New Textbook Paradigm – In Which I Get It

Home Ebook CoverThe role of textbooks in a rapidly digitizing world is an open question. The publishing industry needs to develop a new paradigm for commercially produced instructional materials or it faces extinction.

These and many more questions haunt the dreams of educational publishing professionals.

Now, thanks to the folks at Nature (a division of MacMillan) and their new eTextbook Principles of Biology, I glimpse a promising path forward. As is so often the case with paradigm shifts once it “clicks” in your head it is so simple that you wonder that you didn’t get it earlier.

Better late than never I guess.

The product itself is innovative but from what I can tell not groundbreaking. It won’t ship until September but from the description it sounds similar to Our Choice or Roma, excellent examples of cutting edge iPad publishing for non-fiction.

The New Model

The real innovation is in the business model. There are two elements of their model that are game changers.

A. Lifetime access to updated content. I think most grads have a few core textbooks that we still reference for our vocational and avocational interests. Personally I’ve gone to the well with Principles of Corporate Finance and Roman History over the years. But both of those fields have moved on since I studied them decades ago. It would be a huge value add if I had regular updates as each field advances and the materials are changed.

Right now publishers leave this value add on the cutting floor. We have to update our materials anyway to keep the content current but we have no way of passing that work on to prior customers. If that can be done digitally with a marginal cost of close to $0 it is a big win for the student and the publisher. It provides a compelling reason to purchase rather than pirate.

B. Site license purchases that can be bundled into tuition. This change has two important aspects.

First – site license pricing will upend one of the inequities in the college textbook market. The decision makers (professors) and the purchasers (students) are two separate entities and the purchasers have very little individual buying power. By uniting the decision and the purchase in an entity with a great deal of purchasing power (the University) it should help control costs while delivering a superior product. Publishers will have a huge amount of costly friction removed from the market as well (stocking college bookstores).

Second – there is a perception that textbooks are an out of control cost. If colleges broke out the cost of the new stadium or the Faculty Club you might see more outrage over tuition hikes. Compared to tuition which has doubled every 9 years since 1958 (roughly double the rate of general inflation), textbooks are a bargain. Textbooks are a small fraction of tuition and haven’t increased anything close to that rate. But, because they are a direct purchase by students they get a lot more scrutiny.


If costs are controlled from site license purchasing and bundled into tuition the perception that textbooks are a rip off might subside. The schools benefit by building a lifelong connection to the student as well (assuming their subscription travels with them at graduation).

In the end this would make the university textbook market a lot more like the K12 market where states and districts make the buying decisions.


For K12 the far bigger innovation here is the lifetime “membership” in a textbook that comes from creating a student account. Building, nurturing, and adding value to that relationship over the long haul is a completely new way of thinking about our business.

For Higher Education the site license shift will have huge implications for who, what, and how instructional materials are purchased. It will upend a lot of sacred cows so it won’t go down easily (“no Professor, you don’t get to choose any book you want…”) and it isn’t a panacea (e.g. it won’t solve the problem of the cost of niche materials).

In both cases the economics are pretty compelling and point to a way forward for publishers that skirts the piracy issue with innovation rather than enforcement.


In a future post I’ll write about the challenges for publishers if they begin to implement these ideas on a broad scale. These changes will upend decades of established business practice, process, and systems.

Hat tip to Michael Cairns over at Personanondata for highlighting this topic.


One response to “New Textbook Paradigm – In Which I Get It”

  1. Carin Lamontagne says:

    As a former college bookstore manager, I remember the drama all too well. It was impossible to convince the students or parents that they were not being ripped off, and getting professors to commit to their books each semester was a battle. Still, those “sacred cows” will moo very loudly over losing that exclusive control over their course materials and over losing the extra money (however small the amount) when selling used books back at the end of the course. I agree that the existing model is unsustainable, but I’m not yet convinced that this is the best solution.