Education: Will Students Buy or Rent Text Books?

by Tim Dare, Managing Director, Mosaic Search & Selection

Earlier this year, a secondary school in Worcester hit the headlines after the head teacher asked parents to pay £40 towards their children’s textbooks, following a slashing of budgets. It’s not the only time we’ve heard of schools asking parents to contribute in the face of monetary hardship – in fact, it’s expected that school funding in the UK will have fallen by 5% by 2019 – but the specific nature of the request raises some interesting questions about the future of education.

As funding tightens for UK schools, we may see more of a movement towards digital educational tools, for the simple reason that they can be more affordable without compromising on the quality of learning. Companies such as EON Reality and Magic Leap are fast making a name for themselves in the education sector with "augmented reality" tools tailored towards classroom learning; the AR in education market as a whole looks set to grow at a compound rate of 82.25% between 2017 and 2021.

Digital Textbooks

When it comes to digital learning, it’s not all about interactive simulations and VR headsets – traditional learning aids such as textbooks are a huge part of the crossover into digital, for secondary schools and universities alike. Earlier this year, the publishers Pearson announced that they would be making a push for digital textbooks, by slashing the prices of their rental e-books by 50% – thus "making digital rental the best option for price-conscious students".

Bloomsbury, meanwhile, has announced plans to collaborate with a service called Perlego – which is known in the industry as the "Spotify for textbooks". Similar to a rental programme such as that offered by Pearson, Perlego enables access to hundreds of thousands of titles for the subscription price of £12 per month. The question is: how do these services compare to traditional paper textbooks?

Print Textbooks: Can Digital Compete?

Take a look at the reading list for UCL’s "Introduction to European History, Law, International Relations, Politics and Philosophy" and you’ll find several highly recommended texts such as "Essential Readings in World Politics" by Karen Mingst and "Historical Theory" by Mary Fulbrook.

The paperback editions of these books are (at the time of writing) listed on Amazon with the respective price tags of £27.99 and £22.99. The Kindle version of the Fulbrook book fares slightly better, at £19.55, but no e-book equivalent is available for the Mingst text. Considering that these books are just two of 19 highly recommended texts on a reading list of 66 books in total, we can begin to see how much the average student will be shelling out for print versions of their textbooks.

A service such as Perlego, then, seems far more attractive to cash-strapped students. The only problem is that a search of the two titles referred to above gives zero results on the Perlego site. A self-confessed "young company", Perlego are still in the process of bringing more publishers on board, and the recent addition of Bloomsbury will be likely to boost the number of desirable titles significantly.

What does seem to be true, considering the unavailability of the Karen Mingst text on both Kindle and Perlego, is that key educational titles utilised by the top universities in the country are yet to make the transition into e-book form, indicating a clear gap in the market for a more dedicated digital textbook service. But just how much can e-book publishers rely on students to engage with digital titles?

Book Sales in the UK

Despite what many people would assume given our modern obsession with screens, paperbacks and hardbacks are doing surprisingly well in the UK. Last year, consumer e-book sales fell by 17% to their lowest level since 2011 (the year that Kindle was first launched) while print sales of consumer books experienced healthy growth, rising by almost 9% in 2016.

What we must bear in mind is that this data relates specifically to consumer, not educational titles. According to a report from the Publishers Association, total sales of academic/professional digital books rose by 6% to £277m in 2016. Educational titles also seem to be driving UK export sales; in 2016, digital exports of primary and secondary learning materials increased by a whopping 136%.

Overall, educational and academic publishers are experiencing healthy sales; last year, there was a 5% rise in overall educational sales to £336m, and a 10% rise in overall academic sales to £2.4bn.

Take a look at individual publishers actively making the move into digital, and things look even more positive for digital titles. In the case of John Wiley & Sons, the percentage of digitally-derived revenue rose to 63% from 60% in 2016, while revenues from printed material dropped to 23% from 25%. The company’s CEO has described these results as "in line with expectations", as part of Wiley & Son’s gradual transition into a "digital knowledge and learning company".

Rental sales also seem to be on the up; Pearson, the academic publishers who promised to slash the prices of their rental e-books by 50% at the start of this year seem to be caught in limbo, with rental sales increasing but print sales declining as a result.

Moving Forward

For publishers, there’s ultimately no clear message here. Academic textbooks continue to be in demand, and students continue to shell out for them, but there’s no denying that alternative, more affordable options are increasing in popularity.

It may be that e-book start-ups or digital rental companies just arriving on the scene have the advantage here, provided they can supply the in-demand titles at reasonable prices. Things may be trickier, although not impossible, for established academic/educational publishing houses making the transition from print to digital, as we have seen in the case of Pearson.

The key thing to bear in mind when publishing, selling or renting academic texts is that, as long as they continue to feature on university reading lists, there will always be a demand for them. It’s simply a question of learning how best to meet that demand.

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