In my final post on this topic, I put forward my view that the textbook publishing industry, unless it changes radically and quickly, doesn’t have a future. But I also think that we still need textbooks so how will these be ‘published’ and brought to the attention of potential users. In this post, I’ll discuss two possibilities
Open source textbooks
The idea of open-source textbooks is an attractive one. Like open-source software, the ‘community’ would cooperate to create a textbook that would evolve and develop as people contributed to it. Like open source software, this could not be a free for all but there would have to be some ‘editorial collective’ that decided on which changes to accept and which established the general structure of the book. The Open Text Book repository has a number of open source texts but no indication of how many users there are. The Connexions project encourages authors to submit modules which can then be assembled into ‘book’, tailored for a particular course.
I’d like to write a textbook on systems engineering, have quite a lot of material but have major gaps in my knowledge and no time to fill these in. So, I have wondered about an open source approach. But having looked at the topics I understand from existing sites, the quality is not up to my standards and the danger is that with an open-source text I would spend more time moderating contributions than actually learning about and writing the material.
The distinction between open-source software and books is that books are not that large and one individual can produce a book in a reasonable time. I would never say that open-source is an unworkable approach – but I doubt if it will become the normal model for textbook production.
Publishers currently support book production, printing, distribution and marketing. They also supposedly have some quality control functions which some publishers take seriously. Others, such as Springer, in my experience don’t even seem to read the camera-ready texts submitted to them.
Printing and distribution aren’t required for e-books. Software to support production is getting better and better. Production support such as copyediting is mostly done by freelancers. This leaves marketing which, in my opinion, most publishers don’t do particularly well.
So, why shouldn’t authors do it themselves. They produce the books and take all of the revenue from them – and pay people to do the work. Currently, authors get well under 10% of the cover price of a textbook – let’s guess £2 for a £40 text. Now sell it at £20 – authors get 10 times their current income. Costs will probably be at least 60% -70% of this – but authors are better off and more importantly are in control.
Of course, there are two arguments against this – firstly, authors are not interested in getting involved – they simply want to hand over their book and let someone else take care of everything. Secondly, it changes the balance of risk – from the publisher to the author. The publisher rather than the author takes the risk that the income from the book will not cover the costs.
The first of these objections is not really a problem. The publishing industry is increasingly a freelance industry anyway and there are lots of people with publishing experience who could set themselves up as micropublishers. We could also see the revival of individual university presses, funded by authors in a university. They key difference between this and the current publishing model is control – authors own their books and pay as required for services.
The second objection is very valid in a world where costs are dominated by printing and distribution. However, with e-books, the absolute costs of production are very small – authors may chose to get professional help with design, copy-editing, etc. but if they expect their sales to be relatively low then they may simply do it themselves. Equally, they may rely on personal contacts and social media for marketing. For books where sales are likely to be higher, authors may be willing to take more risks and spend more up-front on their book.
Of course, with e-books, a hybrid approach is possible. Low initial investment but if sales generate sufficient revenue, then re-investment in the design, editing and marketing is possible.
In conclusion, the future of textbooks is likely to be one where there is much greater diversity than there is at the moment. I am convinced that e-books will dominate with print-on-demand if paper copies are required. I think it likely that some major publishers will continue to publish texts that sell in relatively large numbers. However, the future for publishers who currently charge high prices for specialized texts, sold in relatively small quantities looks bleak. And, for sure, current high textbook prices cannot be maintained. Prices will definitely fall as authors take control and cut out the middle man. Those publishers who wish to continue in existence will have to radically rethink their processes to reduce overheads dramatically otherwise they will simply be unable to compete.