• September 3, 2015

As Textbooks Go Digital, Will Professors Build Their Own Books?

For years, major textbook publishers have offered professors the option of customizing textbooks—cutting unneeded chapters or adding original material—but the vast majority have stuck with the official versions. As e-textbooks gain popularity, however, publishers are betting that the "build-a-book" option, as it is sometimes called, will take off.

Next week McGraw-Hill Higher Education plans to announce its revamped custom-publishing system, called Create, with an emphasis on electronic versions of mix-and-match books. Macmillan Publishers this year announced a similar custom-textbook platform, called DynamicBooks. And upstart Flat World Knowledge touts the customization features of its textbooks, which it gives away online, charging only for printed copies and study guides. Other publishers have long offered custom-textbook services in print as well, though they have always represented just a sliver of sales.

"The reality is by and large they don’t customize," said Ed Stanford, president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education, in an interview. "We think the more all this becomes digital, the more people will want to customze, and we want to be able to do that." McGraw-Hill officials say custom textbooks are now the fastest-growing area of the industry.

The new Create system lets professors go to a Web site and select sections of 4,000 McGraw-Hill books, thousands of articles and case studies, or any document that the professors themselves upload. A price tag displays how much the resulting book will cost. Professors can then choose whether to make the book available to students as a printed book or an e-book. In a demonstration for The Chronicle this week, a book on health care cost about $6 as an e-book but jumped to $16.96 as printed book.

The system does not include material from other textbook publishers. That is typical of custom systems but makes it impossible for professors to blend a chapter from one publisher with a competitor's. When Macmillan announced its system, in February, it said it hoped that other publishers would join in its effort. But Mr. Stanford said McGraw-Hill had no intention of doing that, and he doesn't expect other publishers to want to join his company's project, either.

He said that as much as his company would love to become the iTunes store of e-textbooks, he didn't expect that to happen. "If any of us could be the distributor," he added, "we would."

Major publishers did team up to create an online e-textbook distribution service called Coursesmart, but it does not include custom-publishing features or some of the latest evaluation materials that publishers offer on their own advanced online platforms.

That means the textbook landscape is becoming more and more fragmented—and more confusing for professors, who may have to learn different interfaces for the different textbooks they use.

One reason publishers may like customization is that it makes selling used copies difficult for students, unless they sell to those taking the course from the same professor.

"In many, many ways, it's up for grabs," said Mr. Stanford of the future of textbook distribution. "It’s just not at all clear where this is going to end up."


1. history_grrrl - October 08, 2010 at 08:49 pm

I suspect that most of us don't customize textbooks because we have about a zillion other things to do to prepare for our classes. I for one have no interest in combing through 4,000 books to find sections I'd like included in a textbook. I already put together my own coursepacks when there's no appropriate document reader for a subject. Cobble together my own textbook? No, thanks.

2. fergbutt - October 08, 2010 at 10:34 pm

It's easier to adapt to an imperfect book. It would matter more if students actually read their books, but most don't, except to cram for exams.

3. agusti - October 10, 2010 at 12:03 am

I think one of the major points here is cost. A health care textbook (or any textbook, for that matter) for $6, or $16.95, as opposed to the hundreds students pay for books now? Nothing short of revolutionary. We've done exactly what this article describes (although not with any of the companies it mentions) and dropped the book price for my courses from $190 to $18 per student. We saved about $8,000 "student dollars" in the first semester alone, small in college budget terms but significant for the individual. I pick what I want, leave out the rest, and everybody wins. I think not at least looking into this as a possibility is an abdication of responsibility. The megapublishers are counting on the fact that we have to much to do so they can continue to sell overpriced, usually overstuffed tomes that go largely unused. At least check it out, I say.

