The Future of Books & Reading: Part 1—Textbooks

by | Jul 3, 2015 | 0 comments

Nancy Hertherby Nancy K. Herther

The textbook market faces a myriad of challenges as it faces the future—from technology, industry consolidation, government mandates, and new marketplace realities. “The average U.S. college student spends $500 to $1,500 annually on course materials. This creates a nearly $10 billion industry, of which about $6 billion is addressable for textbook publishers,” a recent McKinsey study notes. “Our research suggests that textbook rentals will start to cannibalize new-textbook sales by 2017, resulting in a reduction in new-book sales of 5 to 10 percent by 2020. That equates to as much as $500 million in lost sales. Textbook publishers face crucial choices about how to respond to these changing competitive and marketplace demands. Yet they can fight back—and dramatically improve how they support student learning.” Even in the K-12 marketplace, change is unsettling the marketplace as institutions and schools alike sample new ways to present content to enhance learning and establish a foothold in the future of this huge market segment.


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Publishers Move to Embrace Technology

Textbook markets are being disrupted by a variety of forces, most of which are due to the rise of the internet and digitization. As the web has displaced many other forms of information and reading, we have seen major declines in some of the supportive structures for book distribution. In 1990, there were an estimated 10,000 bookstores in the U.S., while today that number is closer to 3,000. Publishers have found ways to use new technologies to enhance their offerings through custom-textbook options that “are less affected by the used and rental markets because course materials are ‘localized’ for specific professors and courses. And, because custom-publishing materials are typically updated more frequently than standard textbooks, the publication cycle is shorter. Custom publishing currently accounts for up to 40 percent of units sold by several major publishers,” McKinsey reports.

A larger trend is the integration of computer-based assets into their offerings, especially at the K-12 level. “Early evidence suggests these digital tools can improve educational outcomes,” McKinsey’s research finds. “Dropout rates fell to 14 percent from 31 percent after adaptive digital tutorials were introduced in a first-year engineering-mechanics course at Australia’s University of New South Wales. Similar tutorials have helped boost pass rates in other entry-level courses by an average of 18 percent at Arizona State University, the University of Alabama, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, according to data that we compiled from university websites, Knewton, and Smart Sparrow.”

After years of consolidation amongst college textbook publishers, today the ‘Big Five’—Cengage, McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Worth, and Wiley—are estimated to have more than 90% of the new textbook market. This monopoly hasn’t guaranteed the companies future success. In 2013, textbook giant Pearson faced falling earnings with an aggressive restructuring plan that focused on digital services and emerging markets. They have successfully found new options that address both the cost issue and the need to integrate texts with other learning objects and assessment features. Their $225 million investment in digital services and emerging market opportunities has clearly paid off. Pearson’s MyLab & Mastering learning platform is used today by 11 million learners each year, and digital products now account for more than 50%  of their sales—meaning that in two years the company has transformed to selling more digital than print materials.

Pearson recently released their REVEL, “an immersive learning experience that enlivens familiar and respected course content with media interactives and assessments. Designed for the way today’s students read, think, and learn, REVEL empowers educators to increase engagement in the course, to better connect with students, and to break through to learning reimagined.” REVEL integrates traditional text, interactive exercises, infographics, social features, and video segments and allows for usage on a variety of platforms, including mobile devices. For faculty, features include systems to track the time students spend on each reading assignment as well as their performance on learning assessments.

Pearson may be the ‘textbook’ example of reinvention; however, it clearly isn’t alone. CourseSmart began as a consortium of five major academic publishers—Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill Education, John Wiley & Sons and Macmillan Higher Education—to create a single, common interface for their electronic text offerings. Although lean (with fewer than 200 employees), CourseSmart provided the core interface for an estimated 90% of the etextbook marketplace by 2014 when the company was sold to Ingram, in what was called an action that “unites the two largest players” in the digital textbook market.

TechCrunch notes that these moves signal a major shift for the traditional textbook arena: “While publishers and digital distributors have struggled to eek out a living, there could be big opportunity (and big dollars) for the company or companies that own the mindshare when it comes to the next generation of these modular, personalized, ‘post’ textbooks.”

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Average number of textbooks students buy (Click to enlarge)

Open Access Challenges Traditional Publishing

In a February 2015 report titled Open Textbooks: The Billion-Dollar Solution, from the Student PIRGS, Ethan Senack notes that “unfortunately, even the proliferation of cost-saving options like used books, textbook rental programs, and etextbooks is not enough to solve the problem. Publishers undermine these markets by releasing new editions, bundling in single-use pass codes, or including use restrictions. Even more problematic, the price of these textbook options is still determined by the price of a new, printed textbook,” he notes. Etextbooks, digitized alternatives to printed texts that students read on a laptop or tablet, similar to PDF documents, enable students to annotate, highlight, and search. The cost is 40-50 percent of the print retail price, and access expires after 180 days.”

