As we near the end of the decade, textbook authors face a myriad of changes in industry structure and public perception reflected and fueled by the headlines in the news. In her annual textbook report, veteran author June Jamrich Parsons shared some of those headlines and the details behind them with attendees at her 2019 conference session in Philadelphia, PA. Below is a summary of her presentation, including key takeaways about industry profitability, textbook prices, publishing formats, and instructor perceptions.
The 2019 textbook report
The headlinesShifts in platform, potential merger of industry leaders, and news of textbooks becoming obsolete can certainly be concerning sound bites in the news. In the twelve months leading up to Parsons’ presentation at the June 2019 conference, several key headlines, noted below, give cause for concern by textbook authors.
- “Cengage Unlimited achieves significant milestone in just seven months of commercial availability” – one million subscriptions sold
- “Planned merger of Cengage and McGraw-Hill could remake college-textbook market” – taking the McGraw-Hill name, the combined company will have a library of 44,000 textbook titles
- “Wiley to acquire Knewton’s assets, marking an end to an expensive startup journey” – Knewton will integrate into Wiley’s existing Higher Education business
- “Nothing says welcome to college like exorbitant textbook prices: When the cost of a textbook could feed a family of four for a week” – claiming publishers are taking advantage of students’ need to go to college
- “$1 billion in savings through open educational resources” – achieving the challenge issued by SPARC in 2013 to do so by 2018
- “Carnegie Mellon announces release of toolkit to kickstart global revolution in educational effectiveness” – tools, software, and content intended to increase educational effectiveness
- “Bill Gates: Textbooks are becoming obsolete” – thanks to software
- “Shifting focus of publishers signals tough times for textbook authors” – publishers are signing fewer authors and focusing investment in digital courseware
- “The decline of the textbook empire: How easy is it really to publish your own interactive textbook”
Key takeaways about industry profitabilityWith an in-depth exploration of the financial status of major publishers in the textbook market, Parsons shared the following takeaways about industry profitability during her session.
- Profits are down… Authors need to adapt to changes as companies try new strategies
- Mergers and digital conversions may lead to a downsized list of titles and fewer opportunities to author new titles
- As courseware replaces fixed content, authors may have the opportunity to retool as instructional designers
- Read the annual reports produced by your publishing company
Key takeaways about textbook pricesAfter examining the myths of exorbitant annual expenses on course material leading to hunger and homelessness among the student population of today’s colleges and universities, Parsons shared the facts associated with each. Below are the key takeaways from the discussion.
- Students are spending less on course materials than in the past
- Decreased spending is good for students
- As spending decreases, author royalties can also be expected to decrease
- Although textbook pricing may be less than the hype, the PERCEIVED burden affects student purchasing, which will continue to depress the market
- The perception of high textbook pricing promotes OER
Key takeaways about publishing formatsOne of the biggest shifts in the textbook industry is that of publishing format. As noted earlier, more courseware options are replacing the traditional print format of a textbook, so authors may have to rethink what role they play in the authoring of these new materials.
- Despite the fact that some students still prefer printed textbooks, there is a steady increase in digital use and revenue
- Publishers continue to push digital solutions, which are intended to reduce used book sales and rentals for which publishers gain no revenue. This is a good thing for authors who get no royalties from used book sales
- BUT because digital solutions are priced lower than print, and because publishers subtract a “digital royalty allocation” for the platform and ancillaries not created by the author, the digital platform has some disadvantages for authors
Key takeaways about instructorsMuch like authors, instructors are slower than students and publishers to make the transition to the new formats being introduced in the market. However, the disruption created by changes from major publishers is also fueling their curiosity for alternative learning materials, including OER options. Below are the key takeaways shared by Parsons from the instructor perspective.
- Instructors do not yet seem to have a preference for digital, so the advantages of multimedia and interactivity have not been recognized (as hoped by publishers)
- Instructors are generally satisfied with the content of textbooks, but not with test banks
- Instructors use textbooks flexibly – something to keep in mind when authoring
- Instructors are increasingly enthusiastic about OER as long as quality is high and they have control over selection
- Some faculty are concerned that OER might create a two-tiered system that could harm lower-income students