Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Textbook Publishers Are Major Obstacle to Adopting E-Books in Education

I was disappointed this morning in watching textbook adoption presentations done by several major publishers. I might as well have been sitting in a textbook presentation from the mid-1990s. My hopes and expectations for seeing cutting edge technological innovation from these companies were dashed to pieces. Somewhere inside I felt a bit sorry for these publishers. I’m not sure but I think I might be witnessing a “Blockbuster Scenario” involving our major textbook publishers in this country.  As you know, Blockbuster didn’t see the video streaming train coming, and tried to break into the business way too late. Now they’re sitting on the “Chapter whatever-you-call-it block.” It appears textbook companies are caught in the same trap. They are on the verge of irrelevance, and I ‘m not sure they even know it.  During the course of their presentations and during my conversations with their sales reps, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that these guys don’t get it. Here are some assumptions I think they still cling to about textbooks.

  • The textbook is the central instructional tool used by teachers in the classroom. Obviously, there are some classrooms where that is the case. I hate to disappoint them, but that isn’t true in the vast majority of classrooms I visit, and my last few years in the classroom, there were entire weeks at a time when we did not use textbooks. Textbooks for many teachers are supplemental tools, not the main act anymore. I don’t hear teachers saying things like, “Get our your books and turn to page 433 very much any more.” More and more teachers are turning to the Web and technology for instruction. Textbook companies are still trying to sell educators books that were designed to be the main act of teaching, and a lot of teachers just don’t use those books that way any more.
  • Students and teachers don’t care about the size of textbooks. One textbook I reviewed yesterday had 1500 pages and had to weigh close to 10 pounds. Students very much care about the size of textbooks. If they have a teacher who assigns homework, they have to lug that massive tome homeward at the end of the day. Talk about fostering resentment! Creating a literature textbook of massive size might have lots of resources in it, but it will not make students love literature any more. I really don’t think teachers and students are interested in getting more poundage for their money. Textbook publishers need to consider their customers which does include the students who have to put their product in their bookbags. Sometimes even the best teacher would have a problem convincing a student that carrying around a 10 pound textbook is their best interest.
  • Textbook publishers think 21st century educators are willing to pay full textbook price to get e-textbooks. And, as an addendum to this, they also believe progressive educators will want to have to buy their physical product to get their e-texts. Yesterday, I was told repeatedly by each publisher that I had to purchase their physical textbook to get access to their e-text. One company did offer to strike a deal though. I could buy their e-text alone, but I had to pair it with their textbook software in order to get their e-books, and the price of their e-book was the same. Textbook publishers and their marketers are caught in the same limbo that caused Blockbuster’s demise. They really don’t see that they are going to have to find a way to provide their customers with the products they want. I am interested in purchasing e-texts. I don’t want physical books to go with them. I don’t want some big software package to go with them. I don’t want to pay as much for an e-text because it can’t cost as much to create and distribute an e-text. My advice to them is: “If you can’t provide me with the e-book I want, I will find some way to get what I need and want.”
  • Textbook publishers are following the state and federal policymakers when making  marketing decisions and not classroom teachers and educators in general. For example, over and over, the sales pitch of the day during the presentations yesterday was, “Our book aligns with the new common core standards.” One textbook publisher happily and gleefully pointed out that they were the only textbook company to publish the relevant common core on the beginning page of each literary work in their literature book. Who cares! I can’t speak for all English teachers, but for me what was most important about the text I used was the actual literary works included, not what was written in the margins.
  • Language ArtsTextbook publishers still are publishing the same literary works in texts that have been there for last 100 years. For example, I opened a ninth grade textbook, and the first three short stories I encountered were three that I used when I began teaching 21 years ago. I’ll concede that they are generally considered classics, but doesn’t anyone write classics any more? Also, let’s face it, in the interest of engaging students, could we not, just once in a while include something different? It seems that there are short stories, poems, and plays that have been declared by the muses to be fodder for textbooks for all eternity, and textbook publishers never stray outside that list.
  • Textbook companies still believe that questions and activities at the end of a story or chapter are useful. Again, I can’t speak for all language arts teachers, but I never used the questions at the end of the story, poem or play. In my experience, students hate those questions, and they cause more of them to hate literature than having a 10 pound book to carry around. Also, most of the time, the activities provided at the end of the selections were not useful of engaging for the students I taught. I had my own activities to use with the selections I was reading, so those things were not needed. Now some would argue that this feature is useful for new teachers. I would argue they were not. There’s nothing more useful than having a mentor teacher willing to open their toolbox to share their instructional activities. Just give me a textbook that has quality, highly engaging literature. Keep all that other stuff.

I think it is clear that textbook publishers are caught in a time warp. They aren’t paying attention to their customers. They still count on the fact that states have this pile of money that can only be spent on physical textbooks, so perhaps they figure teachers will choose one of their products because they have to. Ultimately, the products they sell are little different from, at least the ones I used when I began teaching 21 years ago. After my experience watching their textbook presentations yesterday, I think they’re in a world of trouble. They had better begin re-engineering their products, or they’ll go the same way as Blockbuster.


  1. Great post even though it sounds like it came from a hurtful presentation. I'm also struck by how it seems textbook companies don't get that even if they published a book a year there is more relevant and up-to-date content published somewhere on the web. And while I value the advise of the textbook writers who contribute to the book, the web gives me access to 1000's of other content teachers with at least one unique thing to offer. I think they know their obselescence is here - they are just preying on the habits and fears of a few others.

  2. Thanks for the compliment. Yes, but I must say there was an air of arrogance in their presentations too. They still place their book at the center, and technology is still an add on. Like you, I know too well there's just too much content available on the Web to keep placing a book at the center of instruction. I honestly feel that all these major textbook publishers no longer listen to their true customers, the teachers and educators in the classrooms and schools.

  3. Awesome post! I served on a textbook committee in a different state and found the same to be true. I could not believe that a book on CD or online access was not standard practice for all publishers. I thought that this adoption it would be included with the book instead of an additional fee per unit purchased. Even more surprising was that upper level textbooks were more scare with technology tools than standard level materials. Publishers are not listening to their true customers - students.

  4. Thanks for the compliment. Yes, I agree. In some ways, I think maybe textbook publishers are still are trying to sell their wares the same way they always have. Blockbuster did the same. They kept trying to sell their products by having people come into their stores to rent their DVDs. Netflix and others found that customers love convenience when it comes to renting movies and videos. They want to be able to download them on demand or purchase them from the big red box as they go into Walmart. Textbook publishers fail to see we want e-books but we don't want to pay the full textbook price. Will they change? Only time will tell.


    I think you may like my Skyndle idea! Let me know what you think.