4. paievoli - October 10, 2010 at 01:39 pm

Isn't looking through textbooks for relevant material what we are suppose to do to prepare for our classes? Do we just go with what was relevant last year or the year before? Aren't we suppose to provide current relevant materials for our students. This is where I get lost for over 23 years I thought we were suppose to keep going at this during our summers and vactions. I guess I must be the jerk here. Amazing...

5. drdelia - October 11, 2010 at 07:22 am

Professors might not have the time to create books, but curriculum developers and others may. The McGraw hill Create program has been running in beta for months and is very user friendly. It takes only about half an hour to choose the material you want for a book. And I like being able to combine from different offerings. For example, in a course on health coaching, I can combine chapters on coaching with chapters on health. Or for a developmental psychology course, the user can pull the chapters he or she wants from the text, and then add some sections from McGraw Hill supplements such as "Taking Sides" which encourages critical thinking on issues. For our students, we used to have to choose, because of budget considerations, to do the critical thinking on issues book, or the more general topics. Now, we can combine both. My problem with the McGraw Hill program, though, is that it is geared mostly to undergraduate courses (thus far) and has a sparser selection of material appropriate for graduate school. John Wiley has also just opened a form of book creation (which I haven't had a chance to use) and Pearson has had one for a while. The Pearson book creation system, however, only allows a limited selection for DIY; if you have a huge budget, and promise plenty of purchases for the book you create, Pearson allows access to its larger collections and will even get copyright permission from other publishers to include chapters from their books. But you have to have the time to wait (about 2 months) and the budget! The McGraw Hill book can be customized, even for just a single copy of an electronic version, and downloaded to your computer in about an hour total.
To summarize, these services can save students money, save paper, and allow instructors to put together the material they really need. I hope instructors and curriculum designers will join in so these services will expand their offerings and become ever more in demand and thus user friendly!

6. matchett - October 11, 2010 at 08:24 am

WHy textbooks at all? Perhaps in some fields they are needed. But many "textbooks" are primarily anthologies of journal articles students can get for free via my campus library. Qhy should profs teach someone else's take on the material? Put the articles on eReserve in your campus library, write any overview material and add it to your LMS, course blog, etc., and you're done.

7. dsbergccp - October 11, 2010 at 08:35 am

I think that we are getting confused between issues of economics and ethical good practice. For my introductory Psychology course I use David Myers'Exploring Psychology in Modules. I have maximum control over what the students need to read while allowing them to purchase textbook intactus. It does not matter to me whether they purchase the printed text or the ebook version (about half the price or approximately $40). I encourage them not to sell the book at the end of the semester, because it can serve as a reference for other courses (education, mental health, allied health, social sciences and so on).

The Modular version allows me to specify what I feel is important for the course. But hell no, I do not want to eliminate a third of the book because it disagrees with my views of Psychology or because I cannot cover the material in just a semester. Ethically, I believe that the student is entitled to view the entire landscape -- not just the content that I feel is important.

Imagine, if you will, that I were teaching a course on Dickens and left out chapters in David Copperfield where he meets Mr. Wilkins Micawber. Or think about what's going on in Texas: Now you can get a biology textbook that omits evolution or a history book that leaves out parts of the enlighted rational behind the constitution. A few publishers may be willing to engage in a practice that places the economics of book orders over ethical practice, but I implore my colleagues to not put themselves in that same category.

Order the textbook in toto, then customize adjunct readings if you like. Permit the student to have the opportunity to own (in bits or bytes) the entire author's work.

8. marcyrw - October 11, 2010 at 09:15 am

Too late! Because of the Internet, students are now self-learners; they may not realize it, but they are indeed media-savvy researchers by the time they reach the ripe old age of 18. Textbooks are not relevant to them; such books are much too static. The students are used to the Internet's agility, i.e. the instantaneous calling up of information, not to mention hyperlinks that transport them to myriad related information layers. The depth and breadth is astonishing, and I'm not sure that the bulk of professors appreciate this even now. In this new age, professors are, or should be, facilitators and guides, teaching the self-learners how to critically think and collate the vast amount of information that is literally at their fingertips. Using one or even two customized textbooks for a 10 week or 14 week class is like showing a student the tuft on the elephant's tail and telling her "this is an elephant". Professors need to guide students through the information morass, instruct students on how to find and filter information, how to use that information effectively in relation to the class's subject, and stop thinking about teaching with static books, Powerpoint presentations, lectures....all of this is now truly "old school".

