Despite the hype about e-books, the classic textbook hasn't gone away. In fact, the hold-it-in-your-hands book remains the first choice for many instructors and students.
Even as publishers scramble to produce new kinds of content for a digital learning environment, print is still king for many of the biggest-selling textbooks.
Take the familiar Norton Anthology of English Literature, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this past year. Norton doesn't even offer an electronic version, but the book is going strong in its ninth edition. Its success has spawned a long line of Norton anthologies, devoted to American literature, African-American literature, children's literature, Latino literature, and more.
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Collectively the anthologies have sold more than 15 million copies, says Julia A. Reidhead, editorial director of Norton's college department.
That doesn't mean that Norton has ignored the Web or the current push in educational publishing to deliver online assessment tools and tutorials along with textbooks.
The Norton anthologies, with their distinctive onionskin-thin pages, now come with an access code that gives students the key to online quizzes, photo galleries, audio recordings, and an archive of works that appeared in previous editions but are not in the current volumes. Students who rent the books or buy used copies can pay a small fee and get access codes of their own.
Students want cheaper textbooks and have gotten more creative about acquiring them, but most aren't calling for a digital revolution, according to some recent surveys. "The vast majority of students still prefer print," says Michael Wright, director of college sales at Norton.
Even publishers that have invested more heavily in new digital features say they're not doing away with books but making them part of "customizable learning experiences," to borrow a phrase from Pearson, the biggest player in the field. "We still print everything," says Jerome Grant, the company's chief learning officer for higher education. Pearson's aim is not "to bias print or digital but to offer the experience in multiple formats."
Think of this as the era of "print-plus," when the most popular textbook option remains a book—often printed and bound, sometimes digital—plus whatever extras and enhancements professors and students are willing to pay for.
The 'Comfort' of Print
Literature is not the only field where many students still show a preference for printed textbooks.
Julie K. Bartley, an associate professor of geology and chair of the geology department at Gustavus Adolphus College, hears the sentiment from her undergraduates. "Our students don't really want to have e-books," Ms. Bartley says. "What I hear from them a lot of times is that they feel some sort of comfort in being able to hold the thing in their hands."
Her department's decision to stick with a classic textbook has been driven partly by students' preferences, partly by the college's pedagogical philosophy. The "Principles of Geology" course that Ms. Bartley and her colleagues teach satisfies a core science requirement and serves as an introduction to the major. Any textbook it uses has to appeal both to general-ed students and rising science majors. The assigned text, Earth: Portrait of a Planet, Fourth Edition, published by Norton, "is neither excessively complicated nor excessively simplified," Ms. Bartley says. "It's right at the reading level of most of our students."
The book requires some careful reading attention, which remains a priority for the college. At Gustavus Adolphus, Ms. Bartley says, "we feel that every college student should be able to read a relatively complicated, unfamiliar text."
Students' major concern about textbooks isn't format but cost. "Probably the second biggest complaint in northern Minnesota after the weather is the cost of textbooks," Ms. Bartley says. The department has used the book for several years. To accommodate the desire for used-book options, the instructors phased in the latest edition of the book so that the older edition could stay in use a little longer.
So far, supplemental online material hasn't been a deciding factor in choosing a textbook, according to Ms. Bartley. "We don't feel like it's central enough to the way we teach," she says, because the course revolves around what happens in the classroom.
Tanya C. Noel, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Windsor, in Ontario, who is on leave from York University, sometimes teaches introductory biology courses. She's used different standard biology texts, including the widely used Campbell Biology line from Pearson. Her undergraduates,, too, haven't switched en masse to digital.
"We've found that, at least so far, students are not terribly interested in the e-books," Ms. Noel says. "That surprised me at first because I thought students would want something they could access on their mobile devices." As for the online tutorial-and-assessment systems that publishers are pushing these days—Pearson's MasteringBiology is one popular example—Ms. Noel tends not to use them, because she's found that "the quality of the questions is not very consistent."
She thinks electronic course materials will become more attractive to students, though, as publishers refine their products and as the open-textbook movement makes inroads in providing low- or no-cost course options. "We're thinking as the technology improves, we're hopefully going to see products that are easier for students to use and that they would see value in using," she says. "That might make a big change in the way textbooks are going."
