Can the ‘Netflix For Textbooks’ Model Actually Improve Access?


Can the ‘Netflix For Textbooks’ Model Actually Improve Access?

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo     Sep 30, 2021

Can the ‘Netflix For Textbooks’ Model Actually Improve Access?
wan wei / Shutterstock

Textbooks play a central role in discussions around higher ed affordability, and publishers have long been cast as the villain, pulling in high profits as textbook prices rise.

These days some publishers are trying a new sales model they say will save students money: textbook subscription services. The latest player to jump in is Pearson, which released Pearson Plus over the summer as a “pay-as-you-go” alternative to traditional textbooks.

Subscribers to Pearson Plus pay $9.99 per month for one access to one digital textbook or $14.99 per month to access all of the more than 1,500 titles on the company’s platform, with each plan requiring a four-month minimum. Users also get access to audiobook versions of their texts一available for about 60 percent of titles一along with study guides and a discount on a separate tutoring service for premium subscribers.

That pricing comes in slightly lower than a similar model offered by Cengage, which charges $69.99 per semester for what it calls Cengage Unlimited, its full e-library, and another $50 for access to a related homework system that professors often assign with the textbook. An online library with a subscription model, Perlego, charges users $18 monthly for use of its textbook catalog with a discounted rate for those who buy a year-long subscription up-front.

The model has been referred to as a “Netflix for textbooks,” comparing it to the popular subscription streaming service that has long charged a flat monthly fee for all of its content. And textbook publishers trying the approach argue that it could save students money, provided they are assigned more than one of the publisher’s titles in any given semester. But the question of textbook subscriptions’ value may be more complicated than the price listed on the checkout page.

Experts say perhaps the biggest change Pearson’s move represents is the continued squeezing of the secondary textbook market, where students recoup some of their money when they resell used books, but publishers don’t get a cut in the resale. After all, students can’t resell a digital book that goes away after the semester ends. And the concern by industry-watchers is that in the long run, publishers could raise prices even higher should the alternatives of used textbooks one day disappear completely from the landscape.

Changing With the Times

Cengage Unlimited was launched three years ago as a more affordable textbook option for students, says Erin Joyner, senior vice president of Cengage’s U.S. higher education product. Since then, the platform has grown to include soft skill guides on subjects including how to improve study skills or how to prepare for the job market.

The move, she argues, attempted to answer a call from the customer for lower-priced options. “It stands to reason,” she adds, “we have access to all of this material, why are we giving access to it piece by piece? How can it really have an impact on affordability?”

Digital textbooks generate far more data than hardcopy textbooks ever could. With that, publishers see opportunity for new lines of revenue.

Kristie Gan, senior vice president of Pearson’s direct-to-consumer business, says the Pearson Plus model was designed to make textbooks more affordable while staying competitive with the other textbook buying avenues. Pearson Plus can always give students the latest versions of their books, and gives users something more than a one-size-fits all platform, she says.

“We want to make sure that we build a relationship with the student so we can tailor the learning experience to the needs of the student,” Gan says. “We want to help them study better. I think we will be building out better study tools to help students in their learning journey. We need data to be able to do that.”

Meanwhile, when students resell their books, Gan says, Pearson no longer plays a role in the quality of that experience.

Out of (Market) Place

The subscription services are cause for concern to Nicole Allen, director of Open Education at Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. She notes that major publishers have offered digital textbooks for over 10 years but only recently introduced subscription pricing.

“It allows them to basically eliminate the secondary market from the equation,” she says. “If you look at the prices, used book and rental prices are in many cases lower than renting a digital [book]. That’s why the all-access model is so significant一it takes that choice away from students.”

It’s easy to see why students would be attracted to the monthly model of textbook subscriptions, says C. Edward Watson, associate vice president of Curricular and Pedagogical Innovation at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The subscription approach reduces the sticker shock of paying for books all at once, and he can imagine students encouraging their professors to pick Pearson books if it could save them money. But he says, don’t call it “Netflix for textbooks.”

“The fallacy is that Netflix is an entertainment venue,” Watson says. “Pearson touts having 1,500 textbooks, but I don’t think students are going to be just surfing around looking for entertainment from textbooks.”

Like Allen, he notes that the shift to digital textbooks means there’s no physical copy for students to sell or share with friends.

“That whole notion of resale sort of vanishes, which is probably part of the intention,” Watson says.

While publishers may be delighted by the new insights they can gain as their digital textbook platforms grow, Allen says there’s not enough conversation about what type of information publishers should be authorized to collect.

“It changes the game when you’re just selling content versus when you’re selling content that can give you insight into the campus and individual students’ habits and lives,” Allen says. “When we think about algorithms that are making decisions for institutions about who is cheating on a test or who it thinks plagiarized, that impacts peoples’ lives.”

Katelynn Gilbert, a junior studying psychology and English at the University of North Carolina, estimates that she has spent $350 on textbooks this year. Her freshman year totaled closer to $500.

Textbook prices are on her mind quite a bit as the chair of her school’s chapter of North Carolina Public Interest Research Group. As part of its textbook affordability campaign, she’s pushing for professors to adopt free or low-cost open educational resources rather than pricier titles by traditional publishers.

“What we’ve really found is the problem is access codes,” she says, referring to the growing practice of professors assigning homework systems from publishers that require every student to buy a code to complete the basic work of a course. “No student should have to pay to do their homework.”

As for the extra bells and whistles publishers have added to their textbook platforms, Gilbert says those don’t usually factor into students’ purchasing decisions.

“Every single student I’ve talked to [cares] about cost,” Gilbert says. “I’ve never heard anyone try to compare features. While some features might sound cool, in the end, we have a limited budget to get what we need.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Perlego as a textbook publisher. The company is an online library that carries books from over 1,000 publishers.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up