“The root of the problem comes from two flaws within the textbook market,” Senack reports. “First, just five textbook publishers control more than 90% of the $8.8 billion market. As a result, these companies are protected from serious market competition. At the same time, traditional textbook publisher benefit from a fundamental market flaw in the college textbook market. Unlike a typical market, there is no direct interaction between the producer and the consumer. In the textbook market, this consumer control is eliminated by the fact that the professor, not the student/consumer selects the product, and the student/consumer actually expends the money. Because of this, the student is a captive market, and traditional publishers are able to drive continually prices higher without fear of market repercussion.”

Commercial etextbooks use this same model. However, this model of sales, etextbooks, like print textbooks, “come with page printing limits, device use limits, expiration dates that are placed part of the way through a semester, and they have no resale value,” Senack notes. Today’s technologies offer the potential for sharing a single text with a virtually unlimited number of people at virtually no cost. The open textbook movement is allowing for far more innovation than possible by the traditional for-profit publishers.

“One thing is clear,” continues Senack, “the current textbook market does not deliver the educational opportunity it can and should…If every student had just one of their traditional textbooks replaced with OER or an open textbook, it would save students in this country more than $1 billion dollars annually.”

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Increases in New College Textbook Prices by Percentage, 2002-2012 (Click to enlarge)

Higher education is a much more complex market than K-12. As more technological options arise, each institution decides the best mix of options and models that best fit their needs. Critics of the current marketplace see the digital revolution as the perfect opportunity to take control of learning materials back in order to better serve the interests and needs of both students and the academy. We are still at the early stages of the development of these resources—and in no way using even today’s available technologies and software options to their full potential. President Obama, the U.S. Department of Education, and the FCC have led the governmental push in the direction of technological options based on cost issues. Many universities and state governments, such as the University of Minnesota, Florida’s Orange Grove, and Textbook Equity, have taken the lead—developing texts and finding innovative ways to engage faculty and encourage the development as well as the adoption of open textbooks; and their  successes are sure to drive increased adoption of these resources.

The nonprofit Digital Promise finds greater challenges ahead for the K-12 marketplace, especially due to procurement realities, especially noting “inefficiencies in the process and a disconnect between schools and providers.” In their report, Improving Ed-Tech Purchasing, they find that “there are more than 14,000 school district ‘consumers’ in the U.S., each with unique needs and procedures. And there is a growing and overwhelming number of products in the market, with a lack of trusted information about which are most effective. Current purchasing practices were designed for print-based resources, not modern technology. The result is that at times, teachers and students don’t end up with the best learning technology tools to meet their needs.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance released a report last October in which they estimated that the high cost of college prevented 2.4 million low and middle-income college-qualified high school graduates  from completing college in the past decade. A 2011 study at Daytona State College found that many who tried etextbooks as an alternative to print saved only one dollar, compared to purchasing traditional printed material. Clearly the system is broken and new options are needed.

As Terrance Ross noted in a recent Atlantic article: “Ultimately, these digitized materials are somewhat of a paradox. They are standardized at the top—the programs are aligned with the Common Core and rely on big data—but personalized underneath, customized around each student according to what the software gleans from assessments. This shift also means that kids are spending more time than ever looking at screens, which could be physically and cognitively detrimental in the long run. The American Academy of Pediatrics, at least for now, recommends that kids spend no longer than two hours a day looking at digital devices. The shift is also taking a toll on the frequency that children engage in handwritten work, which reports have shown is far more beneficial than taking notes on a laptop. And these changes could be disregarding how kids want to learn. Recent studies suggest that ‘digital natives’ still prefer reading in print.”


Back to the BasicsReading is Fundamental in any Format

Indeed, the printed page still has many advantages for students and readers in general. Naomi S. Baron is Professor of Linguistics and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching, Research & Learning at American University in Washington, D.C. Earlier this year Oxford University Press published her latest work on reading, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, which the Wall Street Journal called “an engaging history of reading as well as a provocative argument about its future.” She found fundamental issues underlying the print versus onscreen versions of text. The book reports on research that Baron and her colleagues completed across the globe, surveying over 300 college students finding a 92% preference for print, especially for serious reading that requires concentration. This type of research evidence—as well as ongoing preference of many for print—speaks to a future that will not see the demise of the printed page but a much more complex, nuanced variety of formats and options that will allow for a more varied set of choices to better meet the needs than the traditional one-size-fits-all model.

However, finding the best balance, best practices, and successful applications to support learning in both K-12 as well as in higher education has yet to be found; however in the past ten years, we have seen these complex markets grow and develop rapidly from both commercial and not-for-profit sources.

As Baron notes (page xv), “we need to dig beneath the hype on both sides of the discussion if we want to understand how technology is affecting the way we read, for good or for ill.” Clearly we still have much to learn and further to go before we understand the technological transitions and how much—and in what ways—they can change, challenge and enhance reading and learning. Until there is consensus, we will continue to see a fractured and confused marketplace.

Some Key Electronic Open Access Text Resources


  • American Institute of Mathematics (AIM). Open Textbook InitiativeBased on criteria established by the association’s editorial board, this repository of 34 ebooks continues to grow meeting their goal “to encourage the adoption of open source and open access mathematics textbooks.”


