Pearson Launches Digital-First Textbook Strategy

From Copyright and Technology:

Pearson, the world’s largest educational publisher, announced on Tuesday that it is transitioning to a digital-first model for textbook publishing, moving away from the print-edition-based model that has been the foundation of higher education publishing for centuries. In its press release, the company announced that it will move almost all of its 1500 U.S. textbook titles to continuously-updated digital-first content and will only make print textbooks available on a rental basis.

This is a major turning point in higher ed publishing. Pearson’s move contrasts with that of its rival Cengage, which launched a subscription model called Cengage Unlimited last year. Whereas Cengage is offering access to all e-textbooks from its catalog to students at a rate of $120 per semester or $180 per year, Pearson is renting them individually for an average price of $40. Both Pearson and Cengage will make print textbooks available as rentals only. The e-textbook rental model has been around for several years through providers such as eFollett and VitalSource (formerly CourseSmart, a joint venture of Pearson and other higher ed publishers).

. . . .

Yet the switch to digital-first has a whole host of implications beyond student access or pricing models that indicate how big a deal this is. Higher ed publishers have been talking about going digital-first for many years, and there are several reasons why none of them — at least none of the major publishers — have done it until now.

First are all the implications of moving from one edition at a time to a program of continuous updates for digital textbooks. This requires major changes to editorial processes and technologies, and it requires that textbook authors — typically full-time faculty members at universities — commit to continuous updates to their material rather than committing only to one edition of a book at a time. Pearson has been putting in place the editorial infrastructure and processes required to do this for several years now and has been leading the way in setting standards for online educational content such as EDUPUB.

Then there are all the rights clearance challenges. Textbook publishers typically license thousands of items of content for use in each of their textbooks — illustrations, photographs, quotations, tables, etc. — and do so for discrete editions of those textbooks. In many cases, those rights have to be re-cleared for continuously-updated digital textbooks.

. . . .

The impetus for Pearson’s announcement is very simple: higher ed publishing is (finally?) in enough pain to make these disruptive transitions necessary. Publishers have been competing with a combination of used textbooks, third-party textbook rental services such as Chegg, and course instructors using online materials that are free and potentially more up-to-date than material that had to be committed to print-oriented textbooks months or years in advance.

Publishers’ strategy in coping with these forces over the past several years has been to keep raising textbook prices. But as prices go further and further into the stratosphere and backlash increases, that strategy has become self-defeating; Pearson’s revenues are expected to fall up to 5% in the U.S. this year.

. . . .

The other important implication of digital-first is that it can enable publishers to build their own distribution channels to students, bypassing college bookstores as well as third party distributors like Chegg and MBS Direct. The first evidence of this happening for e-textbooks was in 2014, when the four major publishers involved in the CourseSmart joint venture sold it off to VitalSource, a unit of the publishing services giant Ingram Content Group. The deal involved moving CourseSmart e-textbooks to VitalSource’s platform, and the publishers decided not to make all of their titles available on a platform they didn’t own. More recently, Pearson and McGraw-Hill have been working towards distribution channel control for print textbooks through something called consignment rentals. And certainly Cengage Unlimited is a further move towards distribution channel control by publishers.

It seems likely that Pearson will insist that students engage with its own service to obtain their course materials as part of its digital-first strategy.

Link to the rest at Copyright and Technology

PG says this is entirely about money – killing the used textbook market once and for all plus taking all the markup generated by sales of new and used titles from college bookstore and redirecting that money to the publisher.

PG hopes college and university departments are motivated to create their own course materials and distribute those to their students at a reasonable price. This could benefit individual professors with an additional income stream and help the students avoid piling on more and more student loans to acquire textbooks they won’t be able to keep or sell after the class ends at exorbitant prices.

15 thoughts on “Pearson Launches Digital-First Textbook Strategy”

  1. My daughter is currently at college here in New Zealand, and she’s doing four papers this semester. One has the option of an ebook for the textbook –

    $160 paper book
    $120 ebook
    $60 six-month ebook licence

    It’s that last one that annoys me and convinces me it’s all about the money (especially as we all know any ebook is a licence only). And it’s not as though the ebook will be more up-to-date than the paper version – they’ll have to have the same information.

    • It’s all about it not being able to be resold, every student will have to buy a new copy every year.

      It’s just a license to print money.

    • It sounds like a standard strategy all over the world, Iola.

