Illegal downloading among threats to textbook sales

Books are cumbersome, expensive and their format dated, publishers hear. Rebecca Attwood reports.

February 14, 2008

A crisis similar to that experienced by the music industry as a result of illegal downloading could be on the cards for textbook publishing, a conference will hear this week.

According to Roland Fox, a senior lecturer in finance at the University of Salford's Business School, it will not be long before students abandon lugging heavy books around campus and turn to digital page readers - which raises the prospect of textbooks being reduced to computer files that could be copied illegally.

A combination of cost-cutting pressures and changing student and tutor behaviour may mean that the textbook has finally had its day, the Publishers Association conference, supported by Times Higher Education, will hear.

"Increasingly, universities recruit from all over the world and get a very diverse range of students - so a textbook that caters for everyone is an impossible task. The textbook is looking a bit dated in its traditional form," said Mr Fox.

Many tutors are turning to a combination of journal articles and are putting together course packs, published internally, instead.

Mike Pittilo, principal and vice-chancellor of The Robert Gordon University, said that financial factors, including pressures on universities to be cost-efficient and rising student debt, had already altered textbook-purchasing patterns.

"The expensive hardback undergraduate textbook has pretty near disappeared," he said. Some 35 per cent of textbooks were now purchased second hand, he added.

A survey by the Publishers' Association in 2005 found that academics were contributing to a decline in textbook buying because they were reluctant to ask students to pay for course materials.

"Students have paid ginormous fees already. Often textbooks are one of the only things they can save on - and it is the one thing they shouldn't be saving on," said Mr Fox.

Another crucial factor is the lack of incentives for top academics to write textbooks. "The sales aren't big enough to reward authors with any degree of certainty," said Mr Fox, adding that staff were too busy working to improve their research ratings.

Professor Pittilo, who was due to give the keynote speech at the conference, agreed that textbook writers need better rewards.

"I think we have to find a way of giving more value to pedagogic support, and it is difficult to see how that will happen with the sort of metrics we are currently using for research."

Professor Pittilo said he was concerned by the concentration on high-volume books for first-year students in law, psychology, economics and sociology, and the fall-off in modern languages, maths and medicine.

Mr Fox said publishers should consider charging subscriptions for access to textbooks, as has happened with journals.

Universities would subscribe to a web portal and would, for an annual subscription fee, receive a textbook for each student and access to web-based material for each of their modules. A portion of the fee could be passed onto the student.

"The university gains because it ensures that all students have a textbook, which it is hoped would improve student performance. Publishers will earn an income that could well be more in total, (albeit) not per book, and they may have to tailor the product accordingly."

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