Thursday, July 10, 2008

WSJ Looks At Textbooks

In this mornings WSJ, an article on textbook pricing but with a twist. The article notes the mutual interest that exists between publishers and institutions in maintaining revenues from the sale of texts. They note the uneasy relationship at the University of Alabama where a 'custom version' of a workbook is required reading for English Comp but in reality the workbook is little different than a non-custom version.
The spiral-bound book is nearly identical to the same "A Writer's Reference" that goes for $30 in the used-book market and costs about $54 new. The only difference in the Alabama version: a 32-page section describing the school's writing program -- which is available for free on the university's Web site. This version also has the University of Alabama's name printed across the top of the front cover, and a notice on the back that reads: "This book may not be bought or sold used."
Custom textbooks are the fastest growing segment of the education market but this aspect of publishing is likely to generate more scrutiny as publishers make even more extensive use of custom versions to circumvent the used book market. There are numerous state legislatures attempting (in some cases have done so) to write and pass legislation that will govern textbook pricing and place restrictions on the relationship between academicians and publishers. In NY, even the Attorney General's office is getting in on the action:
The book-royalty arrangements resemble a practice exposed during last year's student-loan scandal, when some universities steered students to particular lending firms and received a secret cut of the loans. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo called those payments "kickbacks" and forced universities, many of which said they used the money to fund scholarships, to halt the practice. Mr. Cuomo recently launched a broad conflict-of-interest investigation of the relationship between colleges and vendors, including book publishers.
Central to the WSJ article is the growth in the provision of 'royalty' payments back to course departments (via the Bookstore) as though this were something new. What is glossed over is the recognition that the bookstore has always made some margin on the sale of both new and used textbooks. In this article we would be forgiven for believing there was never any mutual interest in the sale of textbooks between college and publisher.

As with many things, technology will march on ahead of those that what to govern commercial interests, and while custom textbooks are a focus now, educational companies are already establishing deals where electronic versions of their titles will be paid for like lab-fees. If a student takes a course they are automatically charged a fee for access to the text material online. This subscription model will revolutionize educational publishing as it has legal, tax and financial information and this is not news to anyone in the business. It may be news to legislators. Fellow traveller, Alison Pendergast notes an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
Colorado Community Colleges Online, a consortium of 13 institutions in the Colorado Community College System, has teamed up with Pearson Education to offer digital textbooks at a one-time cost of $49 per student. The deal is the first of its kind between a major publisher and a public college system according to Rhonda M. Epper, co-executive director of learning technology for the Colorado online system. The $49 fee is rolled in with tuition.
In the above case, even though the fee appears low the total dollars paid by all students for access to materials may exceed what Pearson would have received were the books sold as print versions in the bookstore. This is because most students either don't buy a textbook or buy a used version. In the e-book world they may not have that freedom. The Colorado experiment is likely to become preferred by publishers and institutions over time but the market will also become a battle ground for publishers attempting to build delivery platforms for their content. Pearson leads in this development but the two other major publishers are spending fast to catch up. For many other educational publishers they may find themselves having to establish content licencing agreements with the major players so that they can deliver their content to students. Other than the largest publishers most will not have the resources to build a delivery solution and nor will their solution ever be as complete as the offer from Pearson or Cengage. It is dynamic stuff and in five years educational publishing will be unrecognisable versus what we see currently.

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