Textbook Stack
Textbook Stack (Photo credit: greenasian)

Of all segments of publishing, the college textbook business has seemed for some time now to be the most likely to be disrupted.  There are many reasons for this, but the principal one is the spiraling cost of many texts, which has elicited a strong and angry reaction, including legislative action and the creation of rival materials that draw on many of the precepts of the Open Access movement (usually called OER for open educational resources).

And it’s true:  college texts are indeed being disrupted, but the disruptors are mostly the incumbent publishers themselves, which serves to prove the point that new technology is not in itself necessarily disruptive and that even old-line companies are capable of innovation.  This is hardly a romantic perspective, but it puts me in mind of a poster a friend of mine used to have on his wall:  life is so tragic—you are here today and you are here tomorrow.  We may see the dinosaur college publishers continue to stalk the earth for another million years.

As I have noted on the Kitchen before, the high cost of college texts is a direct outgrowth of the structure of the market itself, where the people (instructors) making the decisions about what books to use in the classroom are not the ones who actually pay for the books (students).  Professors naturally want their students to have the best stuff (a higher price) and they want a lot of stuff (higher price again) and they want supplements (higher yet) and, heck, why not some more supplements (aargh!)?  One expects a student to have the text for the course, and that student thus represents something of a captive audience.  How captive is another matter (these are after all 18-year-olds), but the business has persisted for decades using precisely this model.  The right content for the right course wins, with price being at best a secondary condition.

Since you can’t stop kids from drinking, taking drugs, and engaging in behavior that outrages us all until we recollect our own wanton youth, it’s no surprise that many students have over the years looked for a way to get around the high cost of textbooks.  This gave rise to the soaring growth of the used book market (20-35% of the business today, depending on who’s talking), which in turn prompted publishers to revise texts more often (at considerable expense) in order to render used books obsolete.  But in recent years many students have gone one step further and simply declined to purchase the books at all.  This is not good for either the publishers or the students themselves, who get by on lecture notes, a smattering of photocopies, and perhaps the occasional digitized text pirated over the Internet.

The publishers brought some of this on themselves.  So confident were they that docile students would heed their professors’ instructions that the publishers created business plans that called for even more price increases.  The kids were stuck and had to buy the books, right?  To which I say:  Don’t any of these publishers have kids themselves?  When you send a check to your college kid, do you really think the money will be spent on textbooks when there are so many more compelling ways for a young person to put that money to use?  It appears that Cengage, which is now flirting with bankruptcy, bet heavily on such price increases.  I hope no publisher makes the “price to the sky” mistake again.

As an aside, I should mention that Cengage made a serious mistake that may soon be replicated in other segments of the publishing industry.  The business aphorism is:  Let the business drive the balance sheet; don’t let the balance sheet drive the business.  I know this is gobbledygook for the many people involved with scholarly communications who are not trained in business, but it is also a bit of wisdom that gets lost in the world of commercial mergers and acquisitions.

So, for example, Cengage was purchased at a terribly high price by a private equity group, which borrowed heavily to make the acquisition.  That meant that a big chunk of Cengage’s cash flow had to go to service the debt.  The company then realized that it had to raise prices to increase that cash flow.  In other words, the balance sheet’s requirement for more cash forced the marketing department to alter its plans.   It really should be the other way around:  come up with a good idea to improve the business and then move heaven and earth to find the capital to put that plan into practice.  (I would like to see this outlook be adopted by my friends in the university press world.)  Now that Springer has just been acquired for an enormous amount of money by yet another private equity firm, we should look to see if the Cengage error plays out in the world of STM publishing.

Returning to the world of college texts, the combination of used books, students who don’t buy books, and piracy leads us to the college publishers’ predicament, and that is that a class with 30 students may yield sales of only 10 copies (the percentage varies by course and text).  All that marketing effort–fielding a sales force, calling on every instructor, sampling thousands of copies–still cannot influence the decisions of a stubborn group of customers, who have inconveniently forgot what their role is in this economic system.

The many critics of college textbook publishers have pointed to this situation and gleefully announced that the textbook business is doomed.  The publishers, looking at the same information, have had some important insights:

  • The retail channel takes a big piece of the sale of every book, somewhere between 20% and 50% of the total price.  For example, a student pays $150 for an introduction to anthropology, the bookstore takes $50, and the publisher gets $100 before expenses.

