Why we can’t overlook textbook piracy

A new business model is needed if textbook publishers want to win back their student clients, says Matthew Jones

May 18, 2019
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It’s exam season, a time when textbook publishers’ revenues should be booming, but that’s not quite the reality.

About a quarter of students admit that they regularly pirate academic content, and on average academic publishers lose more than 28 per cent of their potential revenue to textbook piracy.

The industry has already begun to feel the bite, with Pearson and the soon-to-be-merged Cengage and McGraw-Hill all posting extensive losses over the past few years. Why has academic piracy become such an epidemic, and how can the industry respond?

Studies have shown that the prices of academic textbooks have risen by 1,041 per cent since 1977 – outstripping the overall rate of inflation by a rate of four to one. As such, the average student can now expect to pay between £450 and £1,070 annually on books and equipment, a figure that becomes even more significant when the rise in tuition fees and general living costs are taken into account.

While it is true that there has been some movement towards providing textbooks on an open access basis, the uptake of these resources has been comparatively low, and not anywhere close to the level needed for the average faculty member.

As such, with most material being hidden behind paywalls, or in texts whose prices rise relentlessly, is it a surprise that scores of students are being driven towards piracy?

Further compounding the issue has been the ill-fitting approach to security taken by the major publishers. Currently, upon purchasing an e-textbook, a publisher relinquishes total control of the product, relying on often woefully inadequate security measures to prevent its misuse.

The whack-a-mole approach taken to academic file-sharing sites such as Sci-Hub has been equally ineffectual. As anyone who has visited one of the thousands of Pirate Bay proxy sites will know, Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) take-down notices and cease-and-desist letters are extremely ineffectual because a simple change of domain will allow the pirates to continue their operations with impunity. Sci-Hub’s continued existence – despite more than four years of legal battles – stands testament to this.

Finally, accessibility remains an issue. As traditional academic-focused bookshops close at an alarming rate, some students may feel forced into piracy to access necessary materials. The same can be said for those who suffer from dyslexia, for whom print doesn’t encourage reading.

Quite fundamentally, the vast majority of students do not view academic piracy as a criminal act. One study revealed that an astonishing 88 per cent of students saw no issue with accessing materials in an illegal way.

Part of the reason for this disconnect is to do with the needs and wishes of students, and specifically how they’re not being met by the market. Many view their situation from a position of pragmatism: the unethical act of piracy equates with the alleged lack of ethics on the part of companies that force students to pay high prices to receive an education.

To solve this, it’s important for publishers to address consumer needs. With 65 per cent of students stating that they have decided against buying a textbook on the factor of price, affordability is clearly important. Similarly, with 73 per cent of students indicating that they would prefer an open access model, the provision of genuine convenience is paramount.

Publishers can account for both of these wishes by moving towards a digital, aggregated subscription model, similar to what the music industry has done. It is increasingly clear that if publishers can provide a convenient and affordable way to access the required materials, consumers will choose that option over the often-laborious task of pirating. An NDP study revealed that as Spotify grew, the amount of music that was pirated fell by 26 per cent.

However, it is vital that publishers also avoid segmentation of the subscription market that could result from individual publisher hubris.

While a single-publisher digital model will certainly improve accessibility, and reclaim some of the market share lost to piracy, it would be prudent to keep the cautionary tale of the film industry in mind.

Similar to Spotify, the rise of Netflix led to a corresponding fall in the pirating of films. However, as more major players (Disney, HBO and so on) launch their own subscription offerings, consumers are being driven back to piracy because of “subscription fatigue”. The answer to this issue is to provide a single, convenient and affordable location that offers access to content from all publishers.

The academic publishing world is suffering from piracy because consumers have chosen to rebel against what they see as unjust price inflation. Publishers themselves have compounded this issue by responding to falling revenues by raising prices even higher to try to make up for the losses.

A new approach is needed, and by shifting towards a centralised digital model, publishers can begin to win back lost segments of the market and return the industry to growth.

Matthew Jones is vice-president, content acquisition and strategy, at Perlego.

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