9. svarela - October 11, 2010 at 09:37 am

Customization is great, especially for upper level and graduate courses. Professors can target useful content that more precisely matches the syllabus. Books are simply too dated in our dynamic world. Plus you get cases, articles and custom content.

Maybe students would read more of the assignments if the content matched the lectures! Keep up the development and plan to combine content from different pubishers, if you dont join, someone will do it for you eventually.

10. archman - October 11, 2010 at 10:14 am

Be careful here, the textbook publishers (and their lobby) are very much at work here propagating this model.

A customized edition can be (and often is) priced not much less than the full version. Nor can the custom version be sold back (thus destroying the used book market). Textbook publishers can reap BIG profits this way, and they are fully aware of it.

Yes there are advantages to customized textbooks, some of which may be financial. I would not advise adopting such a model for purely financial reasons however, unless the cost savings actually is significant (and stays that way).

11. pnaegele - October 11, 2010 at 10:27 am


[citation needed]

12. annis - October 11, 2010 at 10:33 am

This would work very well for a literature course. Those texts tend to be huge, and it's not even possible to use the whole thing. It would be amazing to be able to compile the 50 poems and sonnets that I teach, the 4 plays, and the 10 short stories, along with the literary devices and glossary. THAT sort of thing would save students a bundle.

13. geoffcain - October 11, 2010 at 10:53 am

Textbook rentals and publisher ebooks are only offering short term solutions to a severe problem. We need a whole new model. The cost of textbooks is rising faster than health care. There is already a solution out there with high quality, open liscensed textbooks. For example, Redwoods Community College's math professors have put their textbooks online with their testing materials built into the book. It is also available on CD and hardcopy for the price of the materials. These materials are liscensed under "Creative Commons" and are available to anyone else. The advantage of this licensing is that any other school could adapt this material to the special needs of their student population. This would be very difficult to do with traditionally copyrighted materials.

There are a number of places to find open licensed textbooks such as sites linked at http://oerconsortium.org

Student PIRG report: http://www.studentpirgs.org/release/news-releases/textbooks/new-report-finds-switching-to-open-textbooks-saves-students-thousands

14. lexalexander - October 11, 2010 at 10:57 am

I'm curious not only about the higher-ed applications but also about how this approach, or something like it, might prevent, or allow other jurisdictions to bypass, the dumbing down of K-12 texts nationwide by the Texas Board of Education.

15. duchess_of_malfi - October 11, 2010 at 12:12 pm

E-textbooks may be rising rapidly in popularity, but how much market share do they represent of all textbooks? My students do not want them and some would not be able to use them because they do not have internet service off-campus. They like the convenience of a bound paper book that they can carry around and read anywhere.

I work out the option costs every semester, and most semesters, buying the traditional textbook new and reselling it yields a lower net use cost than renting it or buying e-book access. My most expensive textbooks have a net cost of about 3-4 class meetings' worth of tuition bought new and sold when the course is over. I think that's reasonable.

The open-license textbooks I have reviewed are inferior to the worst conventional textbooks, and in some cases, they are full of factual errors and fringe personal opinion instead of scholarship. Maybe they will improve, but they are not an option now.

Bound customized textbooks and course-pack readers are the worst deal of all, expensive compared to the alternatives and requiring the student to absorb the entire cost because these books have no resale value.

For the courses I teach, I need textbooks. Either I order one or I write one. I am not willing to do the latter without compensation.

