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The Textbook-Industrial Complex

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I know I’ve talked about how much I hate the textbook industry before, but this is just well over the line.

The world’s largest education publisher has taken the first step towards phasing out print books by making all its learning resources “digital first”.

Pearson said students would only be able to rent physical textbooks from now on, and they would be updated much less frequently.

The British firm hopes the move will make more students buy its e-textbooks which are updated continually.

“We are now over the digital tipping point,” boss John Fallon told the BBC.

“Over half our annual revenues come from digital sales, so we’ve decided a little bit like in other industries like newspapers or music or in broadcast that it is time to flick the switch in how we primarily make and create our products.”

The firm currently makes 20% of its revenues from US courseware, but has been struggling as students increasingly opt to rent second-hand print textbooks to save money.


To counter this Mr Fallon said Pearson would stop revising print books every three years, a model that has dominated the industry for 40 years.

Since students are the ultimate captive market, let’s preclude any ability for them to not spend $1,000 or more a semester on our products by cutting off the used textbook market entirely! Plus, without printing the books, we can charge the same and make even more profit!

I find textbooks to be utterly useless in history courses and I wish all history professors refused to use them. Even the best are pretty dry, are going to cover lots of things not discussed in class and then not have very much on a lot that are going to be discussed in class, and are really worthless in the discussion section format of the survey because they don’t provide anything for the students to do or gnaw upon. I have refused to use them since a student 5 or 6 years ago asked me why it was assigned and I realized I had no good answer to that question. I was assigning one because I was a young professor and that’s what people did. That question really changed my way of thinking. And for my field, there are lots of other ways to organize classes so that I don’t need a textbook.

In chemistry, math, and other fields, this is much harder. This is why people are moving toward open textbook plans. This is far better. There are a tiny number of academics, many of whom are pretty powerful, who make a ton of money on textbooks. Very few others ever will. It makes no sense to subject our students–already struggling with massive debt on top of everything else they have going on in their lives–to rapacious textbook capitalists.

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