  • Although the biggest cost in college publishing is in development (that is, all the work that goes into the creation of the first or master copy), the variable costs are not inconsiderable.  Whack yourself on the head with a chemistry textbook and you will see why.  The cost of paper, printing, and binding–not to mention warehousing, shipping, and the processing of returns–adds up to big bucks.  Digital editions might save the publisher $20 or more per copy.

  • The cost of approaching every single instructor demands a large sales force.  This, by the way, is the principal reason that 5 publishers carve up perhaps 85% of the market, because smaller publishers cannot compete on the sales and marketing side.  On the other hand, if you could adapt the K-12 textbook business, where the sales call is not to the individual teacher but at the level of the school district, you could save a lot of money.

  • A sale on the institutional level would mean that 30 out of 30 students would get the digital textbook, bringing back into the marketplace fully two-thirds of the prospective customers.  You can lower your price on individual units if you can make it up in volume.

Students of the history of the personal computer will note that Bill Gates built his fortune with many of the same insights.  Gates’s problem was piracy.  When Microsoft first started out, the company was selling computer languages and compilers.  The problem was that the hobbyists and hackers of the time copied the software and gave it to friends.  So Gates could sell a few copies, but most users were the beneficiaries of what can generously be called “an economy of sharing.”  Gates’s problem, in other words, was that he could only sell 10 copies to a group of 30 people, precisely the pickle textbook publishers find themselves in.  Gates’s response to this–which ultimately put a computer in every office, a computer in every home–was to approach the equipment manufacturers directly and have them bundle Microsoft software with each machine, a method known as OEM sales, short for “original equipment manufacturer.”  There is no piracy when the software comes pre-installed.  This is a highly disruptive marketing strategy.

To have textbooks come pre-installed, college publishers now approach institutions directly, not through the individual instructor.  Not all institutions can or will play this game; I think it unlikely that elite institutions will insist that instructors use an approved text.  But this model has already become the norm in commercial schools and is climbing up the tree, stopping at community colleges and  financially-constrained state colleges, and slowly getting attention at some universities.   Over time this marketing method will transform college publishing.

The benefits to this method are many. First, these sales are made directly to institutions, which finance the purchases in various ways, increases to student fees among them.  This cuts out the bookstore, saving 20%-50% of the selling price.  Second, the books are digital, which saves more money.  And then–bonanza!–the colleges make the books available to all enrolled students, ending the trend of students working without texts.  This strategy effectively puts an end to the used-book market.

Publishers naturally would like to keep all the benefits for themselves, but institutions attempt to drive hard bargains for these broad digital licenses.  I am familiar with one instance where an institution is getting a 70% discount from the retail price, which is quite a boon to students, at least to those who would have purchased the texts in any event.  On the other side of this arrangement, however, is the intriguing fact that the publisher is probably making more money with that 70% discount than it was selling books at full price.  Direct institutional sales has many economic benefits and beneficiaries.

All disruptions hurt someone or something, however, and in this case the cost is a whittling away at the prerogatives of individual instructors.  That’s who is being disrupted, the faculty.  This will not happen rapidly and it won’t happen completely; even now instructors are offered choices of whether to use the institution’s approved texts or those of their choosing.  But a pattern is emerging, that of the diminished latitude of the academic professional.  Add to this such things as institutional mandates for faculty to deposit copies of papers into institutional repositories, a clear infringement of their intellectual property rights, and it is not hard to envision a time when faculty has the same status within a university as an employee has in a corporation.

Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


45 Thoughts on "Disrupting the Faculty: The Changing Face of the College Textbook Business"

One factor that may help publishers to get institutions to accept this model is the increasing use of adjunct faculty. They often teach the undergraduate introductory courses with large sections. They have much less power than full-time faculty, especially tenured faculty, to resist the “suggestions” of the institution. I’m the lead teacher for several library science courses at Wayne State University and get to choose the textbooks for all sections of these courses. While I consult with the adjuncts, my decision is final.

We have created a solution for precisely this type of problems after being in the field of publishing for more than 25 years. Please check out interlinepublishing.com

Joe, interesting analysis. You forgot to mention that there is a precedent for institutional buy by universities, namely the rental schools. Schools which purchase the books and then rent them to the students. Books are adopted for about a 5 year period.

