Digital Impacts on Academic Publishing


In 2009, the Census Bureau reported that there were over 18.6 part- and full- time students attending colleges in the United States who in 2008 spent approximately $4.3 billion on college textbooks. Because these textbooks are so expensive, publishers are now turning to digital versions. This article discusses the major changes that textbook publishing is experiencing as a result of the digital revolution as well as the current market transformation and its challenges.

Digital Impacts on Academic Publishing

Shlomo Skinner


The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 2008 there were 13.2 million full-time and 5.4 million part-time college students. These students spend over $1,000 on books and supplies each year. The Association of American Publishers estimated that in 2009, sales of books in the Higher Education category, which includes college textbooks, reached $4.3 billion. Since some of the most expensive books on the market today are college textbooks, publishers are attempting to hold down production and distribution costs by introducing digital versions of these texts.

This paper describes textbook publishing and the major changes it is undergoing today largely as a result of the digital revolution and in response to the market challenges it poses.

Textbook Features

The phrase “college textbooks” means texts written for college-level students covering the material typically taught in a college course. Even though Tom Sawyer may be required reading in an American literature class, it would not be included in this genre. However, a version of Tom Sawyer that included historical background to the novel, commentary, critical notes, discussion questions, and essays on Mark Twain’s writing style could be in this genre.

College textbooks may be written in language that is simple, sophisticated, technical, or academic. For example, a book that is meant to be remedial or for students without a strong academic background may be written in simple language. The language may become more sophisticated as the author develops the subject (and presumably as the skills of the students improve). Textbooks intended for advanced students, both undergraduate and graduate, may be written in increasingly technical and academic language.


College textbooks are usually published by firms that specialize in academic texts. The college textbook publishers listed by the Association of American Publishers website (2009) are:

  • Bedford, Freeman, Worth Publishing Group
  • Cengage Learning
  • John Wiley & Company
  • MacMillan
  • McGraw-Hill Higher Education
  • Pearson Education
  • W.W. Norton

Significantly, there has been considerable consolidation in the field over the past few years, reflecting the market forces at play in this industry.

The traditional sales model for books other than textbooks involved bookstores (and more recently Internet vendors) stocking books from multiple publishers. A customer visited the stores or websites with the understanding that each one offered a different selection of books and prices. The customer purchased or placed an order based on factors such as content, price, format, urgency, shipping options, and availability and, in this way, influenced the pricing and availability of books. From this point of view, the publisher had to be responsive to the buyer.

However, the college textbook market lacks this kind of relationship between the publisher and the book buyer customer, i.e., the student. A professor or committee alone decides which textbook to assign for a class, often without regard to factors such as price, size, and available formats. Though several textbooks may cover the course material, the student’s choice is limited to the assigned textbook. The only real options available to the student are to buy a used copy of the assigned text at a discount or to pay full price for a new copy.

The digital revolution is changing all of this. Digital formats offer textbook options unavailable in the model described above. While the ability to buy a used textbook is certainly not new, and in every college town there was a thriving market for used textbooks, a recent change in this market is the emergence of Internet-based vendors who turn what was once only a local marketplace into a nation-wide and even international one. In the past, when a college decided to approve a new textbook, the local market for the previously used book would vanish. Today, Internet vendors can buy the used books and sell them online to students on the other side of the country.

Textbook Formats: Hard, Soft, and Digital

The traditional format of college texts has been books, usually in hardcover, which can be very expensive, though some textbooks are published in softcover and sold at a lower price. The newest innovations in college texts are e-books and texts available online. Textbooks in these digital formats may be available for sale, limited-time rental, or purchase of only selected chapters.