The best thing publishers could do is push for reform of copyright law to require some return to the copyright holder on book resale for X years. This is all about money, not ease of use, and the book is the preferred mode of text delivery for my students. Even when I want them to read articles on screen, they print them out to read them. Reading a page is easier on the eyes and body than reading on the screen. I don't romanticize bound books. They are useful. Of course I could require students to read a customized e-book regardless of their preferences. But why would I want to do that unless it is demonstrably better in some way?

16. nextgenlc - October 11, 2010 at 01:46 pm

The ability for greater customization for professors seems like a logical step in the evolution and adoption of e-textbooks.

Here's a short piece from our blog with a great comment from Dr. Steven Zucker of smarthistory.org


17. cherissegardner - October 11, 2010 at 02:50 pm

One of the greatest teachers I've ever known, the late Dr. Marshall Fishwick, founder of the academic movement known as popular culture studies, saw this future unfolding some time ago. See this article from the Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 17, Number 3 Spring 1995:

Popular-culture text changes overnight
The textbook that Marshall Fishwick used in his popular-culture class last fall had a section about O.J. Simpson being charged with the murder of his wife. The spring semester's textbook has the updated story of the trial that has captivated the country. With traditional textbooks, that would not have been possible because the publishing process takes up to two years. By then, anything a textbook contained about O.J. Simpson would be outdated. And, in today's on-line world, particularly in a field that changes as rapidly as popular culture, that's a problem. So Fishwick, professor of communication studies and humanities, found a way to keep up with both the changes in our culture and the immediacy of information retrieval in the world of the computer generation without having a classroom full of students hidden behind terminals and reading from screens. The solution now being pioneered by several publishers is a custom-designed book that's a cross between the traditional textbook and a magazine. Along with American Heritage Custom Publishing Group, Fishwick custom designed Go and Catch a Falling Star, a textbook for his popular-culture class's study of fallen celebrities. It contains text Fishwick chose from several sources, as well as some of his own research. "At the last moment, after the book went to press, O.J. did his Bronco deed," Fishwick says. "The editor said if I could get that in the next week or two, he would include it. They added it in July and got the textbook to Tech in August." After all, a textbook on fallen heroes used in fall 1994 would have been outdated if it had not included the most publicized case in recent history. The custom-published books are cheaper and more relevant than traditional textbooks, Fishwick says. They allow the professor to pick from materials on databases, such as chapters from other books for which the publisher has obtained reprint rights, while adding their own chapters. But the ability to update quickly is the book's selling point. "You can add, modify, and change pictures or text at will," Fishwick says. "I think the idea is going to spread."

Dr. Fishwick was a devotee of Marchall McCluhan and I can only imagine how stimulating it would be to hear him speak on today's media and its influence on teaching and learning.

18. emmadw - October 11, 2010 at 02:53 pm

From what I've seen, this isn't nearly as highly promoted in the UK as in the US - that said:

Firstly, I teach in a school of computing - educational technology being my main interest, alongside web/multimedia design & also some research skills.

So, marcyrw's point:
"need to guide students through the information morass, instruct students on how to find and filter information, how to use that information effectively in relation to the class's subject, "

Yes, I agree with that, though it can take time to work out how you balance the time - ideally, I think students should learn these skills in a generic way, so, I'd leave out the 'in relation to the class's subject' - try to get them to think outside the box of the single subject (so - how relevant is it to this unit ... what others are you studying - how does it fit in there?)

However, that takes time - and it's a lot of effort to 're-educate' students about what learning can be - it's also hard for many students to change their expectations radically about what learning can be. (UK schools tend to have a strong focus on a teacher centric model - clearly there are innovators, but they're often working with younger children - so current undergrads haven't necessarily come across them. The US may differ)

I'd also agree with duchess_of_malfi's point that many (probably most) students still tend to prefer to read from paper - that is changing rapidly, as students get used to reading online - and, more critically, devices get ever more 'reading - friendly' in terms of the hardware/software & customisations that can be set.

