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studentPearson, one of the world’s largest publishers of textbooks, recently announced that it is moving to a digital-first publishing strategy for its college textbooks distributed in the U.S. The move to digital is in response to five years of decreasing sales due to an increasing number of students opting to buy used textbooks to save money. Will other textbook publishers follow suit, or are the challenges of going digital enough to outweigh the decision for a digital-first strategy?

Changes and challenges in higher education textbook publishing

College students over the last 100 years or so have had to undergo a painful rite of passage at the beginning of each semester ― purchasing their textbooks. New college textbooks are expensive, which opened up the used textbook market. That was good for students and college bookstores, which get a higher ROI on used books, and more recently, online marketplaces, such as Amazon and eBay, have made it easy for students to find used textbooks. But a strong used textbook market takes a big bite out of profits for textbook publishers. Plus, many teachers are using open educational resources (OER) and other free online materials in lieu of books. With the growing challenges in the higher education textbook market, publishers are turning to other strategies, such as digital courseware and electronic textbooks. Pearson is one of those publishers and will soon begin a digital-first textbook strategy as a way to offer students an alternative to expensive print books.

Pearson’s implementation of digital first

New print textbooks typically cost students from $100 to $300 each. Because electronic textbooks are less expensive to produce, store, and ship, Pearson is able to offer a digital book for around $40, which is competitive with the average used print textbook price. Print titles will still be available, but only as rentals.

In addition to focusing on publishing digital textbooks, Pearson will make all future updates of its 1,500 U.S. titles “digital first.” Digital updates will be released whenever there are significant developments in the field. In traditional textbook publishing, books are updated and reprinted (at a high cost) every two to three years.

digital textbooks

Pros, cons, and the future of digital-first textbooks

Digital publishing cost savings allow publishers to price new textbooks competitively and make up for some of the lost revenues in print textbooks. But there are other benefits of a digital-first strategy:

  • Digital publishing offers many opportunities for enhancing textbooks with audio, video, interactive graphics, and desktop simulations
  • Digital books have a search function
  • Multiple electronic textbooks are easily accessed from one device
  • Updates and new versions can be released quicker

However, digital textbooks also have their disadvantages:

  • Students prefer print
  • Research shows print is better for learning and retention
  • E-textbooks have no resale value
  • Staring at a screen can cause eyestrain and headaches
  • Editorial teams must learn a whole new way of thinking, creating content, and implementing workflows in order to transition to digital first

The switch to digital textbook publishing is likely to grow extensively over the next few years, and it’s important to stay current with trends and technologies so you can be ready when the time is right. But is going completely digital in one fell swoop the way to go? Will preferences for print hurt digital textbooks? Will OER make digital textbook production obsolete?

It’s important to begin looking forward to the future and creating your own digital publishing strategy.

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