Republic of Mathematics blog

The changing nature of textbook publishing

Posted by: Gary Ernest Davis on: March 28, 2011

I was told some  juicy information about academic textbook publishing last week.

A sales representative of a major textbook publisher discussed the medium term plans of the company as it re-thinks its role in publishing.

We discussed the high price of calculus texts for students, a topic close to my heart.

The new calculus book, previously only published in hardcover, will now be available as a paperback for  – wait for it! – a mere $150.

What a bargain!

Why do teachers of undergraduate mathematics, for example,  keep using these highly priced texts?

Answer number one

Because they are too lazy to write their own texts.

What makes them averse to writing their own texts?

By and large it is forming the problem sets and answers.

Which brings us to:

Answer number two

Because the big publishers now have online grading systems that pass the pain of grading home-works and possibly tests, to an online system that records results, does statistics, offers students hints, allows multiple re-takes, allows access to the book online, and gives short video lessons on difficult topics, among other things.

This is a big plus for teachers: homework grading is, for a number of reasons, one of the most irksome parts of the job.

Anything that relieves an instructor of this chore has to be good.

But at $150 a student?

The price is so steep that many students simply do not buy the book, and forgo the homework contribution to their grade.

What’s new in textbook publishing?

The e-book version of some undergraduate texts is now modifiable by teachers.

Suppose you want to insert a video you found on You Tube or elsewhere into the online version of the book.

No problem, you can do it yourself.

Suppose you do not like the author’s explanation of a particular topic.

No problem, you can modify the text with your own version.

Very flexible, and very useful.

However the author and publisher still get paid, and you do not.

What’s on the horizon?

This is the juicy bit.

Publishers – some of the biggest – are re-inventing themselves as facilitators and managers of learning.

What they want you, the teacher, to do is specify your learning goals and learning outcomes, and they will map a path through various resources – text, videos, and software applications – that will help achieve your goal.

The “textbook” per se is on its way out.

In its place will be a multimedia learning environment, managed ny publishers.

Who wins and who loses?

Teachers win in this scenario, in my view, because they get access to a rich array of learning resources.

Students and parents lose, in my view, because this will cost a lot of money and many will not be able to afford it.

My guess is that educational technologists will be in great demand by academic publishers.

I guees, too, that “star” teachers, those who can really make a lesson pop, will be in demand as video performers for publishers.

I am betting on multi-million dollar contracts for outstanding teachers.

These are interesting times!


Readers might like to take a look at the site:

ExpensiveTextbooksSuck. People coming together to defeat expensive textbook prices!


3 Responses to "The changing nature of textbook publishing"

Interesting, Gary!

Overall, I’m not sure how I feel about this. One thing I do know, though is this: it’s time for me to get my face on more of my YouTube math videos!


I think you are correct in your assumption that someone (probably not the major publishers) will disrupt the industry and develop an awesome learning management platform. The reason why I don’t think the publishers will win is because they are too stuck in the old ways as textbook sales still account for 70% of their revenues in the education space. Several startups out there are creating the type of multimedia platforms you discuss at a fraction of the cost (Khan Academy, LearnBop, etc.), and cost is becoming more and more of a driver in education as budgets get slashed.

I just graduated in 2008, so I’m well aware of the costs of textbooks. I too complained bitterly about the price of books per semester. But after I got out of school and worked for awhile, it occurred to me – students (a lot of people, really) will gladly drop a couple hundred dollars on an Ipad, Iphone or whatever the latest technology is. But we complain about $150 for a textbook that is (hopefully) going to teach us skills we need to survive in the real world, knowledge that will stay with us long after we have sold the book back.

Yes, I realize that not everything learned in schools is valuable and/or remembered. But speaking as someone in a profession where I have kept most of my textbooks to use as references, I guess I don’t really think the cost was that high. If intellectual property has a value, I suppose $150 does’t seem that bad.

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