      I haven’t seen a publishing agreement between a college professor and a large textbook publisher in a very long time, but I doubt the authors of those textbooks are receiving much more money from them than they were twenty years ago.

    • In which case some teachers like me are going to have to pay out of our own pockets for making print student copies for those students who do not have internet access, or who are not allowed on the ‘Net, or who have reading problems that make hard-copy texts a necessity. (I teach dual credit.)

      There are some advantages with e-textbooks, but a hard-copy option is critical for some of us.

  2. I predict an upswing in DRM cracking and pirate sites.

    The thing is, in the vast majority of subjects, the student does not need the “latest and greatest” information until they hit grad school. A thirty year old textbook* and a couple of printouts from the internet, and you have the same thing.

    Even in grad school – if you really need the latest thing, you see if your university library has a journal subscription, and feed the copy machine; you don’t even crack open the textbook.

    * I didn’t pick “thirty years” out from between my hat and the bald head. When my daughters took art history in college, they had the same textbook as I did in college in the early 1980s, just a dozen or so “editions” later. When I compared them to my textbook that I had kept, there were a grand total of three new pages at the end for developments in art between the old book and the latest. I didn’t do a page by page comparison for the rest of it – but a couple of dozen random samples turned up zero differences between the editions. (My book was far better, though – it was a large format hardback, not a trade sized paperback. The study of art is one thing where the quality and size of the photographs make a huge difference.)

    • I agree with your forecast, WO.

      I’m thinking of textbooks about Shakespeare’s tragedies or the poetry of the English Romantic Era. Not much new in that field that would be of any interest to an undergraduate.

  3. While doing graduate work I had classes in surveying, blasting, geo chemistry and some advanced math.

    The instructors said to find generic books on the subjects for background and then passed out assignments.

    Most schoolwork is generic in nature and there are numerous books that cover the subjects.

    I saw this approach in many of the STEM classes. I can’t speak for the other areas but I suspect classes on writing, English, psychology, etc. would do OK Using this method.

    Alternatively, one enterprising student did an inter-library loan, scanned the book, and sold an e-version for $20.

    Illegal, yes, but few students could afford $195 for a book to be used in one class.

    • Some STEM areas are developing so fast that a decent text book probably cannot be found. Indeed, for something like computer security you’ll probably be lucky to find a lecturer who is up to date.

      However, in many other areas – most of mathematics for example – it’s absolutely fine, and probably much cheaper for the students, to use books first published 50 or 60 year ago. The only real problem will be that for a popular book solutions to the exercises will be floating around on the web so won’t provide an easy way to set your students problems. Choosing an old book also has the advantage that new editions will not have been put out every other year in an attempt to kill the used book market (or if an old book has recently suffered this fate you can always specify 1st edition).

  4. I’m currently using OpenStax for the intro electricity and magnetism class I’m teaching. The text is a little advanced for the level of the course, but it is available in a free download. Students also have the option to purchase a print copy; I don’t know what the price is.

    The problem I have with the Cengage subscription service is that they are pressuring university administrations to make them the exclusive textbook provider for their campuses. This will take academic freedom away from faculty, because if they prefer a text from a different publisher, they won’t be able to use it. I very strongly think that the person teaching the course should have final say in what text is used.

    Finally, I am not a fan of the rental-only model of print textbooks. I kept all my textbooks that were related to my major so I would have them as references. It doesn’t look like this is an option if a student wants a print text.

    • Sounds great.

      I haven’t checked it out, but wonder if a professor can include her/his own comments, annotations, etc., in the OpenStax textbooks for the class.

    • With a little dedicated effort with a scanner/copier you can not only keep a copy of the rented print book for future reference but can give copies to the rest of the people on your course. Not legal of course but I bet it’s not at all uncommon.

      No administrator who cared about education would agree to a sole supplier. I presume though that caring about education is not actually a requirement for an administrator.

      • Not only is caring about education not a requirement for a college administrator, there are times when I suspect that it is considered a disqualifier.

  5. When I was going through my arts masters and undergrad (*cough* before ebooks were a thing *cough*), the lecturers created their own textbooks from four-dozen or so published texts. They had within-fair-use-amounts of each text scanned, combined into a single PDF sorted by week, and put up on the student portal for us to download and take to the printers. Each semester, my entire set of textbooks cost me $50 total. They knew how broke their students were, I always really appreciated the effort they went to for us.

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