'We're Content People'
The persistence of print is good news for companies like Norton, where the book—as object and as guiding idea—remains the centerpiece of the company's publishing program. Mr. Wright, the company's college-sales director, says that while his sales representatives report a growing desire for digital editions and assessment tools, "the majority of our sales are still for print books."
"As people become more sensitive to the overall costs of higher education, these are seen as a good value, so that's part of their staying power."
Norton's editorial team plans to offer a digital edition of the company's biggest seller when it creates one it's satisfied with. "The big question in creating digital Norton anthologies is, How do you replicate the reading experience?" says Ms. Reidhead, editorial director of the college department. The company wants digital editions to share the distinctive aspects of its workhorse print volumes, with their glosses and annotations and a format "that keeps the student focused on reading." Digital permissions are a hurdle, too. Sorting all of that out "is a very active process right now for us," Ms. Reidhead says.
Identified with its literature offerings, Norton has developed a multipronged approach to textbook publishing in fields where it's not as well established—sociology, for instance. "It's a young list," designed to match current teaching needs, says Karl Bakeman, vice president and editor for sociology and the newly appointed editorial director for digital media. "Sociology is a very diverse field, and people have very different course goals," he says.
Instead of one core textbook, then, the company offers three. Essentials of Sociology takes the most traditional approach. The Real World draws on the authors' experience teaching students beyond the most elite institutions. "They know what works in a classroom" and emphasize engagement strategies like sending students out to do mini-ethnographies, Mr. Bakeman says.
Norton's best-selling sociology option is the one that's least like a traditional textbook: You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to Thinking Like a Sociologist, by Dalton Conley, a professor at New York University and author of the memoir Honky. "He likes being provocative and asking unexpected questions," Mr. Bakeman says. "Its marketing handle is that it's the un-textbook." Sleeker and fresher in design than the classic doorstop, it sells for the "un-textbook price" of $50 to $60 in a field where books often cost four times that, according to the editor. It's also available as an e-book.
Mr. Conley's freewheeling approach has been a hit. "The book has done amazingly well," Mr. Bakeman says, noting that a third edition is about to come out. "In a field like sociology, where so many professors are ambivalent about textbooks, having something that doesn't feel like a textbook appeals to them."
In an interesting twist on the print-plus idea, Norton has looked beyond its textbooks and put energy into building not just online materials but also communities. "We have classic things like test banks and PowerPoints, and those are awesome," Mr. Bakeman says. But he's most excited about projects like Everyday Sociology, a Norton-supported group blog whose posts are frequently updated and used in classes. In partnership with the University of Minnesota, the publisher has created an online hub for sociology content called the Society Pages. "It's all open, it's all out there," Mr. Bakeman says. "There's room to be creative and do these experiments."
He wants to do more with "blurring the boundaries between print and digital" but emphasizes that the material, not the medium, remains king. "We're a book publisher first," says Mr. Bakeman. "We're content people. The platforms and the environment where you might experience that content might evolve over time, but we're always going to need content."
'A Fast Transition'
Pearson, too, has placed bigger bets on new kinds of digital services. Jerome Grant, the company's chief learning officer, describes how, at Pearson, "print is simply one of the outputs" of a program that emphasizes combinations of content, applications, platforms, and services. "Today the dominant model is a sort of text-media value pack," he says, "where people use something like MyLab for homework or remediation." (MyLab offers interactive content designed to draw students into course material and help them test their knowledge.) Those "value packs" often include a textbook, bundled with digital materials and services.
Mr. Grant does not expect print products to vanish. "Do I envision a time when people won't buy print? No," he says. "Do I envision a time when the predominant distribution mechanism is digital? Absolutely."
Over at John Wiley & Sons, Tim Stookesberry sees signs of "a fast transition from a print to a digital world." He serves as Wiley's vice president and editorial director for global education. Less than 50 percent of the company's higher-education revenue still comes from "pure print products," he says, down more than 5 percent from two years ago.
Decline does not spell doom for the old-school textbook, though. "Increasingly the issue is not either/or," Mr. Stookesberry says of the nagging print-versus-digital question. "It's a both-and-all conversation."