The reason for the longevity of many freshmen books is that the adoption is a committee decision and once a book is adopted it seems to remain for years because the committee is a rotating affair and no one member wants to change notes, etc.

In upper division classes there really are few books from which to choose. Again profs who teach a given upper division course build the course around the book chosen and there has to be a strong compelling reason to change.

I think one of the big changes will be the death of the college rep. Companies will use search engines to discover who is teaching what and use telemarketers to verify course assignments and then sample e books to the prof. Thus, the costs associated with the college rep will be gone. There has always been a sliver of doubt as to the reps value.

In the early 1970s I was an executive with a college textbook publisher.We changed the way we used our reps. We used telemarketers who prospected, sampled,and followed up with the instructors. When a large adoption was in process, we would then send in a rep to close the deal.
It was a very successful process which reduced costs and increased sales. Since we were the only company doing this the instructors did not find the process intrusive.
With today’s digital age and electronic communications I believe the process can be easily adapted and probably has.

I don’t know which publishers you have worked for in the past, or work for now, but I have been in college publishing for the better part of a decade – and am the daughter of a college professor – and no one I have worked with or met feels that “there has always been a sliver of doubt” as to the value of having field reps. What a ridiculous statement. Reps are highly valued and make a strong contribution to their organizations and while their roles have and may morph and change to some degree, I for one feel that the job will never go away entirely. Reports of the “death of the rep” are very premature and highly unlikely.

Perhaps I should not have said death of the college rep. However, their role as the classic college traveler is changing and will change. Some publishers will abandon them altogether and have.

Although your father – who in my mind although we have never met – seems like a great guy. I say this because I cannot count the number of times Profs have said to me: I really don’t have time for peddlers!

FYI – I was a sales rep, regional manager, product manager, editor in, publisher and VP of publishing during my 40 year active career. I now do free lance editing.

Hi Harvey,

I am actually on the marketing side now but was a rep with two different big publishing companies when I began in the industry. Although I have not been in the business as long as you, I have seen many accelerated changes in the last ten years but what has not changed has been the value of having field reps. I speak regularly with customers and they often cite how influential and valuable their reps’ knowledge, and experience, and presence has been for them, and how it has influenced their choice of product. That’s why I have a hard time believing that the position will go away any time soon…



A whole decade. Why that is but 10 years. Which companies have you worked for? If you are with your original company it is because you are making your numbers and that is commendable, but miss a year or two and you will be on the street.

There has always been doubt as to the value of the college rep. I believe that is evident in that the companies hire inexperienced people to be reps. You should move into higher management and the rose colored glasses through which you view the world will become clearer.

If your value is great it is because you have skill at what you do. If the company can find a cheaper way to do what you do, and that is possible – when I started there were no telemarketing departments – they will do it.

I’m calling balderdash on your last sentence. Institutional repositories for faculty work are not a “clear infringement” of faculty “intellectual property rights.” Clearly, you don’t understand either IR’s or intellectual property.

I’d be interested in understanding the details of your objection. Is this based on the idea that academic papers are works for hire?

I think many faculty members would be very, very surprised to learn that their intellectual output is work for hire, as apparently Ms. jessienyc seems to assume.

But faculty may still own their works on many campuses. The union contract at Wayne State explicitly gives me ownership of all my publications. According to Jessica Litman, University of Michigan expert in copyright law, this is true for about 1/3 of universities. She said that another 1/3, including her institution, claim theoretical ownership but often do nothing to enforce this right, and the final 1/3 are silent on this issue.

Show me a university that mandates deposit in IRs without an opt-out provision and then I’ll agree with you that there may be some infringement of faculty intellectual property rights, without having to resort to “work made for hire.” Under such mandates faculty are only ceding a nonexclusive right to the university, anyway, not transferring any rights at all. How is this infringing?

Interesting article. I think the used textbook market is more than 25 % and students are still having problems with digital versions. Don’t overlook Amazon and the impact they are having on the used textbook market. You can buy the used textbook and sell it back in the same transaction. The rental market is also growing. Agreed that Apex Partners overpaid by three times for Thompson learning. The crushing debt cost about $600 million in interest. Cengage is trying to restructure the debt. As for Springer, the price was not a high multiple. The textbook market is changing. Pearson is the company to follow. They are making the transition and highly profitable. They have bought the best brands and have a great digital strategy. Textbook adoption is certainly down but don’t count on the textbook market going away.

