Predictions of Print Textbooks’ Death Remain Greatly Exaggerated

Market Trends

Predictions of Print Textbooks’ Death Remain Greatly Exaggerated

By Wade Tyler Millward     Apr 26, 2019

Predictions of Print Textbooks’ Death Remain Greatly Exaggerated

Print textbooks are the eternal punching bag for the things people think technology should render obsolete. Technologists from Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, almost a century apart, have predicted their demise. The newest voices in that choir come from Bill and Melinda Gates, who declared that “textbooks are becoming obsolete” in their 2019 annual letter.

Not so fast, say education publishers and retailers. Even as many traditional textbook providers are transitioning to digital formats, paper and ink have proved stubbornly resilient.

Just ask Jessica Reid Sliwerski, CEO of Open Up Resources. The nonprofit publisher of K-12 curriculum launched in 2016 expecting an audience for its digital offerings. Instead, educators asked how quickly it could print out materials.

All of the nonprofit’s textbook revenue comes from print. Digital versions are made available for free. “We were sitting there scratching our heads thinking, ‘What is going on?’” Sliwerski recalled.

No More Predictions

One of the assumptions behind the Gates’ prediction is that the growth of instructional software will replace textbooks. “When I told you about this type of software in previous letters, it was mostly speculative,” Bill Gates wrote in his annual letter this year. “But now I can report that these tools have been adopted in thousands of U.S. classrooms from kindergarten through high school.”

Spending data suggests that instructional software is indeed growing in classrooms. From 2011 to 2014, U.S. spending on PreK-12 instructional technology steadily ticked upwards, from $2.6 billion to $3.3 billion, according to the Software & Industry Information Association. Gartner projects that spending on U.S K-12 software will reach around $4.5 billion by 2023.

Specific to college textbooks, print-only titles accounted for 45 percent of U.S. higher education courseware in 2015, down from 50 percent the year before, according to a 2018 report from Macquarie, an investment bank and financial services company. Digital-only textbooks accounted for 29 percent, while digital-and-print bundles accounted for 26 percent.

But while the tide may be tipping in digital’s favor, it may be premature to say that the print textbook is obsolete. In a 2018 survey of college students, the trade publication Library Journal found that 75 percent say that reading print books is easier than e-books.

Casey Mullins, a 31-year-old student studying business administration at the online Western Governors University, tells EdSurge she still prefers print materials. There’s no need for an internet connection or to charge batteries, she notes. “I feel like even if the print books are a tad more expensive, they’re worth it, in my opinion,” Mullins said.

To A.J. Goldman, vice president of textbooks and e-books at Chegg, a student services provider that notably sold its print textbook inventory to Ingram in 2015, adoption of digital materials among students has been slower than he predicted.

“I’m done making predictions about” the longevity of print, Goldman said. “The industry has been proven wrong so many times. The market will only move as fast as students want to move.”

Many old books in a book shop or library
Yulia Grigoryeva / Shutterstock

Holding Out

The industry has long been convinced that a generation of students who grew up with the internet and portable computers would en masse adopt digital textbooks. But one barrier to greater digital adoption among college students is the economics of a used textbook. The savings and popularity for a second-hand textbook market rose with the popularity of Amazon, which sees about a quarter of its sales from used goods, according to the Macquarie report.

In other words, not only do students save money on used textbooks, but they can also recoup some of the cost through reselling the materials. By contrast, digital materials have no resale value.

Used books present an anathema for textbook publishers, which don’t see any revenue from their sale. Second-hand books also reduce demand for new ones. One response by publishers has been to jack up the price. According to Macquarie, publishers have responded to declining demand for textbooks with 6 percent a year increases in college textbook prices.

In Pearson’s preliminary 2018 results released in February, the publisher said it expects flat revenue or even a 5 percent decline for its U.S. higher education courseware business despite gains in digital—all because of secondary textbook market’s impact.

For Pearson, non-digital revenues still dominate at 38 percent, down from 41 percent the year prior. Digital revenue grew to 34 percent from 32 percent the year prior. E-book revenue grew over 20 percent for the second year. The company has invested in a partner rental program that should reach 400 titles in the second half of this year.

‘Blended is Best’

Publishers say that the print-to-digital transition is not as clean-cut and immediate as some are led to believe. The reality is these companies are selling “blended” bundles of both print and digital offerings.

At this point, publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s entire catalog features digital delivery options, said Matthew Mugo Fields, the publisher’s general manager for supplemental and intervention services.

For some students who lack access to broadband and digital devices, and for some schools that can’t handle the logistics of a device for every student, print remains the most accessible way to learn. Even the most digitally connected educator will have access to a printer, Fields said. “It’s a coexistence. Blended is best,” he said. “That’s what teachers recognize, and that’s what they demand.”

Larry Berger, CEO of curriculum and assessment company Amplify, said 75 percent of its core curriculum revenues in 2019 will come from blended programs, where customers buy a combination of digital licenses, hands-on kits and print resources like teacher guides and student workbooks.

But he notes that districts have proven more comfortable adopting digital tools for supplemental materials. “We’re trying not to be a burden on the teacher,” Berger said. “Through working in browsers, working in the cloud, teachers got comfortable with the idea that digital supplemental is your friend.” The company launched an all-digital supplemental reading program last year, and expects revenues from this product to quadruple this year.

For Mullins, the Western Governors student who prefers printed textbooks, the debate transcends generations. Her 2-year-old son has seemingly inherited his mother’s love for print. “He prefers to go to the bookshelf,” she said, “instead of sitting on the tablet and trying to figure it out.”

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