The Fate of Publishing Companies as Schools Shun Textbooks

Photo courtesy of Brad Flickenger

Photo courtesy of Brad Flickenger

Textbook publishing, currently a $7 billion industry, has been greatly affected by the many changes made over the last decade to the way teachers instruct children in the classroom. Recently 48 states have adopted the new Common Core State Standards, which moves students further away from printed texts, and toward critical thinking practice in math and English. School districts are integrating multi-media materials into their curriculum, using learning apps and digital products instead of the textbooks that were formerly considered staples of the educational community. As New York State sought proposals from companies to meet the new standards, it was mandatory that there be free materials available online.

Jon Williamson is managing director of Praxis Media, a company that delivers strategic advice to businesses providing commercial products to the education sector. He explains, “In  publishing, it is not the medium that is key, but the content. Traditional educational publishing business models have been in structural decline for the last five years, and the hunt is on for a new sustainable business model. However, the shift to perceived ‘free’ resources is not real – educators value high quality teaching content and are willing to pay for it. The web may have quality free resources, but it is time consuming to track them down and integrate them into learning.”

Williamson points out the shift in education from interactive learning resources to classroom intervention.  “This decade, and beyond, the value lies in educational data – attainment data, demographic data, attendance data, and the enhancements that can be made to young people’s education when you can spot when they stop making progress and analyze what works. And traditional publishers need to move into this area if they are to protect their businesses.”

Media consultant Robert McKay of Dunedin Academic Press, sees the shift in resources as a positive change. “Rather than a time of gloom and negativity, the picture should be bright, with ever more opportunities and services that are reasonably defined as ‘publishing’ coming into the mix. The focus on workflow allows the publisher to understand every part of the customer’s processes and tasks and, with knowledge of those aspects which depend on information and low, medium and high level expertise, to intervene at every possible point to aid the customer. Often I have spoken to people with services such as process software and documentation, document management, help-lines and consultancy services, who do not see themselves as being in publishing or as part of the same mix as their more obvious publishing colleagues. I do see this as a mistake, when they all have in common the same customer base and. often, the same customers’ clients in their long sights.”

Will the move away from printed texts send publishing company giants looking for more lucrative markets? “It may be the case that some large publishing company owners want out if they think they can secure greater profits elsewhere,” says McKay, “But that is fine. I have no doubt that there are many others who are more than ready and able to take their places and to thrive.”

Williamson agrees, “We are increasingly accustomed to searching for reference and technical content online, the default approach. Recent innovations, notably e-book readers, tablets and smartphones, are transforming how we access information. Their use is more likely to become the logical norm. The cost of creating major databases and search technology has reduced dramatically, eroding a barrier to entry, particularly for smaller competitors. Smaller competitors selling content in integrated online systems with sophisticated tools will reduce prices and encourage subscriptions from smaller firms. The future has to be about combining added-value content with documentation, process and compliance software, document management, smart-tools, support services, etc. to advance the publishing model. It’s critical to ensure that content and supporting technology feeds into and works with existing back office systems to ensure seamless access to it.”

In 2012, it was a handful of smaller organizations that received contracts from New York State to develop materials. For example, non-profit Expeditionary Learning won a $1.7 contract to develop an English curriculum for grades three through five. Public Consulting Group of Boston won a $7.3 million New York contract to write an English curriculum for high school.

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