I was at a great meeting last week at MIT the day before AAUP, hosted by Erika Valenti (MIT Press), Becky Brasington Clark (JHU Press), Michael Zeoli (YBP), which brought together librarians, vendors, and university presses to discuss a bunch of issues, and this issue of textbooks came up. The librarians noted that they were frequently finding themselves in the position of being the primary source for students for their course materials, and how that seemed to be a larger part of their job than it’s ever been before. This was particularly frustrating when it came to electronic texts that they had limited licenses for, and where there was suddenly huge demand for a particular piece of content that was assigned for a large class, but whose license allowed for only one or a small number of simultaneous users. Typically they didn’t know about the content’s use as a text until after the fact, and saw the Short Term Loan option available with most DDA programs as one way to address what was often a short spike in demand, but for content where they probably couldn’t justify the purchase of multiple copies. They also questioned the wisdom of informally shifting the cost of these texts from the students to the libraries without there being an accompanying adjustment to the library’s budget to accommodate this change. All of the librarians at that meeting spoke of this trend becoming a growing problem.

I asked the librarians if they might consider including “Buy” buttons in their OPACs, to at least give students the option of purchasing the text, especially if the record indicates that the library’s owned copies were all being used and had a long log of students waiting for the text. One librarian was uncomfortable with the idea, but the others were open to it. When I pointed out that it could be connected to an “Associates” program, like those offered by Amazon or Overdrive, which could help raise revenue for the library, they liked the idea a little more.

(BTW, it’s also worth noting that last year for the first time, according to Bowker, Amazon overtook college textbook stores as the primary source of student textbooks: http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/students-professors-still-not-yet-ready-for-digital-textbooks/ )

I recently wrote about a related issue, specifically about the fate of campus bookstores, that may provide at least some starting points for addressing these trends. In that piece I suggest turning, not only the textbook piece of this problem over to the library, but also turning the actual bookstore over to the library, and to use the bookstore as a physical book Demand Driven Acquisitions tool. I also suggest that a better way to deal with the growing textbook crisis was to apply the librarian ethos to the textbook problem, encouraging librarians (who aren’t motivated by profit) to aid faculty in gathering materials, maybe even finding lower cost or open alternatives, and even helping faculty develop those materials.


I would argue that institutions are also getting the short end of the stick. Dropping the label “textbooks” in favor of “learning content,” these publishers are also “adding value” with gimmicks such as “adaptive content” where what students see in these online systems varies according to their performance to that point. The institution must become entangled in a proprietary delivery system in order to bring these benefits to bear. Vendor lock-in followed by increasing prices is yet another analog to the Microsoft formula.
The problem is that this is a poison pill. The cost of education will continue to rise and, with it, the level of student debt and the erosion of confidence in the efficacy of traditionally gotten degrees. Enter MOOC or Son of MOOC or some more distant kin. Alternatives are evolving in anticipation of the day when education dinosaurs no longer roam.

Be careful of what you wish for. If institutions start doing the buying, then the next step could be the consolidation of buying in an entire state, using the K-12 model as it has been developed in my state of Texas. Given the shenanigans of the State Board of Education, whose conservative members have forced the rewriting of history and the inclusion of creationism in high school texts, this is not a model you want to emulate at the higher ed level, especially when the governor is as ideological as Rick Perry, whose appointees to the UT-Austin board have been harassing UT’s president for a long time now.

I’m curious: what textbook publishers give discounts as high as 50% to college bookstores? Or are you thinking about sales of textbooks through Amazon? The standard text discount has long been 20%.

Not all assigned books are textbooks, some are trade titles (novels, management classics, etc.) and trade publishers don’t generally cut the discount just because of an adoption.

Exactly right. One of the problems with writing about the college market is the large role that trade publishers play there, especially in the humanities. A course on Faulkner is good news for Random House. This also affects figures for the percentage of used books. The figure for formal textbooks may be one-third, but how about copies of Jane Austen or Barbara Kingsolver? Higher or lower?

