changes that combined, in the same way that one domino falling triggers another, have substantively changed the face of textbook publishing. The issue is far more complex than what I write here, but I see these changes as pivotally impacting the industry over the past few years.

  1. One- or two-color books with grayscale photos were deemed inadequate. For many years we used one- and two-color textbooks with grayscale photos. Some textbooks had a small section of color pages. As color printing became more affordable, textbook publishers started to offer color books, which increased publishing costs.
  2. Online courses drove a market for enhanced ancillaries. As online courses became widespread, publishers began providing additional resources to accommodate these courses. This trend resulted in increased costs.
  3. Publishers sought a way to reduce costs. As publishers started to spend more on color textbooks and robust online resources, they sought ways to cut costs. This included moving from full-time, in-house editorial staff and domestic contractors to moving many editorial functions overseas. With greater ability to review page proofs and artwork over email, this was a solution that worked, at least for the publisher.
  4. Technology became the primary product. Publishers raced to develop an online platform that would allow instructors to easily utilize their textbook content in their online courses. Each publisher created their own platform in an effort to gain a competitive edge.
  5. Content became less important than the platform. At some point, the technology that housed the content became of greater value than the content itself.

The result has been increasing textbook costs and, for most of us, declining royalty checks. Since content is no longer king, the author appears to be considered by the publisher more of a content creator than a partner in the publishing process.

Alas, I do not have a solution for these issues; I wish I did. But I do believe it is important to continue to drive conversations about how to make the platforms affordable and the content of the highest quality. I would like to see authors, publishers, government agencies, and foundations come together to tackle these issues in an effort to assure quality content for future generations.