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Submitted to "Volume 22, Number 16"

The Radical Transformation of the Textbook – (Wired – August 4, 2019) For several decades, textbook publishers followed the same basic model: Pitch a hefty tome of knowledge to faculty for inclusion in lesson plans; charge students an equally hefty sum; revise and update its content as needed every few years. Repeat. But the last several years have seen a shift at colleges and universities—one that has more recently turned tectonic. In a way, the evolution of the textbook has mirrored that in every other industry. Ownership has given way to rentals, and analog to digital. A company called Chegg launched the first major online textbook rental service in 2007; Amazon followed suit in 2012. Both advertise savings of up to 90% off the sticker price. But as students flock to more affordable options, textbook prices have skyrocketed to make up for the lost revenue. The price of textbooks has increased 183% over the last 20 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Within the broad strokes of that transition, though, lie divergent ideas about not just what learning should look like in the 21st century but how affordable to make it. Pearson is one of the biggest publishers of educational books in the world, with a roster of 1,500 textbooks in the US market. Last month, it announced that going forward it would still produce physical textbooks, but students will rent by default with the option to buy after the rental period ends. It enables Pearson to staunch the bleeding caused by an explosion in the second-hand market. Pearson’s digital-first strategy is a significant step toward a more sustainable business model. Under the new system, ebooks will cost an average of $40. Those who prefer actual paper can pay $60 for the privilege of a rental, with the option to purchase the book at the end of the term. But increasingly, colleges are embracing textbooks that cost … nothing.

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Written by John L. Petersen


Volume 22, Number 16 (4/9)