  • Association for Learning Technology. Open Access Repository“The ALT Open Access Repository was developed as part of the wALTer project in conjunction with the establishment of the Online Learning Knowledge Garden by project partners Cranfield University…This project aims to provide a resource base and supporting technologies to ensure effective support for e-learning professionals. It builds on a number of existing resources, bodies of knowledge and expertise, technologies and professional frameworks and provides the first stage in a planned evolution path for a growing sustainable resource base.”


  • Bookboon.comEstablished in 1988 in Denmark, this company “made a strategic leap and became the world’s first online book publisher to provide free textbooks for students,” and now claims to be “the world’s largest ebook publisher… [offering] a wide range of over 900 textbooks for students and 600 ebooks for business professionals in 7 languages.” Books downloadable in PDF format or, for a fee other options are available.


  • California Digital Open Source Library. “The California Digital Open Source Library (CDOSL) is being designed so faculty can easily find, adopt, utilize, and/or modify OER course materials for little or no cost. The COOL4Ed (California Open Online Library for Education, is the first library service of the CDOSL, and we anticipate that additional websites will be designed for specific purposes and different stakeholders.”


  • Directory of Open Access Repositories—OpenDOAR“OpenDOAR is an authoritative directory of academic open access repositories. Each OpenDOAR repository has been visited by project staff to check the information that is recorded here. This in-depth approach does not rely on automated analysis and gives a quality-controlled list of repositories.” The searchable database currently includes more than 2,600 listings.


  • Federal Resources for Educational Excellence (FREE). Maintained by the Office of Communications and Outreach and the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education in partnership with the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative, this beta site provides “an open database for sharing digital learning resources” based on a WordPress platform covering a broad range of topics, disciples and material types in support of education. Currently the site contains supportive materials rather than course-level books.


  • Flat World Knowledge. A commercial publisher of openly-licensed college textbooks that actively uses an online platform that allows instructors and institutions to personalize content and provides affordable college textbooks for students.


  • iLumina“A digital library of sharable undergraduate teaching materials for chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, and computer science,” including everything from learning objects to more complete course-level materials.


  • The Learning Exchange. Another collection of information sheets, official publications, interactive learning resources, video clips, case studies, podcasts and radio broadcasts from the British Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services focused on the social sciences.


  • Maryland Open Source Textbook (MOST) Initiative. MOST was created to “facilitate faculty efforts to explore the promise of freely available, open source instructional materials to reduce students’ cost of attendance while maintaining, or perhaps even improving learning outcomes.”


  • MERLOT IIMERLOT—Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching—a program of the California State University System in partnership with education institutions, professional societies, and industry, includes one of the most comprehensive listings of currently available educational ebooks available.


  • MIT Open Courseware“A web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content. OCW is open and available to the world and is a permanent MIT activity” including information from more than 2,260 courses at MIT or other major institutions.


  • National Science Digital Library“Serving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education….provides high quality online educational resources for teaching and learning, with current emphasis on the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.” The site consists of “structured descriptive information (metadata) about web-based educational resources held on other sites by their providers. These providers have contribute this metadata to NSDL for organized search and open access to educational resources via this website and its services.”


  • North Carolina Learning Object Repository (NCLOR). “Managed by the North Carolina Community College  System (NCCCS) but is a collaborative effort between the NCCCS , University System of North Carolina , NC Department of Public Instruction, NC Virtual Public Schools, and Independent Colleges and Universities…collects documents, audio/video clips, simulations, learning modules, assessments, and more—virtually any type of learning resource that can be digitized and processed.”


  • OER CommonsThis Open Educational Resources site “curating best in class learning materials from around the world since 2007,” including individual educational objects to “full university courses, complete with readings, videos of lectures, homework assignments, and lecture notes.”


  • Open Course Library (Washington State). “A collection of high quality, free-to-use courses that you can download and use for teaching. All content is stored in Google docs making it easy to access, browse and download.”


  • Open Textbook Library. A project of the University of Minnesota and partners to create a review source for open textbooks organized into a searchable database “to help instructors find affordable, quality textbook solutions.  All textbooks in this library are complete and openly licensed.”


  • OpenStaxOpenStax (then called Connexions) was founded in 1999 at Rice University “to provide authors and learners with an open space where they can share and freely adapt educational materials such as courses, books, and reports. Today, OpenStax CNX is a dynamic non-profit digital ecosystem serving millions of users per month in the delivery of educational content to improve learning outcomes. There are tens of thousands of learning objects, called pages, that are organized into thousands of textbook-style books in a host of disciplines, all easily accessible online and downloadable to almost any device, anywhere, anytime.”


  • Resource RepositorySponsored by the Genetic Alliance, this site is intended as “a digital commons for the global health community. This electronic collection of documents, links, audio, and video files, relies on contributions from the community in topic areas such as newborn screening, family health history, genetic testing, reimbursement, research, drug development, community engagement, and organizational development.”



Nancy Herther is librarian for American Studies, Anthropology, Asian American Studies & Sociology at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

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