Saverla said: "Customization is great, especially for upper level and graduate courses. " - I'd actually see it the other way round - give first year students something more restricted - get them used to Higher Ed - then as they move up, encourage them to investigate view points other than those presented in class [perhaps even by presenting the most unproven/contentious view in class & getting them to find the more conventional/proven ideas (though in my subject it can be hard to find many good themes to do in that way)

19. ledykstra - October 11, 2010 at 03:17 pm

One question that I had as I reviewed this information is the effect of new or updated information on the customized text. I work on a curriculum development team, and a significant portion of our work involves updating our courses to reflect new editions, some of which are on a yearly cycle. Admittedly many new editions are not necessary, but with the subjects that need to be updated constantly, will the publisher be updating our chapters that quickly? How will that change the custom text? If they do not update them, we run the risk of using out of date materials in our classes. So, while I an a proponent of this in light of some of the directions that we are going in High Ed, I also know that the bottom line for these publishers is...and always will be...how can they continue to turn a profit?

20. ekamai - October 11, 2010 at 03:22 pm

How about those of us in the Academy telling the publishers "we're the ones who bring intellectual value to a book (or chapter) and we're going to open source that content---anyone may use the material (with proper citation) EXCEPT a for-profit entity---in the interest of saving our students money." Custom publishing is just one more way for publishers to pitch a product to which their contribution becomes less and less.

21. drszucker - October 11, 2010 at 05:14 pm

Instead of focusing on isolated though important features such as mass customization, let's consider whether the metaphor of the textbook still makes sense in a digital environment. Last week, the Next Generation Learning Challenges blog asked "what makes an e-textbook work?" I suggested that we abandon the restraints of the bound textbook as a conceptual framework. There are important new models for open, networked learning that allow for more voices and more engaging models for learning. Dr. Beth Harris and I created Smarthistory.org, an award-winning conversation-based multimedia art history web-book to begin to do exactly this.

If you are interested in the full discussion, go to the Next Generation blog:


22. carolpm - October 11, 2010 at 09:06 pm

Instructors who hope to cobble together a text from various sections of various books (rather than customizing a single text)may find the task daunting. While you might be able to pull together the content you want, in the order you want, you may have trouble maintaining a coherent story line and narrative voice. In many disciplines textbooks build on concepts introduced in earlier chapters: figures build on prior figures, terms are used that have been defined in earlier chapters, etc. You would need to write new transitions, address variations in level, vocabulary, and approach, and articulate themes that will help pull copy from various authors together.

Copyright issues arise, too, when splicing and dicing texts from various sources. Some authors may object to having their content (which had been vetted by experts and edited by professionals) manipulated freely, sandwiched into a narrative that they did not write nor approve.

How publishers will accord royalties when snatches of chapters from possibly more than one textbook are picked up for use in a custom book is something authors under contract will want to negotiate.

23. sanfordforte - October 11, 2010 at 11:34 pm

Mo matter the business model; no matter what raditional textbook publishers claim, their eBook models have been designed to extract just as many - if not more - dollars from students as they have, heretofore, over years. With 12-14% year-over-year price increases for many, many years (averaging 3x the rate of inflation). Onerous DRM constraints imposed by traditinal publishers aften have stduents paying $90-$120 for a digital textbook file that "breaks" in one year; where's the value in that? And, the cost if traditional textbook publishers continue to rise, unabated (14% this year). Studies show that students actually drop out of college because they can't afford textbooks.

It's important to note that all of the very large publishers have massive sunk costs in personnel, infrastructure, etc. etc.; they *have* to recoup those costs as part of their revenue model. Looking at these so-called "new" publishing models, and analyzing what total costs are over time, one begins to see the "new" eBook push by traditional textbook publihsers as a shell game. The same goes for print textbook rental programs, that are only a short term solution to the outrageous costs that traditional textbook publishers foist on their customers.