The traditional hardcover textbook offers several advantages. Even a heavy book comes with a sturdy binding and will last for years. The student may write explanatory notes in the margin or highlight text. The book may be resold after the course ends or added to the student’s library for future reference. There are negative aspects to consider as hardcover textbooks, especially for introductory courses, tend to be very heavy and burdensome to carry to class or to study sessions. They are also extremely expensive. For example, the widely used and popular text Atkinson and Hilgard’s Introduction to Psychology (14th Edition), published by Cengage Learning, has a list price in the United States of $211.96, though vendors such as Amazon may sell it at a discount. Such discounting is representative of the market challenge that textbook publishers are facing.

The paperback, or softcover, edition of a textbook has essentially the same pros and cons as the hardcover edition. The major difference is that the binding and covers are not as durable. This is an issue for students who want to add the book to their professional library or maximize resale value. Even in the softcover format, textbooks can be quite expensive. Atkinson and Hilgard’s Introduction to Psychology (15th Edition) has a list price in the United States of $160.95 (Amazon 2011), though, as with the hardcover edition, vendors may sell it at a discount, again reflecting the market pressures in the field.

Another option may be textbooks available on compact disks (CDs). This format offers the student a textbook that is less expensive than traditional formats and is highly transportable. The CD may contain interactive material such as quizzes and worksheets or multimedia presentations of the course material such as slide shows and videos. Of course, the CD must be used on a computer, and the student may not be able to add personal notes and link them to the original text.

Enter the E-textbook

The e-book is a growing trend in publishing. E-books are generally less expensive than traditional book formats, are highly transportable, and may contain interactive material. For example, it is now standard for an easily accessible dictionary to be included as part of the e-book interface. However, the e-book must be read using either a dedicated e-book reader or a computer equipped with the appropriate software. Though there are e-book formats that work on all e-readers, publishers may choose to use their own, proprietary e-book formats. The student’s ability to add personal notes and link them to the original text is dependent upon the e-book reader. Though e-books have become an important publishing product, textbooks in e-book format are not yet widely available.

Students must also be aware that some e-books are not actually sold, but rented. This means that when the rental period ends, the student loses access to the book. If a student decides to use the book as a reference in a future course, or to repeat a course, it may be necessary to purchase another rental contract.

An example of an introductory textbook available as an e-book is Calculus (9th Edition) by Ron Larson, published by Brooks Cole, a subsidiary of Cengage Learning. This massive hardcover book has over 1,300 pages and a shipping weight of 6.1 pounds. It is also very expensive—the list price is $216.95. Amazon offers a Kindle version of the book for $139.16 (more than $75 off the price of the physical book).

Apparently, producing an e-book version of an existing text is not always a straightforward process. On the Amazon website, both purchasers who reviewed the Kindle version of Calculus cited numerous flaws. Here is an excerpt from one review:

I bought the Kindle version of this book because I need a calculus reference to take with me and I don’t want to carry another really big book. … Frankly, I find it to be a very understandable text. I like the author’s presentation. So why one star? The formatting of the Kindle version. … There are run-together’s (sic), misspellings, things left out, incorrect symbols…Again, that’s only the first chapter. It’s a shame to pay $139.00 and get a mess like this. This one’s not ready for prime time.

Textbook Formats: Bundles

Another recent development in textbook publishing is to sell a textbook in a traditional format, hardcover or softcover, and include either a CD or a subscription to a website, a product known as a “bundle.”

On the one hand, bundling would seem to offer the student the best of both worlds: a traditional textbook to write notes in, mark up, and keep or resell, plus the multimedia presentations of the digital format. It is presumed that the publisher can easily update a website to include news and current research relevant to the course material and that it will do so.

On the other hand, these features are not without their detractors. Some student groups argue that textbook bundles increase the cost of the materials without adding substantial benefit to the student. According to research conducted by Student Public Interest Research Groups (2011):

Bundled textbooks tend to be 10–50% more expensive than the textbook alone, and many of the supplements expire at the end of the semester so that students can’t sell them back. The worst part is that bundles aren’t always necessary for class—65% of professors say that they rarely or never use the supplements.

