According to whose account you accept, digital textbooks are proving slow to take off or are poised for rapid expansion over the next few years. Of course, both assertions could be equally true. One thing is certain: it has proved far easier for publishers to transition to digital in the reference market than in textbooks, and there are also differences between the US and UK markets that could mean take-off, if and when it does come, could happen differently in different territories.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the dominance of the institutional subscription model in reference has been a key enabler of the transition from print to digital. This is probably because no significant change was required to the business model or the distribution channel for it to happen – only the format moved from print to digital. So publishers were relatively quick to embrace the transition, since it involved limited disruption – and there was also the potential to increase margins by saving production costs throughout the content lifecycle.
Transitioning to digital in the textbook market is more complex, involving changes to business model and distribution that involve higher levels of uncertainty and therefore risk.
Under the existing print model, essentially a B2C model intermediated by wholesalers, bookshops have been the conventional channel for student purchase of textbooks (and we all know what has happened to bookshops). Libraries have no role as intermediaries in student purchasing, and no budgets to fund purchase of material, which, outside of the for-profit US educational market, has historically been purchased by individual students. Furthermore, aggregator platforms used by libraries are not generally set up to enable direct sales of textbooks.
Of course, the textbook market is not pure B2C, as purchase decisions made by students are subject to heavy influence from the institutions at which they pursue their studies – in the shape of the academics who teach particular courses. And here one of the salient differences between the US and Europe comes in.
Differences in learning culture
The US has, in general, a far more directive culture in learning than is seen in most parts of Europe (this difference shows up in research right across the spectrum, from HE to organisational training). It is therefore far more usual in the US for a text to be mandated rather than recommended, as it might more commonly be in a European institution. In practice, lecturer recommendations will carry a great deal of weight anyway, however the status of mandated text allows a greater level of commercial certainty in the US, which is appears to be making the US market more amenable to digital transition.
Publishers and institutions reach volume agreements that mean the publisher can sell by volume and the institution can pass on the savings direct to students. The institution often promotes these cost savings as part of their proposition to prospective students by, for example, presenting new students with tablets that are pre-loaded with course content when they join.
This sort of deal is far more common in the for-profit sector, which represents some 15% in the US. For-profits have far less presence in the UK market, but according to Universities UK the distinction between for-profit and non-profit is fast becoming meaningless, as all HE institutions begin increasingly to behave in more commercial ways.
The opportunity offered by MOOCs
MOOCs, incubated within US HE, seem to present an interesting opportunity for publishers of digital textbooks in this respect, because they replicate the US model on a global scale (a development that smacks for some, it should be said, of ‘educational colonialism’). The prospect of unprecedented growth in export markets through mandated textbooks sold alongside globally available MOOC courses is a pleasant one for publishers.
However, lecturers themselves have tended to dilute the opportunity by not wanting the purchase of mandated texts to become a barriers to entry of those in the developing world who might not be able to afford them, changing the status of texts on their MOOC courses from ‘mandated’, to ‘recommended’. Not entirely back to square one, perhaps, but a signal that MOOCs are a frontier space, where business models are still emerging, and thus one where all bets have to be heavily hedged.
This is just one example of the type of complexity that can potentially hold back the transition to digital. Another source of uncertainty lies in a factor we have already hinted at – the presence of an end-user (i.e. a student) at the heart of the purchasing decision.
A market of paupers?
Libraries may protest that their budgets are under unreasonable pressure, but that is nothing to the way students feel. These are people, remember, who travel by coach and live on pot noodles. Students, for the most part, are poor. And textbooks are expensive.
Ebooks may have proved massively popular at lower price points, but in the area of the price spectrum that textbooks inhabit, the jury is still out. Even where an e-book can show an incremental price advantage over purchase of a new print textbook, it may be more expensive than a second-hand print version by a factor of ten.
As the price of education has risen over recent year, the popularity of rented and pre-loved textbooks has grown significantly among students [link]. Publishers may hope to leave behind the second market altogether with the transition to digital (the efforts of upstart start-ups like ReDigi notwithstanding) but it is proving hard to wean their cash-strapped decision-maker off the cheaper print alternative.
A rash of surveys has poured cold water on the idea of GenY rushing enthusiastically to adopt digital. Even where research shows growing adoption, it also finds evidence of growing discernment: ‘Simply transferring a print textbook to a digital format isn’t going to cut it with this crowd,’ said Angela Bole, Deputy Executive Director of BISG.
This has to be a consideration for publishers as they make technical decisions about their transition to digital – e.g. whether to go PDF, with its greater DRM protectability, or XML, opening up a world of possibilities for rich media, interactivity, and better search and discovery.
In the short term, this decision will surely be driven by contingency: publishers have large libraries of textbook content that they need to convert quickly and cost-effectively. PDF may be a useful staging post, therefore – but it is surely not an end destination.
Beyond the skeuomorph
It would be a mistake to assume that digital textbooks are really one thing. The truth is that the category covers a huge diversity in terms of usability, functionality, interactivity, design and general sexiness.
It should also be said that while student are extremely price-sensitive, they are also extremely susceptible to the lure of incredibly convenient digital products with great usability.
If digital textbooks can’t win on price point, they might have to compete on factors such as these that create added value. Being a low cost, lighter-to-carry alternative to print books might ultimately not be enough to make e-textbooks competitive with print in all disciplines and for all markets – despite any amount of push from publishers and institutions.
Being competitive in this market – hitting the end-user requirement – could require some thinking outside the box for publishers … that might be a lamentable cliché, but then to the average developer, the whole idea of a digital textbook is a lamentable cliché. It’s a skeuomorph – which is to say that in the digital realm it doesn’t really exist except as a metaphor.
This distinction might seem of merely academic concern to a publisher grappling with new business models and new channels to market, but to the extent that adoption of mobile devices by students is a driver in the digital textbooks market (which it is), and end-user acceptability has to be taken at all into account (which it should, if Angela Bole is correct in her analysis), then factors like usability, design, functionality and user experience might all play a part in making textbooks – or whatever shape the content they contain eventually comes to assume online – finally achieve mainstream acceptability.