Thursday, August 27, 2009

The right way to do eTextbooks. Partly.

So school's in, almost, and the bi-annual textbook rush is coming to its painful conclusion. If other households are like mine, the primary driver is to avoid buying a full-price textbook by any and all means possible. This is not good news for textbook publishers.

But here's how to do it right, at least partly. One faculty member sent out a two page missive to students about how to buy a textbook (that's not the good part), and how he'd arranged for students to get the best deal "directly from the publisher." The bottom line was, students had no choice but to buy MyEconLab access for $40, and if that's all they could afford that's all they actually needed (that's the good part). $40 is a third or less the price of any textbook these days. MyEconLab is part of Pearson's "MyLab" series, which offers students online homework exercises. (Which, when push comes to shove, actually teach the students the concepts. But more on that some other post.)

The rest of this instructor's document was a smorgasbord of ways to get a hard copy... everything from paying full price for a textbook (well over $100), to paying for a 3-hole punched set of papers that equaled a textbook ($35 with purchase of MyEconLab), to buying their own used textbook any way they could, to buying rights to a PDF file for a few months for way too much.

Pearson is the Goliath of textbook publishers. And Goliath is not only bigger than everyone else, in this case he may be smarter. Pearson is focusing on the one thing that requires 100% sell-through. Everyone has to buy it. An email like the one this instructor sent will pretty much guarantee Pearson as much revenue as they would have gotten by trying to sell new textbooks. Why is that? Because if 1/3 of the class bought the full, new textbook for 3 times the price (questionable it would be that high), it would equal 3/3 of the class buying just the online homework for 1/3 the price. That's my math lab. And there's no printing or shipping costs.

But a lot of publishers are not following this math. Why not? Because the product that's making the money isn't a textbook. And they're textbook publishers. Pearson seems to have figured out that they're actually in the teaching and learning business, not the textbook business. Any competitors unwilling to awaken from their paper-and-cardboard-sandwich dreams will find themselves selling buggy whips and running railroads as the interstates fill with trucks and the skies fill with cargo planes.

Now, Pearson just needs to figure out how to keep the hard copy/PDF options from overwhelming students, and their mothers, who are trying to survive the back-to-school rush.

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