There’s change in the air

The textbook revolution, like the Zombie Apocalypse, will come without warning…

To be fair, I have a great deal of respect for textbook companies. Sure, I disagree with some of their content and format, but the fact that they are still in business is impressive. Mind you, the rate of mergers is astounding, but still, I would not want to venture into the market.

Textbook publishers are in the business of selling textbooks, so it is in their best interest to provide the best content for their books. So they do try. But they are also in the business of selling textbooks, and they would go out of business if they didn’t sell any. So when a new market opens up (for example the revised curriculum here in Ontario), there is certainly an effort made to be first to press. First to press stands a good chance of being adopted by school boards, and once adopted the board is essentially locked into substantial purchases each year for replacement books.

So it is a compromise – best material they can produce and still be timely to market. (I got to experience this firsthand, as an editor on a senior Biology textbook a few years ago. Instead of re-writing a section to meet my recommendations, the section was simply truncated.)

One thing the publishers have not generally been great at is online resources. They are often expensive, with a pricing scheme that follows textbook models, rather than, say iPhone app models. They also tend to be, well, textbook supplements. You can often find better resources yourself for free, but it is time consuming. Some publishers, like Pearson, are shifting their focus more toward online resources, but they aren’t there yet.

There is encroachment on the digital front from a variety of players, including the likes of Wolfram, which are no doubt giving the paper publishers pause for thought. So there are whiffs of change in the air, but I suspect the upheaval will occur suddenly. I suspect a major market – some large public school market – Texas, California, New York, Ontario, Alberta – will suddenly decide to adopt a non-traditional source, ie online course materials, in lieu of a textbook. It may be one or two courses, and it may be on a trial basis. But it will be noticed. Sitting with unsold books in the warehouse, the publishers will scramble to develop deliverable online resources that compete directly with the chosen resource, and then take that template and adapt it across the curriculum. This in turn will make other markets aware of online resources, and the changeover will be more swift than the death of VHS. Probably not as smooth though, as the pricing schemes that publishers currently use will be unacceptable on such a large scale, so they will have to restructure themselves to accommodate. Meanwhile, those small companies that started it all might suddenly become major players…

You know, I’m kind of looking forward to it. The textbook Revolution that is. Zombies I can do without.

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