Shelf control? Largest textbook publisher is ditching books and going 'digital first'

Copyright Tea Di Nauta Getty Images
By Mary Pflum with NBC News Tech and Science News
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The price of textbooks in the U.S. increased by 90 percent from 1998 to 2016.


Making a trip to the college campus bookstore to purchase textbooks at the beginning of a new semester is a time-honored tradition. But that tradition is rapidly disappearing, as the push towards e-books continues.

This week, the push was accelerated as Pearson, the biggest publisher of educational books in North America, announced it will abandon its traditional textbook publishing model for all 1,500 of its U.S. publications in favor of a digital-first strategy. The company said print books will still be available, but only on a rental basis.

Pearson noted the move will enable its e-book collection to be updated on an ongoing basis, without having to go through the costly and time-consuming process of reprinting, and will enable students to download often-thick manuals to computers, tablets and mobile phones.

The move, publishing insiders say, is a sign of the times. Sales of e-books on college campuses have grown steadily in recent years, owing in large part to the rising costs of traditional textbooks.

According to the American Enterprise Institute, the price of textbooks in the U.S. increased by 90 percent from 1998 to 2016.

The average cost of a printed edition of a college textbook is now $110. By comparison, the average cost of a digital edition of a Pearson textbook is $40. Pearson said 62 percent of its revenue currently comes from e-book sales — a number that is expected to dramatically increase.

"Students are demanding easier-to-access and more affordable higher education materials," John Fallon, CEO of Pearson, said in a press release. "We've changed our business model to deliver affordable, convenient and personalized digital materials to students. Our digital-first model lowers prices for students and, over time, increases our revenues."

But, while Pearson argues the push towards e-books is a positive for cash-strapped students, education experts warn the push could impact students' ability to learn.

"My primary concern about what Pearson — and lots of other publishers — are doing is that they are putting money and profit ahead of learning," said Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of "Words on Screen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World."

"There's an incredible amount of research that has been done that shows if you want to concentrate and learn, print is almost always preferable," Baron said.

Patricia Alexander, an educational psychologist and professor at the University of Maryland, has worked on seven studies, comparing how students learn using e-books with how they learn using traditional print books. In all seven studies, she said, students retain more information and ultimately comprehend and learn more using textbooks.

Alexander warned that while the trend towards e-books makes economic sense, it may rob students in the long run.

"I am disappointed in the Pearson decision from a learning standpoint," Alexander said. "I understand it from a business perspective. But it's not consistent with deep learning."

Alexander also noted students are more likely to be distracted when reading e-books, as the books are often downloaded to the same devices on which students check their email and social media.

Michael McCurdy, chief executive officer and co-founder of Testing Mom, an education consulting business, said educators his company works with tend to favor traditional textbooks over e-books.

"The only benefit to e-books, teachers say, is that the weight of the textbook is not an issue if kids are carrying two and three books in their backpacks. But teachers overall are still a big proponent of the traditional textbooks," McCurdy said.

Pearson is one of a number of publishers to be moving in a digital-first direction.

Elsevier, the publisher of a number of medical textbooks, has been steadily moving toward a digital-only format in recent years.


"Large publishers around the world are all thinking about this move to digital," Baron said. "They want to be seen as distributors, not publishers."

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