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PostSubject: The Radical Transformation of the Textbook   The Radical Transformation of the Textbook Icon_minitimeMon Aug 05, 2019 9:36 pm

For several decades, textbook publishers followed the same basic model: Pitch a hefty tome of knowledge to faculty for inclusion in lesson plans; charge students an equally hefty sum; revise and update its content as needed every few years. Repeat. But the last several years have seen a shift at colleges and universities—one that has more recently turned tectonic.

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In a way, the evolution of the textbook has mirrored that in every other industry. Ownership has given way to rentals, and analog to digital. Within the broad strokes of that transition, though, lie divergent ideas about not just what learning should look like in the 21st century but how affordable to make it.
Let’s Get Digital

Pearson is one of the biggest publishers of educational books in the world, with a roster of 1,500 textbooks in the US market. Last month, it announced that going forward it would adopt a “digital first” strategy. It’ll still produce physical textbooks, but students will rent by default with the option to buy after the rental period ends.

“Our job is to provide the very best content with the very best learning outcomes at the very best prices for students that we can,” says Pearson CEO John Fallon. “This model enables us to do that.”

It also enables Pearson to staunch the bleeding caused by an explosion in the second-hand market. A company called Chegg launched the first major online textbook rental service in 2007; Amazon followed suit in 2012. Both advertise savings of up to 90 percent off the sticker price. And that’s just two examples. In fact, the market has spent the last decade in something of an unvirtuous circle. As students flock to more affordable options, textbook prices have skyrocketed to make up for the lost revenue. The price of textbooks has increased 183 percent over the last 20 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Students started to reject the expensive textbooks. What they did, since they had no other choice, was find ways to save money on textbooks,” says Michael Hansen, CEO of educational publisher Cengage. “The volumes of textbooks publishers were selling declined rapidly for years. However, they always had this magical price lever. They could always just increase the prices, so their revenue looked relatively stable.”

The major publishers are publicly traded companies, under pressure to demonstrate constant growth. Pearson’s digital-first strategy is a significant step toward a more sustainable business model. Under the new system, ebooks will cost an average of $40. Those who prefer actual paper can pay $60 for the privilege of a rental, with the option to purchase the book at the end of the term. The price of a new print textbook can easily reach into the hundreds of dollars; under digital-first, students have to actively want to pay that much after a course is already over, making it an unlikely option for most.

The benefits to Pearson are self-evident. More than half of its revenue comes from digital already; this move accelerates that transition, while providing substantial savings in printing overhead. It also helps nudge faculty toward using Pearson’s digital platforms, which for $79 offer an array of ancillary features like homework plans and assessment tools along with access to the book.
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