A very small number of individual novels are used in English departments we are looking at enrollments that number less than 20 students. Most of these students keep these books.

But your piece was titled as being about textbooks, Joe, not about the college market as a whole.

Yes, but this piece was announced as being about college textbooks and I’ve never heard of these other types of books referred to as textbooks. The whole discussion is oriented toward discussing the major textbook publishers, not trade publishers. So, my question remains: what textbook publishers sell at a 50% discount?

Well, you’re right that no real textbook publisher offers a 50% discount, but as for the business of textbooks, it might be useful to think of super short texts as loss leaders and those trade titles as significant revenue generators. When my old store sold texts, I needed to sell 200 copies of a Sage title to make the same amount I could on 40 copies of “Beloved.” I loved those classes that used only trade titles for their texts. They also had a significantly lower sell-back rate.

Textbook publishers don’t discount the textbooks sold to schools and bookstores, they sell them at a net price and offer a suggested list price. The final sale price is set by the bookstore.

Yes, the only thing keeping higher ed publishing from the pressures exerted on K-12 publishing (think the fights over covering evolution, for example) is that profs get to make the decisions. At big schools, this may be done as a department, but it’s still a choice by educators rather than bureaucrats.

Publishers will say the used book business is what pushed them to revision cycles of 3 years, and the need to appeal to those professors who can’t be bothered with prep spawned the supplements binge.

There are plenty of alternatives these days, each taking a small chunk from the Big Five. “Death from a thousand cuts” is underway. The Big Five thought that the goose that laid their golden egg was immortal … layering annual 5% price increases on top of over-produced, over-long, over-priced tomes that often cost $200+ ($300+ in the sciences) and are over-burdened with ancillary content … of which no student or course uses more than 10% available. Plenty of alternatives abound, more focused titles, more affordable for students. State governments should keep out of this business – the alternatives do not require state intervention, there’s plenty of competition for the Big Five.

Actually there is little competition to the big five in college publishing. Today a prof can modify the text to include only the chapters wanted. Additionally, the study guide or workbook or whatever can be shrink wrapped with the now modified book. Thus, the job of teaching is made easier for the prof. One has to remember that the student really is not considered in the textbook adoption process.

The student has a choice to either buy the book or not. The student can rent the book, buy a used one or what have you. I had a student who purchased a used book only to discover that much needed material was removed from the book via a razor blade. The bookstore was more than willing to sell him another one!

The idea of digital textbooks as a way to save students money (by cutting out the college bookstore) seems to be a good one. However, so far the technology is not in place to include indexes in those editions. While a full-text search is helpful in some ways, nothing can replace
the usefulness of a professionally prepared index.
The problem at this point seems to be a technical one: the code needs to be included in ebook platforms in order to be able to prepare a good, live index.

The technology is in place. For example, iBooks Author makes the creation of an index easy, if time-consuming (it has to be done manually). I could also do an index for a Kindle book, which would require hand-coding. In other words, it’s expensive–you have to do more than just scan a hard copy. And I think that’s the reason why we do not see indexes when we should see them.

Should one have to accomplish indexing by hand the expense would exceed the value of the book!

There is no free lunch!

I don’t have any figures and therefore cannot dispute what you day. All I wanted to say is that as long as you can put an internal link from one string of letters in a book to another one in the same book, you can, in principle, do an index. (You may run into a problem when you have multiple places an index entry should point to in a document that has no pages, and I have to admit that I haven’t looked into this, yet).

The indexing capabilities of iBooks Author are pretty limited in terms of real, content-rich indexes. Indexing for EPUB, however, has become much easier now that InDesign CC included an active linked index when it exports EPUB. You do not need to do hand coding, but you do need to index your book. For more information about indexes in ebooks, visit http://www.asindexing.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3647, where the American Society for Indexing has collected resources, podcasts, papers, and presentations on how to get live linked indexes in econtent of all kinds.

