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Digital Textbooks: Publishers and the Unrealized Promise

Students, instructors and institutions aren’t afraid of digital. Publishers are.

Michael Boezi

Editorial by Michael Boezi, Vice President of Content and Community at Flat World Knowledge

Is it any wonder that digital textbooks haven’t been widely embraced yet? Most digital textbooks are just overpriced, static versions of their printed counterparts.

That hasn’t stopped the hype about digital textbooks. On one hand, it’s the promise of a new learning experience, with spinning molecules and interactive modules. On the other, it’s the long-awaited solution to the industry’s painful pricing practices. Maybe even both, if we dare to dream it.

The technology and platforms are available today. So, is it that students prefer printed textbooks? Some do, sure. But those numbers are declining year after year.

My contention is that students have yet to be offered a good product for a good value. A printed book rendered on a computer screen is not what we imagine the Digital Promise to be. The opportunity exists to completely rethink the product.

Why is this not happening?

In a word, protectionism. The legacy publishers will tell you that they can’t make digital textbooks both high quality and affordable, but that’s not the issue. It’s that they don’t want to.

Most digital textbooks are just overpriced, static versions of their printed counterparts.

Most e-textbooks are about half the price of their printed counterparts. The problem is that half doesn’t get you very far. It’s still an expensive book. And — an important distinction — you are not actually buying a book. You are buying temporary access. Many e-textbooks are priced at over $100 for 6 months of digital access.

So, students stick with print. If you are the incumbent, this makes you happy. The broken model gets to carry on for another semester, and you get to say that you are just giving students what they say they want.

Students want to succeed, but they are not getting what they want. Textbook prices are limiting student access to the material they need to do well in their courses. A recent national student survey found that “roughly one out of every three seniors and 1 in 4 freshmen don’t buy required materials because of their price.”

Another survey found that “78% believed they would do worse in class without their own copy of the required text.” These students are at a huge disadvantage, yet they are still choosing not to purchase their core textbook—even when they know that it will negatively affect their grades.

Imagine if students could chose affordable digital products that don’t expire after six months. Their textbook expenses would drop significantly, and they’d have a better shot at succeeding.  Completion rates would go up, which is good for students and instructors, as well as higher ed institutions, whose state funding is getting more closely linked to student success.

It’s not the students who are resisting digital. Aside from the student surveys, here’s another proof point that when you offer students a good product and the power to choose their format and price, they willingly embrace digital.

At Flat World Knowledge (disruptive ed tech company and my employer), for the first time in fall 2012, more students bought digital textbooks than printed books. For now, students won’t find much more than basic ebook functionality, just like the legacy publishers. But they will get affordability (a $19.95 entry point product) and lifetime access to the content they purchase. For $35, students get every digital format offered, including the complete set of digital study supplements.

As for instructors, while most say they want to use more digital content, they don’t want to be the first line of tech support for students who lose their passwords or have trouble navigating, according to a new report (PDF) from O’Donnell Learn, on behalf of Blackboard, the learning management system (LMS) provider.

Presidents, provosts and administrators are paying attention too. This year, we’re having more conversations about licensing our platform and catalog on a per seat basis, or annual full-time equivalent (FTE) student enrollment. The big advantage of the FTE model for the institution or university system is the ability to provide their students with immediate access to the complete catalog for a low annual fee, or to give students free access.

We will see more uptake of digital content when the legacy publishers start to offer a good product at a good value. Students, instructors and institutions aren’t afraid of digital. Publishers are.

DISCUSS: Are Students Entitled to Forego Buying Textbooks Because of Price? 

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  1. Patricia A.
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    A head of a “disruptive” (in the annals of over-abused words that must rank quite high these days, parallel to “legacy”) company whining about the “legacy” publishers that his company wants to replace or has failed to work with. Unheard of.

    What is with digital publishing companies too often complaining and blaming publishers for their own limitatins to get content and succeed? A basic tenet in starting a business is knowing the market and how to work within it. If the basic idea is that your idea is so great that everybody will change their ways to adapt to it and that doesn’t happen, maybe there is a problem with the idea or the approach. A good business model is one that works and gets others to work with it.

    On a side note, most of the innovation re digital publishing has so far came from the so-called “legacy” companies. There are startups with interesting projects that have yet to become successful business. Or not. There also many with multiple iterations of the same ideas, and many talking in conferences and twitter and getting nowhere outside those environments. But the massive disruptions and investments that have made digital mainstream have come from huge, well-established and sometimes monopolistic corporations both in publishing and retail. Whether you call that a disruptive or a traditional business move does not make it less true.

  2. Posted February 22, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    In my classes, I see the need for a digital textbook. But I don’t see the need for flashy graphics, interactive widgets that make things spin and whirl. While these graphics may be nice for chemistry, biology, or physics — learning from the great books and from 2000-year-old content requires only a Kindle. Fact is, much of the learning for a liberal arts degree could be digitized for a Kindle at a $9.99 price point.

  3. NickBangO
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I must admit I agree with Rodger Johnson.

    There is one thing “disruptive companies” are definitely overlooking : editing by design. In other words, they do because it is technically possible, they are not doing because it facilitates (which is the primary goal of any book designer).

