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The Coming Wave of Affordable Textbooks

This year at the Charleston conference I had the pleasure to moderate a panel on the library’s role in providing affordable textbooks to students. The panel consisted of  Mark Cummings, editor and publisher of Choice/ACRL, Gwen Evans, Executive Director of OhioLINK, and Mark McBride, library senior strategist at SUNY. This panel came about serendipitously, as all three are clients of mine who expressed an interest in the textbook market and how it could be transformed in some meaningful way. (The relationship with Mark McBride comes via Kitchen contributor Roger Schonfeld of Ithaka S+R, who asked me to participate in a project at SUNY.) We convened in New York, hosted by Roger, to compare notes. It became clear that big changes in textbooks are coming, and libraries will be at the center of them. I am pasting in the slides from the panel below. They cover far more territory than I am addressing here.

How to think about this market? Putting aside more ambitious transformations such as courseware, textbooks, whether print or digital, fall into three categories:

  • Traditional textbooks. These are the books we are all familiar with. They are published by companies that specialize in this market and provide the basis for a course designed by the instructor. The publisher markets these books not to the students but to the instructors, who select (the term of art is “adopt”) a particular title for the class, and the students then are told to go out and buy that title. Some do, some don’t; some want to, but find the price to be prohibitive. I wrote about why these books are so expensive on the Kitchen a few years ago.
  • Open Educational Resources (OER). There has been a lot of activity in this area, and even more publicity, over the past several years. OER are open in two respects: they are free to the end-user and they enable configuration by the instructor. OER are kin to the Open Access (OA) movement in some respects, though they are perhaps closer to the world of open source computer programs. There is a large group of dedicated people seeking to make OER the norm in college publishing, but market acceptance to date has largely been in niches.
  • Inclusive access programs. OER’s less ambitious cousin aims to lower the price of textbooks, but does not seek to make them free. Gwen Evans wrote back-to-back posts on this on the Kitchen here and here. In inclusive access traditional textbooks are put in all-digital programs and librarians or other university representatives negotiate with publishers for lower prices. Instructors still select the titles (academic freedom is not compromised by these programs) and students pay for them through the university bursar when they sign up for a course (the equivalent of a lab fee). Instructors like these programs because they don’t have to redesign their courses, as they do with OER; students like the lower prices; and publishers like the fact that just about every student buys a book, whereas in a traditional situation without inclusive access many students buy used books (no revenue to the publisher), get pirated copies, or simply do without.

Good market data on college textbooks is hard to come by. The total market in the U.S. comes to perhaps $9 billion at retail (that is, not what the publisher receives, but what college bookstores, Amazon, rental companies, etc., receive — which is the same as how much students pay for books), but that includes a lot of books that no one would call a textbook — for example, a paperback novel taught in an English class. It’s worth taking a ride at the Open Syllabus Project to see how such books are used in the classroom. Here, for example, is the link for a search for Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, a book that no one would call a textbook even though it is regularly used in many classrooms.

books on shelf

The market that is addressable by OER and inclusive access is perhaps just short of half the total — about $4 billion. That market segment is dominated by just five publishers (Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Cengage, Wiley, and Macmillan), and these publishers are not going away anytime soon. More likely is that they will adapt to OER and inclusive access or even come to co-opt it, much as the largest STM publishers (Elsevier, Springer Nature, Wiley) have cleverly co-opted the market for Gold OA. Indeed, inclusive access programs are likely to ensure the market dominance of these large publishers as they are built around the offerings of those publishers, albeit at sharply discounted prices. There are many texts, however, that are not likely to get brought into inclusive access programs simply because they don’t cost nearly as much as, say, a Cengage textbook for an introductory course on organic chemistry or a Pearson text on calculus. University presses, for example, cumulatively have classroom sales of perhaps $100 million a year (if anyone has better figures for this segment than I do, I would love to see them appear in the comments to this blog), but they tend to be priced relatively low already, giving even the most aggressive negotiators on students’ behalf small opportunity to effect a big change.

While it is customary nowadays to think of things in purely binary terms — something must either be wholly this or wholly that — it seems likely that textbooks have a pluralistic future, with the three models summarized above each finding their place in an evolving marketplace. The traditional model dominates today and will play a large role in the foreseeable future. Inclusive access is starting from a tiny base today, but is likely to expand rapidly, in part because librarians have their hands on these programs and can swiftly mobilize their immense community. OER occupies a niche today and will continue to grow, but it has a structural limitation in that it requires highly motivated instructors to create syllabuses around them. We have all had such teachers, but all teachers? How about the adjunct teaching 5 courses this semester or the lofty senior researcher who treats that one undergraduate lecture course as a burden on her time? One of the appeals of inclusive access is that it does not require that instructors do anything that they are not doing already.

My own forecast of how things will play out longer term is that OER will evolve into the laboratory for all instructional materials. The OER advocates will continue to invest in new materials and in exploring new teaching methodologies; the traditional textbook publishers will bring these ideas into their offerings; and many of those textbooks will find their way into inclusive access programs as librarians take charge. OER, in other words, though likely to hold only a small share of the market, will emerge as the shaper of new instructional materials offered under all business models, triggering a wave of investment in innovations in the college market, which the good lord knows badly needs it.


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