Why are AEP and the AAP School Division Merging?

Merge sign

The Association of Educational Publishers (AEP) and the Association of American Publishers School Division (AAP) announced their intent to merge last week. I’m currently the Board President at AEP. As one of the principals in the deal I thought it would be useful to share my perspective on why we are combining forces.

Why does an association exist?
It helps to start with a quick review of why professional and trade associations exist. Speaking only for myself, these four issues form the core of why I have invested time in several associations over the past 20+ years.
  • Associations water networks of influence. By providing a neutral ground where industry leaders can meet associations provide for idea diffusion, business development, evaluation of issues of common concern, and expanded professional relationships.
  • Associations advance the policy positions of a group with shared interests. An industry that is subject to the shifting policy positions of government needs to track those changes and have a platform for making our voice heard in the discussion.
  • Associations provide professional development for industry specific needs. Educational publishing has some quirks. As new people enter the industry or advance within companies formal training programs accelerate their effectiveness.
  • Associations advocate standards of professional practice – They do this indirectly through awards and recognition programs that validate the best work going on in the space. They also do this directly through participating in the development of standards.
In the spirit of “if you don’t like the news go out and make some of your own” I think having a seat the table for these issues is important for companies and individuals. If you are not engaged in your association you are missing significant opportunities to leverage your company’s position in the market.
While these benefits of associations are relatively timeless the specific way they are instantiated needs to map to an ever changing world.

What Has Changed?

In the past 5 years the educational materials market has shifted dramatically. Three trends in particular have driven this change.
  1. The shift to digital content, driven by tablets and LMS platforms. This is affecting virtually everything about how educational publishers are structured and is reshaping product development, distribution, patterns of competition, and investment priorities. Our professional networks and professional development need to follow suit.
  2. The emergence of Open Educational Resources (OER) as a viable option. The shifts that digital libraries and user generated content have caused in other IP based markets are now reshaping the educational publishing landscape. OER itself is a positive addition to the mix (many publishers are embracing OER). However, in the face of “free” content the old distinctions between basal and supplemental are relatively unimportant. We need a voice for high quality, professionally produced, pro-grade tools that save teachers time and save schools money.
  3. Purchasing processes are merging. It used to be that schools purchased digital content very differently than print content. They also took very different approaches to buying core programs vs. supplemental materials. Now schools demand that all programs have digital components and they are looking to address the needs of all learners with core and supplemental resources at the same time. In other words, the rationale for distinct professional associations that supported core vs. supplemental or digital vs. print have evaporated.
On top of these long term macro trends we have the short term impact of the the economic crisis and its concomitant impact on school budgets and priorities. This is accelerating changes in the buying process that would normally have taken much longer. States are moving away from highly structured basal textbook adoption processes to create new opportunities for more modern content (digital, subscription, blended, etc.).
This is a great thing for innovation and is creating room for new entrants in the industry. Our associations need to be a welcome home for these new players by reflecting the needs of the new market.
Why AAP and AEP?
In this changed world the educational materials industry needs to be able to speak clearly about how these changes can be effectively implemented. While Publishers have been adapting internally (e.g. Pearson’s reorganization last week) our trade associations are still organized around old models of industry structure.
The old structure reflected the following distinctions between vendors.
  • Basal vs. Supplemental. As a general rule AAP was largely seen as representing the large basal publishers while AEP concentrated on the supplemental space. The changing purchasing patterns are eliminating this distinction.
  • Large vs. Medium/Small. AAP has historicaly been the domain of the largest publishing houses. AEP was scrappier and focused more on the needs of the mid-market and smaller companies. In a rapidly evolving market with uncertain outcomes getting all the innovators together makes good sense. The large companies can deploy at scale and the small guys can iterate innovations rapidly. Many companies were members of both associations, but often to address the needs of different parts of their organization (see Basal v Supplemental in particular).
  • Print vs. Technology. Since schools themselves had different decision making processes for buying books vs. tech it made sense to have separate associations. AAP tended to be more print focused, AEP was a blend of print and digital, others focus solely on digital. Since schools now demand blended materials this distinction is no longer relevant in policy. This is also creating an urgent professional development need, one of the central challenges publishers face is blending the radically different paradigms of print vs. technology development.
To sum up, old patterns of organizing ourselves are no longer relevant. What is of paramount importance going forward is an association that can provide a voice for high quality, professionally produced, blended instructional resources and tools. This lies at the heart of the merger.
What is Next?
The high level details of the merger can be found in the announcement.
Next week at the Context in Content Conference (jointly sponsored by AEP and AAP) we’ll have multiple opportunities to dive deeper into the specifics. Tom Allen, AAP’s President and CEO will address the conference first thing on Monday June 3rd and we’ll hold a vote of the AEP membership on this on the morning of Tuesday June 4th.
Attendance for the conference continues to increase year over year, and if you are not already planning on being in DC next week I encourage you to try and make it. You will learn a lot, make valuable new connections, and have a voice in how the industry moves forward.