Getting the Units Right = Sound Publishing Strategy

WindowsAlbumSetWhen textbooks go fully digital what will schools buy? Will they buy individual lessons, units of 2-3 weeks length, or full curriculum that span a year the way they do today? This is the $5 billion question facing our industry.

Mike Shatzkin has an excellent post on this topic over at The Shatzkin Files. His framing is concise and revealing for those of us mapping out strategy for the analog to digital transition in instructional materials.

He was on a working group preparing for a talk about copyright across different publishing markets:

[I needed to say]..why the problems caused by digital change for newspapers and magazines and record companies were so much more grave than they were for book publishers (so far.) It is simply stated.

For those businesses, the unit of appreciation does not match the unit of sale.

By that I mean that record companies sold us albums when what we wanted were songs. That’s what their economics were built on. The minute we could buy songs, it blew up their business model. Newspapers sell us the weather when what we want are the box scores, or the horoscopes when what we want are the comics. There are many books which will be read cover to cover. Newspapers and magazines are rarely read cover to cover. It was never thought of as wasteful or uneconomic that most people actually consumed a small percentage of every newspaper and magazine they bought. But it gets harder and harder to make that sale in a digital environment.

Using this frame the answer for schools becomes a lot easier to deduce (always keeping Carr’s law in mind).

The Answer – All of the Above

I’ve noted elsewhere that Education is not a lone target market – it is an industry with many niches. If we think about units of appreciation we can see that there will be instructional products like novels that are already sold in the unit of appreciation and products like music “albums” that will shatter on contact with digitization.

As I turned this over it occurred to me that what is being taught will be a major factor in this. In a nutshell skills development requires products very similar to what is offered today, knowledge development demands a variety of source materials, and fundamental reform efforts may demand a larger horizontal and vertical integration not available today.

Baby Bear – Just Right – For instruction in basic skills (reading, math) where the focus is on developing fluency and automaticity full curricula that use a consistent pedagogy and emphasize a predictable lesson structure will always be valued. A consistent approach puts the focus on the skills not on the structure.

This is not the same as “kill and drill”, the focus is on consistency not rote learning (not that there is anything wrong with that…).

This will also apply to materials for students who are struggling – reducing the distractions between their reading skill and the grade level content is essential. One huge distractor is jumping around to a lot of disparate materials. Considerate text makes a big difference here.

460947_in_mama_bears_shadowMama Bear – Too Big – Knowledge acquisition for on-level students is an entirely different kettle of tea. If we want to model 21st Century Skills for learners it is incumbent on teachers to use a wide variety of source materials so that students can experience how knowledge is developed in the real world. Social Studies, Science, Literature, Career Readiness etc. all demand a catholic approach to content. The unit of appreciation is a lot smaller than a textbook – in many cases it is a single page document.

Whether this breaks down to the individual lesson or learning atom or is a the unit level remains to be seen (again – probably all the above). Given the time pressures on teachers we will probably see multi-week units that are packaged as a very popular option (many teachers do this on their own today). While it is a threat to the industry it is also an opportunity – digitization makes it easier for publishers to play in this game as well.

Papa Bear – Too Small – At the other end of the spectrum some schools and districts may be in the market for comprehensive reform. Individual textbooks that are siloed into disciplines may actually be too narrow a unit of appreciation for these customers.

One option for them would be curricula that are integrated across disciplines and which are horizontally and vertically aligned to student skill levels (e.g. multiple reading levels for the same content and/or spiraled strands through the standards). Another option might be platforms like Blackboard that provide some structure, but which can be filled with content.

Equally important in this may be bundling additional services with content – specifically ongoing professional coaching targeted at improving teaching. not just product orientation.


I really appreciate Mike’s crystallization of this concept because it gets to the heart of many of the critical strategic decisions the companies in our space will face in the next 5-10 years. Get the units right (from your customer’s perspective) and your business will be right.