Our goal as a college bookstore for the past five years is to reduce textbook expenses for college students. We have done this by an aggressive rental program and using a compare site where our prices are competitively priced against the online competitors. 80% of students shopping from the compare site have picked our college bookstore. I am not aware of how publishers have helpdc curve the price of textbooks. In fact, we have seen it for years…offer the three hole punch bundles and watch the inflated price for the next several years nearly double. Without a doubt, the same thing will happen with digital content. Once the options of rental and used books are taken away from the students, there is nothing to stop the publishers from their continued increase in course material no matter how it is delivered. The students will stay pay whether you involve the store or not. The store’s are the ones who have cut their margins and worked to gain student confidence. Unfortunately, the publishers make it very difficult when options are taken away. Independent college stores work for their university and their students. Please be careful when saying cutting out the college bookstore seems to be a good one. On most campuses, we are the universities friend, not enemy.

The only reason there is such a thing as a ‘digital textbook’ is that it fits into the existing print textbook infrastructure (or, with varying degrees of success, is made to fit). Computers and digital communications (laptops, the web, tablets, etc.) have permeated education and are dissolving the borders between ‘the text’ and the world outside the text.

Over the years the print textbook was continuously refined to better meet the needs of faculty, but at some point the lack of a ceiling on price increases led to bloated, over-produced books that students (and probably many faculty) came to dislike, if not dread. The disruption to watch isn’t in the textbook market, it’s in education itself. Digital technology is eating away at the scarcity model of education, and the textbook market is just collateral damage.

From the student’s perspective, higher-ed is already mostly digitized and online (admissions, financial aid, registration, learning management systems, etc. Ironically, printed books are one of the few stable things they can count on in this environment, and are appreciated for this reason). So, while there will be digital versions of print textbooks for some time, there wont be a real digital textbook market, but more probably a digital education market.

Although the world is digitized, my students like to use a text book. Perhaps, my students are unlike others but I tend to think not. There were always those who used their books and those who didn’t. Those who didn’t generally got a gentlemen C or worse. Those who studied did much better and tended to land the better jobs.

I use my Kindle for recreational reading but use a paper printout or a book for serious study.

Because textbooks at the freshmen and sophomore level have become bloated, textbook publishers custom print books to meet the needs of the course as determined by the prof. I think this is one of the great benefits of digital when it comes to textbooks.

Additionally, the more technical the course, the more a student tends to take notes in his/her book and then to keep it as a reference.

Digital has its place as does paper. Although the prof selects the text, it is the student who determines if it will be bought and used.

Interesting thing about custom books – faculty like the ability to pick and choose from a salad-bar of content, while publishers like the lock-in that reduces used book sales. But this gets messy once a school has two or three versions of the same custom text.

The universities may be taking a larger bite out of the publisher’s pocket, but the cost of most education has reached the law of diminishing returns. Society will find a way around the mountain of educational costs. The new “millennials” will carve a monumental hole right through the text book industry and the educational system. I believe that there will be inexpensive educational systems developed to such a high degree that it will draw students away from the most highly rated universities. It might be students from the highly rated universities that create the new educational experience. After all, just as I am sharing this idea, people all over the world are sharing information. Someone will attract much of this idle Internet chatter to real purposes. There are just too many college graduates that are not working because they chose a field of study that did not translate into a living wage. The problem of costly education will lead to inventive ways to solve this dilemma.

I suggest you research the value of a college degree. It still seems the best way forward.


Additionally, textbooks will evolve and it is the publishers who will respond to the needs of the profs and to a lesser extent the students. I hardly want a student who basically knows very little about the content needed to successfully complete a course determining what should be in the book.

The better schools will still attract the better students and not suffer any decline. Why because they provide the best product and open more doors to the graduate. “Lesser” schools will still thrive because they provide a means into the job market on local levels. In short, each school serves a specific market segment.

Lastly, the role of the university is not to train someone for a job. Its role is to train someone to think. Once one learns how to do that doors open.

Large universities can still allow faculty some discretion, if they get a broad discount across the board. Universities that are not demanding a huge discount such as the 70% you mention are really doing the students a disservice (as you mention at that level the publisher is making just as much money as now at extremely high prices and the students are probably doing worse than the used book market)

The Cheap Textbook


Lets see if what you suggests works. A prof adopts a book for his class of say 300 students. He notifies the university and the university says to the publisher you must give our students a 70% discount or the prof cannot use the book. The publisher says no, the university now goes back to the prof and says your first choice for a text is rejected on price grounds set by us! Go select another book. The prof says what about my academic freedom to teach the course as I choose from the book I choose.

I think things would fall apart right at that moment!

Comments are closed.