SPIRG is referring both to textbooks bundled with paper workbooks and those bundled with digital media. The publisher controls website access by requiring the student to register using a unique password that is included with the book. By forcing students to register on the publisher’s website and then allowing that access to expire, the publisher lowers the resale value of the bundled textbook. Some publishers, however, will permit a student who does not have a password to purchase one.

An additional concern is that publishers are making studying and research too easy for students. By offering current information culled from the World Wide Web and bundling it with the textbook, students are deprived of the opportunity to learn how to judge the reliability of various information sources and to conduct research themselves.

Textbook Formats: Online

The newest format available is the online textbook. The traditional textbook publishers have formed an online service called CourseSmart to offer their textbooks in digital formats. For example, CourseSmart offers the same Calculus (9th Edition) by Ron Larson in both online and downloadable versions for a 180-day rental period for $108.49. This is a substantial savings from the list price of $216.95, but students will have to carefully weigh whether or not six months affords them sufficient time to benefit from the text.

A different online model is offered by Flat World Knowledge (FWK). FWK is a new publisher that is commissioning the writing of completely new textbooks. These books are then offered to colleges and students in several formats. For example, FWK recently published Introduction to Psychology by Dr. Charles Stangor of the University of Maryland. Students (or anyone else who is interested) may read the book online at no charge. They also have the option to purchase the book in a printable PDF format for $24.95. In addition, it is available as an e-book in a versatile format that can be used on an iPad, Kindle, Nook, or Sony Reader. The more traditionally minded can purchase a softcover version of the book—either in black and white for $34.95, or in color for $69.90. FWK and the University System of Ohio recently started a pilot program to give up to 1,000 students access to digital texts and study aids (which FWK normally charges for), and to study how to best use digital content.

Another innovation offered by this publisher allows an instructor to choose chapters from several books, thereby creating a customized textbook. Of course, this is not really a new concept. In the past, an instructor might assign two or more books for a course, but then only use sections of each book. The model offered by FWK can save students the cost of purchasing several textbooks. The down side is that this approach, which has been termed by some critics as the “chop and dice” method, can present problems in terms of narrative, conceptual, and logical continuity in hybrid works which are compiled from different sources. In seeking to make more affordable products for students, publishers will have to be careful to avoid such discontinuities and related problems.


College Textbooks is a genre in flux. The traditional publishers are facing multiple challenges from: (a) students and parents who are outraged about the price of textbooks, (b) an efficient Internet-based market for used textbooks, and (c) new online publishers. It seems likely that more texts will become available in digital formats as students who grew up digital continue to demand lower prices. However, it is not yet known how to effectively use digital texts in the classroom. Perhaps the study being undertaken by FWK and the University System of Ohio will shed light on this important topic.


 Amazon. 2011. Accessed February 23, 2011. _1_1_title_0_main?s=books &ie=UTF8&qid= 1302420563&sr=1-1.

Amazon. 2011. Accessed February 4, 2011. ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1296820085&sr=1-4.

Amazon. 2011. Accessed February 4, 2011.

Amazon. 2011. Accessed February 4, 2011. Note: See the section Textbook Versions–Online.

Association of American Publishers. 2009. Accessed February 5, 2011. http://www.publishers. org/main/IndustryStats/indStats_02.htm, _About_ 01_01.html.

Coursesmart. 2011. “About Coursesmart.” Accessed April 10, 2011.

Reid, Calvin. 2011. “Flat World Knowledge, University System of Ohio Ink Site License Deal.”Publishers Weekly. Accessed March 17, 2011. ohio-ink-site-license-deal.html.

Nawotka, Edward. 2011. “Are Digital Learning Solutions Too Convenient for Students?” Publishing Perspectives. Accessed February 4, 2011. students/.

The Student PIRGs. 2011. “Make Textbooks Affordable.” Accessed April 10, 2011.

U.S. Census Bureau, 2008. “Type of College and Year Enrolled for College Students 15 Years Old and Over, by Age, Sex, Race, Attendance Status, Control of School, Disability Status, and Enrollment Status.” Current Population Survey, Table 5. October.

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