Pearson, the world’s largest educational publisher, announced on Tuesday that it is transitioning to a digital-first model for textbook publishing, moving away from the print-edition-based model that has been the foundation of higher education publishing for centuries. In its press release, the company announced that it will move almost all of its 1500 U.S. textbook titles to continuously-updated digital-first content and will only make print textbooks available on a rental basis.
This is a major turning point in higher ed publishing. Pearson’s move contrasts with that of its rival Cengage, which launched a subscription model called Cengage Unlimited last year. Whereas Cengage is offering access to all e-textbooks from its catalog to students at a rate of $120 per semester or $180 per year, Pearson is renting them individually for an average price of $40. Both Pearson and Cengage will make print textbooks available as rentals only. The e-textbook rental model has been around for several years through providers such as eFollett and VitalSource (formerly CourseSmart, a joint venture of Pearson and other higher ed publishers).
The switch to digital-first won’t be complete immediately; Pearson still intends to update 100 of its 1500 active U.S. titles in print, though that’s down from 500 this year.
Yet the switch to digital-first has a whole host of implications beyond student access or pricing models that indicate how big a deal this is. Higher ed publishers have been talking about going digital-first for many years, and there are several reasons why none of them — at least none of the major publishers — have done it until now.
First are all the implications of moving from one edition at a time to a program of continuous updates for digital textbooks. This requires major changes to editorial processes and technologies, and it requires that textbook authors — typically full-time faculty members at universities — commit to continuous updates to their material rather than committing only to one edition of a book at a time. Pearson has been putting in place the editorial infrastructure and processes required to do this for several years now and has been leading the way in setting standards for online educational content such as EDUPUB.
Then there are all the rights clearance challenges. Textbook publishers typically license thousands of items of content for use in each of their textbooks — illustrations, photographs, quotations, tables, etc. — and do so for discrete editions of those textbooks. In many cases, those rights have to be re-cleared for continuously-updated digital textbooks.
The impetus for Pearson’s announcement is very simple: higher ed publishing is (finally?) in enough pain to make these disruptive transitions necessary. Publishers have increasingly been competing with used textbooks sales and third-party textbook rental services such as Chegg. Textbook sales have also been suffering more and more from course instructors using open educational resources and other online materials that are free and potentially more up-to-date than material that had to be committed to print-oriented textbooks months or years in advance.
Publishers’ primary strategy in coping with these forces over the past several years has been to keep raising textbook prices and hoping that course instructors won’t be concerned about imposing those costs on students. (For example, Paul Samuelson’s Economics, one of the most enduring textbooks of all time, currently retails for $220 in hardcover. When adjusted for inflation, that’s more than triple its price 50 years ago.) But as prices go further and further into the stratosphere and backlash increases, that strategy has become self-defeating; Pearson’s revenues are expected to fall up to 5% in the U.S. this year.
Pearson’s move to digital-first is a turning point for the industry; we’ll undoubtedly see other higher ed publishers follow in the next couple of years.
The other important implication of digital-first is that it can enable publishers to build their own distribution channels to students, bypassing college bookstores as well as third party distributors like Chegg and MBS Direct. The first evidence of this happening for e-textbooks was in 2014, when the four major publishers involved in the CourseSmart joint venture sold it off to VitalSource, a unit of the publishing services giant Ingram Content Group. The deal involved moving CourseSmart e-textbooks to VitalSource’s platform, and the publishers decided not to make all of their titles available on a platform they didn’t own. More recently, Pearson and McGraw-Hill have been working towards distribution channel control for print textbooks through something called consignment rentals. And certainly Cengage Unlimited is a further move towards distribution channel control by publishers.
It seems likely that Pearson will insist that students engage with its own service to obtain their course materials as part of its digital-first strategy. As the number of major higher ed publishers shrinks — Cengage and McGraw-Hill announced a merger just two months ago — the trend towards publishers’ own distribution channels is more inevitable. If it continues, then students will need to do the equivalent of subscribing to Hulu, Netflix, HBO GO, Showtime OTT, CBS All Access, and Apple TV+ in order to get e-textbooks each semester. This fragmentation could backfire: it may put a damper on students’ interests in getting their text materials digitally instead of in print.
Yet the move to digital-first doesn’t really complete the digital transition of higher ed content: it’s still based on units called “textbooks,” no matter how they are delivered. Publishers and others have also been talking for a long time about web-based delivery of educational materials in smaller, recombinable units instead of in monolithic textbooks. An entirely different set of nontrivial changes will be necessary to bring about that transition, so it could be a while.