Fewer Students Buying Textbooks Does Not Make a Bright Future for Publishers
I came across a survey today from the University of California-Riverside (PDF). Like most colleges, UC Riverside has a survey every year where they ask their students any number of questions about their experiences at the school.
In this case, I’m really only interested in the results that show a growing number of students who are avoiding buying textbooks. A full 73% have reported delaying a purchase, and even more have reported not buying one of the required textbooks.
Now, these stats on textbook avoidance aren’t all that new. I’ve seen similar numbers from a couple of sources, including the yearly survey by Xplana, the digital textbook arm of MBS, a textbook distributor. (Also, my several sources generally agree that this is a growing trend.)
But while I was waiting to get these numbers today I got to thinking about how these stats would affect the other growing trend in textbook publishing. Textbook publishers are pushing more and more into digital textbooks and digital textbook rentals. They’re doing it for the obvious reason; there’s no used digital market so there’s no competition from former customers selling off old books.
Let’s put the trends together. Students are buying fewer textbooks, while publishers are investing more and more in digital textbooks. This means that the publishers are making capital investments in a market that is shrinking every year.
You have to wonder where the publishers expect to get the money from, don’t you? Well, I think this might explain the rise in site licenses for digital textbooks.
A number of schools have signed with companies like FlatWorld Knowledge or Courseload, 2 digital textbook providers who offer volume license agreements (for some textbook titles). The college negotiates a lower price for a given digital textbook by guaranteeing a certain number will be sold. The cost of the textbook is then bundled into a course fee that students are required to pay (along with the tuition) if they attend a given course.
I personally don’t like the idea of being forced to buy something, but I’ve spoken to someone who did like it. She relied on a fair amount of student aid, and her textbook funds were never enough. Had her textbook costs been bundled into her tuition costs she would likely have been able to get more funds to cover them.
But while publishers are happy about the steady income, this isn’t going to be a long term solution. Students are buying fewer textbooks because the cost have grown to the point where they cannot be born. That is a simple fact. Bundling the textbook might lower the cost in the short term, but in the long term it will lead to students picking classes based on which ones do not have that extra cost.
In the long run I expect these 2 colliding trend to cause a rise in the use of open source digital textbooks (like the initiative California recently started). In fact, UC Riverside follows up the survey results with a number of resources that instructors can use to distribute course material to students.
But I also wonder if we’re going to see reorganizations and bankruptcies among textbook publishers as the market contracts. I don’t have any proof that this will happen, but if both trends continue then it might.
image by Sarah Ross photography