Cengage CEO Ron Dunn on Re-imagining Information Portals and TXTBKS

In Feature Articles by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

Cengage CEO Ron Dunn

Last year, when Thomson sold off its education division, a new brand was born—Cengage Learning.  Cengage still retains many of the core characteristics that made Thomson Learning such a juggernaut—focusing on providing textbooks and education materials to schools, universities, and professional organizations—but the company has also been forced to re-imagine itself for the future. It is, by itself, significant enough to come in at #13 in the 2009 ranking of the world’s largest publishing companies, while Thomson, now ThomsonReuters, sits at #3. Among the major projects in place, says Cengage CEO and President Ron Dunn, is the launch of new “digital portals” which are marketed to university and public libraries, as well as a re-imagining of the textbook, with a new imprint, dubbed 4LTR.

Though the very word “portal” seems retrograde—”portals” such as those from Yahoo and America Online were all the rage in 1999—Dunn says Cengage’s product may “very well be the first of its kind to truly deserve the name.”

Cengage’s “portals” represent a package of proprietary and licensed print, video and digital materials addressing a specific topic of current interest. The stream of information is then updated four times per day by Cengage editors.

“Originally, the portals were designed for high school students, but it’s already found application in Higher Ed,” said Dunn.

Among the first to launch was a portal called “Global Issues in Context,” which went live in December 2008 and focused on the economy, environment, and regional conflicts. A second portal, dubbed “Greener”—for “Global Resources for Environment, Energy and Natural Resources” is “similar, but more sharply focused,” said Dunn. A third, described as “a portal for life” helps people make decisions that are important to them, such as finding a job and getting information for health care. “It’s the first product in a series called ‘career transitions,'” said Dunn. “Libraries are inundated with requests for people who have lost their jobs and public librarians are swamped. Our portal helps automate this. For example, it will first administer a test for someone to see what skills they have, help them explore careers suited to their skills, help compile a resume for them and even submit it.”

Dunn says that the “portals” leverage the vast licensed content that Cengage already has access to and collates it in such a way that it is more user-friendly. “It’s an overlap with our existing products, such as the Gale Databases, which already contain a treasure trove of rigorous high quality content. We’re just re-imagining how it can be presented to libraries in a way that makes librarians and educators lives easier, while making it more accessible to the end-user, whether they’re a student, a professional or a job-seeker.”

Furthermore, Dunn indicates that the academic side of the business, while “no less exciting or interesting” is somewhat slower moving. University professors are—no surprise—somewhat set in their ways. With that in mind, the company has been developing a variety of solutions for the academic market to offer professors a choice between different formats of textbooks.  The latest development in textbooks from Cengage—something Dunn asserts is “the first genuine innovation in college publishing in 20 years”—is 4LTR Press.

4LTR is, in essence, a new brand of textbooks that are significantly shorter, 1/3rd to 1/4th the length of traditional textbooks. They rely more heavily on graphics and are printed at a larger type size than is the norm. The result is a textbook that is more “approachable,” says Dunn

“We did dozens of focus groups with students to find what they found most useful and this is what they wanted,” said Dunn. The textbooks are connected to various online digital tools, from mp3 audio files to supplementary materials, and even quizzes that can be downloaded to cell phones. So far, the most heavily used of all tools so far are the electronic flash cards.

Asked whether these were merely textbooks that have been dumbed-down, Dunne replied: “The important thing about these books is that they are in no way diminished—they are written, in many cases, by the same experts that write our full length textbooks. What’s perhaps even more important is that they are cheaper by a significant margin, often just 50% the price of a traditional textbook, which interests both students and professors.”

Among the first titles published under the 4LTR imprint were MKTG, BUSN and ECON—which are, respectively marketing, business and economics textbooks. MKTG, for example, is a 350-page magazine style paperback (compared with 700+ pages for a traditional textbook) and carries a suggested retail price of $49.95 (compared to a typical $150 price tag).

So far, the books have proved popular. Cengage asserts that professors at some 1,400 universities (out of a total of 4,500 in the United States) are using 4LTR textbooks. As of October, Cengage offered 20 4LTR titles, including GOVT, HIST, STAT, and SOC. “We plan to double that number by March 2010,” says Dunn.

SAMPLE: The Career Transitions portal

LEARN: More about 4LTR Press

READ: A White Paper about the creation of MKTG

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.