Why is the higher ed textbook industry still alive?
An investigation for why the college textbook ecosystem continues to defy death.

In the last 10 years, major content-related industries have been disturbed by disruptive improvements. Netflix brought down Blockbuster, and it is now chiseling away at the movie, cable programming, and production industry. What Netflix did to the movie industry, the iPod and iTunes did to the music industry.

Despite these advances, no David has yet to slay the Goliath that is the college textbook industry. Its antiquated roots stay strong—and largely, the textbook industry has remained unchanged over the last 25 years. Sure, publishers have made incremental improvements in their technology to keep up with the digital age, but their primary goal of pre-producing print has endured. (I contend that their minimal improvements are only sustainable for a finite amount of time, but perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.)

By and large, the textbook industry continues to have a corner on the market because it is so consolidated. Five major textbook publishers control a vast majority of the marketplace. Their massive infrastructure means that prices are forced to remain high in order to sustain the high overhead. Nothing is putting downward price pressures on these giants to force them into adopting transformational ways of thinking.

And so we must ask ourselves the question: Why is the higher ed textbook industry still alive?

Because publishers keep prices high.

Major publishers have put barriers in place in order to counteract the used book market. Once Amazon and other online used book re-sellers emerged, the market expanded. No longer were students limited to a handful of pre-owned textbook copies in the campus bookstore. Now, any student in the country can sell it to you at a discounted price.

To counteract this national garage sale phenomenon, publishers now release new editions every 2-3 years that students are forced to buy so that these used books aren’t an option. (If they are, used copies are limited.)

These textbook bullies rope students in by bundling books with required homework software (with unique codes) that force pupils to buy new instead of used. The only way to gain access to the software platform is to purchase a new book with an access code. For those of you a few years removed from college - it is true - kids actually have to PAY to do their homework now! This keeps money in the publishers’ pockets… not the student’s.

With tactics like this, it’s no wonder that people are asking the question, “Why is the higher ed textbook industry still alive?”

Because there is little-to-no consumer control in their market.

In the domineering textbook world, there is no consumer control. Other industries are unable to get away with the same highway robbery. Consider Proctor and Gamble: If they decided to raise the price of Tide 1,000% in the next year, consumers could simply choose to purchase another brand of laundry detergent. This forces companies to keep prices low in order to be competitive.

The same control doesn’t exist in the textbook world because the end purchaser - the student - is not the decision maker as to which book will be used for class. A faculty member makes the call, then students are forced to comply by purchasing the assigned text.

Publishers make it easy for faculty to choose their books - providing course outlines, assignment suggestions, automatically graded quizzes, etc. Admittedly, it’s a great sales tactic. Professors are busy with research, grants, teaching, writing papers, and grad students. The easier the book is to adopt, the better. What professor wouldn’t want to save some time if it means that they can focus more on their grad students, research, academic papers, and grant writing?

Professors should maintain their academic freedom to choose what materials they want to use for their course. But there has got to be a way to lessen the burden of cost to students (many of whom choose to not purchase course materials because of their hefty price tags) while maintaining academic freedom—all the while, not creating undue time burdens for faculty. Isn’t it time that students become liberated from this ecosystem?

Because few alternatives to the textbook ecosystem exist (and those that do are difficult for faculty to adopt)

As I referenced earlier, the textbook industry has yet to be “disrupted” by the digital age like others have. I’m likely to show my age here, but I grew up watching VHS movies. DVDs beat them out in the 1990s. Even so, the improvements were incremental. The industry was disrupted when digital caught on, providing better audio and picture quality. Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Youtube destroyed the industry.

I believe that something must come along to similarly disrupt the textbook industry.


Other than the unregulated control that publishers have on the market - and the fact that the end buyer does not make the decision - there is no readily apparent reason that the textbook industry has survived as long as it has without disruption.

Quite simply, the systems that major textbook publishers have in place keep them alive. College students deserve to be liberated from the chains that bind them. As it is, they seemingly have no voice and no alternative options.

So, what will be the iTunes of the textbook industry? Whatever it is, it will be welcomed with open arms by students being spared hundreds of dollars in textbook costs.

It’s time that we slay the higher ed textbook giant, and emerge into a new era of common sense and cost savings.

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About the author

Brady Kalb Jan 31st, 2016

Brady Kalb is the CEO of Skyepack. Brady’s passion for education stems from his desire to "always be learning" and find innovative solutions to difficult problems, and experiences teaching various business and entrepreneurship classes at universities.