It is good to see that consumers are beginning to impact traditional textbook publisher behavior, but the caution remains: caveat emptor.

The model that appears to have a real future is the Open textbook movement. Open licensing creates consumer choice, prive, and curriculum development benefits that are simply unmatched by the traditional textbook publishing model. Check out, for instance, Flat World Knowledge (mentioned in the article). They offer a free-of-charge, HTML version of every textbook they pubish, in its entirety, with no DRM attached. They also offer very low-priced digital and print options for sale; $29.95 for a complete textbook; that's a revolutionary price for a professionally developed and supported (study aids, instructor's aids, etc.)textbook. Last, they have a book customization interface that a teacher can use to change the book in almost any way, by adding content; rearrangign chapters (or sections within chapters, etc.) new content. There is no charge for any of this, and the FWK customization engine then automatically folds changes into the finished, edited book, which is then made available for *free* on the FWK website, searchable by school and/or class. FWK has roughly 1000 colleges and universities using its textbooks, in a mere 18 months since coming to market. They're on to something.

24. marcyrw - October 12, 2010 at 08:01 am

To emmadw: That's why I said "in RELATION to the subject" meaning all topics that may relate to the subject, i.e., we "deep link". And, it doesn't take more time, it gives more quality time; it frees the professor to actually engage in deep intellectual discourse with the students, rather than throwing information at them and hoping that it sticks.

25. 11319582 - October 12, 2010 at 08:39 am

I'm surprised the article doesn't mention University Readers. Unlike the custom publishing outfits run by publishing companies, University Readers provides selections from a number of different publishers. http://www.universityreaders.com/

26. sages - October 12, 2010 at 01:08 pm

"...For the courses I teach, I need textbooks. Either I order one or I write one. I am not willing to do the latter without compensation...."

27. sages - October 12, 2010 at 01:12 pm

"...For the courses I teach, I need textbooks. Either I order one or I write one. I am not willing to do the latter without compensation...."

Compensation? What are you complaining about? Are you an instructor? If you are, you are already compensated for things like textbook writing. Not much, but this is how things work in the academe. You write books, monographs, textbooks and others, mostly for the satisfaction of the need to share your knowledge, recognition from peers, and, of course, the cookie points one gets for this line item during the regular performance review. Royalties as we all know aren't really a decent compensation anyway.

28. duchess_of_malfi - October 12, 2010 at 01:32 pm

#27, I am not complaining. I am stating a fact. I am not compensated for textbook writing. Doing it will not get me a raise, promotion, or enhanced job security. It is of little or no value on a CV. My research does not get me those things either in my current job, but it can help me get a different job.

I'm not talking about royalties and a book contract. That's the old model. I have no interest in those and turn down opportunities with publishers. I'm talking about shared-access documents to be used within my department for the benefit of all of our students. I would expand the documents I already use to chapter length if paid to do it. Otherwise, it is a benefit to other people but a (time) cost to me with no return. Sorry, but that is how the world works. People tend to do what benefits them in some way.

29. profheller - October 17, 2010 at 10:52 pm

I agree that Electronic Textbooks (ETs) from a cost perspective have great advantages. In addition to cost, ETs are an extremely valuable tool for upper-level courses and those courses rapidly changing due to technology. In courses that I've taught I have used ETs that are a series of electronic files (PDFs usually) that are a combination of articles, cases and select chapters of textbooks. The cost to the student is usually only 40% of the traditional textbook because (i) students can usually download many of the materials free from university library, and (ii) electronic formats of these articles, cases and selected chapters usually run only $5-$15. Additional benefits of ETs besides cost include:
Professor has total latitude in customizing the best possible
Materials can be added throughout the semester with ease.
Allows adherence to copyright laws for both faculty and

See my posting entitled, "Electronic Textbooks: Quite Often a Win-Win Decision".

Professor Paul Heller
paulrheller.com: "Propelling Undergraduate Business Schools

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