The future of textbooks. Part 3: Textbook publishing

Textbook publishers don’t have a good reputation. They are seen to be avaricious in setting high prices for textbooks, exploitative in bringing out unwanted new editions and (by some authors) uncommunicative and unhelpful.

Certainly, textbook prices have risen at a significantly higher rate than inflation in general and they are unaffordable by many students. This results in fewer sales and so publishers raise prices to maintain their revenue – thus perpetuating the vicious circle.

Yet, in reality – textbook publishing is not outrageously profitable; authors don’t make lots of money from their books and bookstores are closing.  Something is seriously wrong in the system. It is fairly obvious to me that the publishing industry have to look at the way they do things and find ways of doing them differently and much more cheaply.

From an external perspective, it seems to me that part of the problem is that very little has fundamentally changed in book production and marketing in the last 20 years. Obviously manuscripts are no longer rekeyed and are emailed rather than posted to the publisher (although my most recent contract had a clause about submitting a double-spaced single sided copy on paper – which I ignored). Apart from that the processes in producing the 9th edition of my book were very little different from those in producing the 1st edition in 1982.

There is enormous scope here for more agile, technology-enabled processes that could reduce the time from delivery to the bookshop by at least 50%.  Instead of a set of sequential activities, creating a decent collaborative environment for book production could make everyone’s like easier. But, if we have a decent environment, authors can work directly with freelance editors, designers and typesetters. Recommendation systems mean that authors can tell each other about good people to work with and the publisher middleman can be dispensed with.

But what about the publisher’s role in quality assurance.  Getting a reputable publishers to produce and print your book means you’ll end up with a high-quality product. Wishful thinking. Some publishers who specialize in small print runs, such as Springer, ask authors to produce camera-ready pages then they never read what’s produced before printing. The quality is dreadful. Some publishers do employ designers but the general standard of textbook design (even books that sell thousands of copies) is so bad that it’s difficult to imagine that anyone with even a modicum of design literacy was involved. Not a great value add from publishers here.

Maybe the problem is printing, inventory management and distribution. These are certainly expensive but they will disappear when we move to e-books.  So, another, currently important function of publishers will disappear.

What does this leave – marketing and sales. Some publishers (e.g. Addison Wesley) make a decent effort here but, like all others, continue to delude themselves that people read email. I haven’t had a marketing email from publishers for years as my spam filters pick them up and junk them. Other publishers are just awful at marketing and seem to make no effort whatsoever.

Certainly, there’s a real need for marketing and sales and maybe this one reason that some publishers will survive.  But maybe more specialist marketing agencies, working with authors and using modern tools could do a better job.

So, is there a future for textbook publishers? Unless things change quite quickly and they take on board that the world has changed, I really doubt it.  Maybe a small number of publishers who focus on high-volume texts will survive – but I predict that most of the current textbook publishing companies won’t be around in 10 years time.

Part 1: Are textbooks obsolete

Part 2: E-textbooks

Part 3: Textbook publishing

Part 4: Author-led publishing

 

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One response to “The future of textbooks. Part 3: Textbook publishing

  1. Pingback: The future of textbooks. Part 4: Author-led publishing at Geek Prof

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