    Ebooks and e-textbooks don’t need technicians, they need a new breed of designers. And that is the reason why the enhanced book market has been struggling a little bit those last years. There is a lack of book design, it is all about guys who ring their bells and whistle because it is cool to do this and that. Now, some guys are really genius in this field, but they are on the independent side so nobody cares, especially publishers. Those ones are not about technical possibilities, they are all about the execution of those possibilities. If only people read their articles and listened to their ideas… I’m quite convinced there would not be such discussions.

    Is innovation in ebook what seems logical in digital? I don’t think so. Look at e-magazines, it is so badly designed that you need a tutorial explaining how it works! And now they say people prefer print replicas because their attempt miserably failed. They should know though, and they’ve known it for centuries : the key is editorial design.

  4. Marcelo Izukawa
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    You´re suggesting that the prices go lower.
    But if just 1 out of 4 students are not buying their textbooks, why would the publishing houses reduce their price?
    For example, if they pay $100 for a book, the revenue is $300 (3 out of 4 students are buying). And lets say that we do what you suggest and change the price to $30, cause you said that half the price wasn´t enought. So now, everybody can pay for it and we have a revenue of $120 (4 students are buying $30 books). Was that a good deal for the publisher?

  5. David A
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Content is content. Render it for a device and people will buy if faculty require and any multi-media introduced enhances (reduces time for acquisition of concept?). Whether it is big pubco or start-up; the innovation should focus on packaging, pricing and distribution: my mantra.

  6. Posted February 22, 2013 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    @Rodger, try our text books @bookboon and please let us know what you think!?
    ps @Marcelo, they’re FREE ;)
    pps @Patricia and we’re making money!
    ppps @Michael How’s Boston?

  7. stephen godden
    Posted February 23, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    um… 1 in 4 is 25%. So 78% saying that they will do worse without the course material means 22% don’t agree, which matches up roughly to the number who don’t buy course material.

    I’m not arguing with what you are saying, I think you are right about the protectionist instincts of the pubs, but the figures are a little disingenuous, particularly when you use 2 different methods of notation for them.

    digital textbooks are obviously the future. The ability to update, to link to the source of quotes (for humanities) and to have interactive graphics (for science) all makes them the future. Add in lower prices and removing the need to lug heavy textbooks around and you have a good business model. IMHO

  8. ProfJane
    Posted February 23, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    Great article and comments (other than the shameless promo for bottom-feeding bookboon). The question is whether Flat World will be able to offer the content AND design that match the industry standard. Instructors want quality low-cost BOOKS and hate the add-ons that the publishers peddle. The content of Flat World books seem to compare favorably in my field, but the design is still lacking. (They look like something printed at Kinkos). Access is key, and students will still not do well in class if they can not buy their books at bookstores and online retailers. Best case scenario-Flat World adapts and produces BOOKS that students can buy at the bookstore, not just their own site. This would be a win for Flat World and students, and as soon as Flat World gets serious about BOOKS they will gain adoptions and put major downward pressure on textbook prices.

  9. Legacy
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 3:39 am | Permalink

    This piece might have a little more credibility if it wasn’t for the fact that the ‘disruptive’ model offered by Flatworld hadn’t be disrupted itself. Going from *free* textbooks back to the legacy model of paying for them isn’t exactly innovative!

  10. Posted February 25, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Over the past decade I’ve been building a set of digital-book inventions, a prototype, and a patent portfolio to address some of the authoring, design, and presentation issues opened up by the access to structures and processes not available in the print medium. I see thousands of people laboring in and around this field, and we all have pieces of a vast puzzle that is morphing even as we try to solve it. Flatworld is one of the players in this chaos.

    Right now profit should be the last, not the first, question in our list. Making money from e-pub products in such a fluid state is not possible at this time, simply because there are too many degrees of freedom; once a vendor casts an e-book product with a price tag into the market, another vendor will find a way to better it. The digital evolutions of the software, imaging, and music industries should provide clues for the directions e-pub will have to take. We can learn much from them.

    In the meantime, the innovators charge forward. What will we do with text versus image, or text-with-images? What is happening to reading? My part, as for so many others, is to try everything I can think of. Surprises wait around every corner.

  11. Posted February 25, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    To suggest that publishers are hesitant to go digital, is ill-informed at best, and at worst, manipulative of the facts to drive a business agenda. Although there is evidence that students are more and more gravitating to digital delivery, many faculty report that their students still prefer hard copy. This can vary by course, but I’m not aware of any publisher that wouldn’t gladly give up print as a form of distribution. The lower unit price is not a barrier to publishers when you consider that used books virtually vanish with most forms of digital delivery.

  12. Legacy Redux
    Posted February 25, 2013 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Most of your customers probably choose digital over print because your print is so uncompetitive. Your color books cost $150.

    Offering three digital formats is insignificant; students only need one. One of those options, printing it themselves, will cost them a $60 cartridge.

    An expiring digital book is also insignificant, as most students sell their physical copies back right after the course. Obviously continued access to the material isn’t a concern.

    Comparing your $19.95 book to the publishers’ books is dishonest; yours is read-only on your website vs. their color print copy purchasable anywhere. Your study supplements have proven of little value, as seen in the freemium model.

    The student PIRG survey you link to cites customized books as a disadvantage because students can’t sell them back. Yet customization is what FWK promotes (Real Teachers improve our product for free).

    I’ve got more, but this post is long enough.

  13. Posted February 26, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Thank you, everyone, for all the comments—I posted a follow-up piece on my blog at http://bit.ly/ControlOverChange.

    For more on The Textbook Problem, see my video blog at http://bit.ly/TheTextbookProblem.

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