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Textbooks: A Market Begging for Change

Textbooks Every day brings more news about the book industry's ongoing evolution.  Whether it's a shiny new e-reader, a recently-opened e-storefront or some other development, it's clear some experimentation is taking place...maybe not as much as you'd expect, but there's some happening nonetheless.

One area where experimentation efforts should be ramped up significantly is the textbook market.  Seth Godin wrote his own rant about this over the weekend and I think he makes a number of excellent points.  College students are some of the most clever, resourceful and imaginative people on the planet.  They're no more tired of getting hosed by overpriced textbooks than their parents, but they're fortunate enough to be in college at a time when e-alternatives are all around.

The problem here isn't that the customers are not willing to try new alternatives to the tired old textbook.  No, the real problem is with the system itself.  Publishers, schools, authors (which oftentimes means "professors") and campus bookstores all have plenty at stake and have enjoyed the current model for far too long.  It's yet another case of The Innovator's Dilemma.  You'd think it would be an excellent opportunity for an upstart to come in and completely obliterate the system, sort of like what Craigslist did to the newspaper industry.

Kudos to efforts like what Governor Schwarzenegger is trying to do in California.  Then there all the open textbook programs that have been sprouting up.  All well and good but I'm not sure any of this will have a material impact on the current model.  Something bigger has to take place first.  Maybe it will come from several states joining forces and saying "enough is enough!", but California probably won't influence market-wide change on its own.

On a related note, for-profit schools like ITT and Devry are growing in popularity, partially because of the better value they offer compared to the traditional four-year institutions. As a publisher I've found these schools to be very open-minded about choosing the best course materials.  If the pendulum continues to swing in their direction maybe this is where the new model will arise.  They'd be wise to follow the "chapterettes" model Godin describes towards the end of his rant.


Michael Miller

This is the one area where I think the Kindle or something similar makes sense. With one stepdaughter in college and a stepson a few years away, I'm well aware of how the costs of textbooks have risen. (And as the author of one textbook, I'm also well aware of the Byzantine method for producing the damned things.) Whether it's an e-book on a Kindle or Sony Reader, or read on a notebook PC or iPhone, the idea of making these things more disposable and less expensive is long due. The problem is that the people who pay for it (parents) aren't the ones who make the decisions (teachers). What benefit is there for the teacher to decide on a different delivery method? Unfortunately, this is the one odd market the ultimate consumer has no choice in the matter, so normal market forces don't seem to apply.


As a college student who wouldn't be able to achieve her dreams without the generosity offered by scholarships and grants, I agree with Sherman Alexie's view on the Kindle. As if it wasn't hard enough to keep up with the changing technology of cell phones, computers, etc, now my precious books are moving out of my grasp. I pay for my own textbooks, as well as my other expenses, and I can't afford to shell out $300+ for a reader, then keep paying to download textbooks with DRM so that I can't lend them or sell them later. The Kindle will NOT solve the broken textbook market, it will only make it worse.

Joe Wikert

Kt, Whether it's the Kindle or some other device, an e-reader could actually have a tremendous impact on the textbook industry. You need to keep in mind the *total* cost of ownership though. Think of all the hundreds of dollars a typical student spends every semester on textbooks. Now think of an e-book model where yes, the device costs $200-$300, but the textbooks drop to a much more reasonable price.

Sure, as long as textbook publishers think they can and should charge the same outrageous price for e-textbooks as print ones this will never work. My hope is that this thinking will change though. Others have pointed out it may be time to flip the model on its head. Rather than charging for textbooks and giving away ancillary materials, what about giving away the textbooks (or charging very little for them) and charging instead for ancillaries, ones that are *designed* with an e-reader in mind? Now that's where things could get interesting!

ZLS Publishing-Albany's #1 Publishing Company

I think that textbooks going online is an interesting concept and a creative idea. I also think that it is a testament to where the world of book publishing and readership is going. There are people who will always love the hardcover product of a book but as technology is showing, there are people who want the convenience of reading it digitally.
I hear the complaints about the cost of a Kindle of downloading the book, but when you look at the overall cost of each book, downloading books seem to be much cheaper overall than buying each book. I can't wait to see where this argument to continue to go.

Amil Tolia

Hi - I am writing as someone who has used and spent many ££ on textbooks in the past, and one area where there is a marked need in the UK, is a focus on the specific nature of one's interaction with the textbook and also the specificity of one's spend.
At the new business I am starting, Reference Tree, ( we are aiming to work alongside publishers and lecturers to support the overall student learning process whilst enabling the student to have the best possible education at the lowest possible cost. We will be launching in the UK in early 2010.

Please see for an outline of what we are going to be bringing to the party!

Best Wishes


Jason Wilson


Just read the post. I don't think all textbook publishers are opposed to the idea of going electronic, particularly if going electronic means the end of the secondary print book market (and useful margin notes too unfortunately). As a publisher, I can now sell a copy of the text book each semester or school year to a new batch of kids. And I suspect DRM will creep into this to give the publisher the ability to control the downstream. Perhaps this will encourage them to take on projects previously rejected because the margins would have been too small.

Honestly though, I don't see Kindle/Sony/iRex or any other one trick pony device dominating the education market. There's too much being written and discussed right now about imaginative intelligence and immersion for e-ink devices to work in education. I was visiting one of my author's classes last year, and every student in his class had a laptop. I think it was then that I really began to realize that electronic textbooks (casebooks for my profession) will be web-based for at least two reasons: (1) why spend time creating books for a device you have to convince students to purchase when they already have one?, and (2) you can develop a more robust ecosystem for textbooks online than you can as standalone ebooks.


The "total cost of ownership" for students who opt for a rental option (via or similar sites) or who sell their text at the conclusion of the course to someone else via any number of peer-to-peer marketplaces (and thus essentially 'rent' the text) is not as high as you might think, and only marginally higher than the price of the ebook options. It would take nearly the full four years of a college student's education for the cost of a Kindle to be recouped with ebook savings. This isn't because ebooks are "too expensive"--they're typically offered at a price that's 50% or less of the print text. It's because total 'rental cost' of a traditional textbook, whether you actually rent it or sell it back and thus effectively rent it, is a pretty good deal. That's not to say that ebook platforms don't have the potential to change the game. But the efficiencies that companies such as Chegg are adding to the traditional textbook distribution model seem to me to be the more important short-term development, and the one that students themselves seem to be paying more attention to.


Textbooks should be free. There is way too much going on about DRM, licenses, "illegal" downloads, etc. - even Microsoft understood that and hands out their software for free.

The majority of the books out there are not even good enough. There is no rating, no overview, you don't even know if the guy publishing or authoring it knows what he's doing. Too many editions, corrections, etc. - it's time for the old textbook market to vanish, period. Either a professor has something to say, or he does not. If he does, let him write it down, the students are paying his salary anyway, and give it to his students. If the professor cannot write a book or manuscript outlining the basics of his class, and instead has to force his students to go out and buy an overpriced, overvalued, error-prone and essentially (after one semester) worthless stack of dead trees, he is in the wrong job. Maybe research only would be better for him, then. This, of course, would have to imply that the Universities need to start paying their professors through the summer also, when they actually have time to write all that stuff down.

Andrew Lee

The UK textbook is being shook up by the introduction of different methods of acquiring textbooks rather than just simply buying them. There are book auction sites, book swapping sites and websites such as that offer a textbook rental service. These new forms of competition make textbooks cheaper for students and are helping to stop the overpriced textbook providers of the past. After all, not every student can afford a Kindle!


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