When words are not enough

February 26, 1999

Although textbook presentation in the UK has leapt forward, students will still demand ever more value, says Simon Lake.

In The Student Market Today , a market research report published by the Council of Academic and Professional Publishers last year ( THES Textbook Guide , November 1998), a key finding was that students regard clarity of language, design and format as the deciding factor in choosing a textbook. In an increasing number of subjects, especially medicine, science and business, UK textbook publishers are adopting the textbook development procedures that have been commonplace in US textbook publishing (and in the course material of the Open University) for many years. Clearly the main value of any textbook remains the work of the author, but UK publishers are now putting more investment into "added value" so as to gain competitive advantage.

Across the Atlantic, textbooks have had higher editorial and production values than in the UK for many years. The trend there has reached the point where the production cost of entry into a large first-year undergraduate market (for instance, economics, psychology, biology) is at least $1 million.

About 70 per cent of this money goes on specially drawn artwork, picture research, permissions, typesetting, multi-colour printing, paper and binding. The rest is spent on supplementary material designed to provide time-saving support to lecturers who adopt the textbook. A typical package includes an annotated lecturer's version of the book, a comprehensive instructor's manual, a test bank of questions and answers in both paper and electronic format, overhead transparencies of the artwork, a video, a student study guide to the book on CD-Rom and a supporting website. Websites are the part of the textbook package in which publishers are investing more resources in a bid to differentiate their products from competitors'. Sites supporting US texts are increasingly aimed at providing teaching administration support as well as sophisticated pedagogical support (see Prentice Hall's Kotler Marketing website at www.prenhall.com/kotler/).

The size of the US textbook market is such that the financial rewards from a market leader are considerable, for both the publisher and the author(s). But the high costs already mentioned - which do not include sales, promotion and distribution costs - have led to the concentration of textbook publishing in five major publishing groups. Nevertheless, the variety of choice and innovation and the high quality of US textbook publishing are impressive.

For some years, most major US educational publishers have distributed US-originated textbooks in the UK as "international editions" through UK-based branches that are already involved in publishing for the UK. Now, as a result of the fast growth in student numbers in the UK in the past ten years and more self-funding by students, UK textbook publishing is reflecting, albeit on a smaller scale, some of the US trends.

The increasing number of students taking business courses in the UK has been particularly marked (188,500 in 1988-89, 243,800 in 1997-98). There has been a corresponding growth in the number of business textbooks and in the amount invested in each of them by many publishers.

Until the 1990s, a typical UK business textbook, even if aimed at an introductory level, was printed in a small format on poor-quality paper in one colour, with a cramped text design and a dull two-colour cover, few (if any) learning support features and no lecturer support material. It is not surprising that, with some notable exceptions - mainly in subject areas with course content specific to the UK such as accounting and law - US textbooks dominated the UK business market.

The change during the 1990s is illustrated by the successive editions of a book first published in 1985 by Pitman. The first edition of Management and Organisational Behaviour by Laurie Mullins was a typical business textbook of its time. At 352 pages, all in black and white, priced £9.95, with a production cost of about £7,000, it sold about 5,000 copies. Through three subsequent editions, sales grew as a result of the expanding market and an increasing market share at the expense of competing books. The format and extent grew too; and more attention was given to design and production quality (the third edition was printed in two colours). When we publish the fifth edition in March, it will have 928 pages, with four-colour printing throughout, four separate supplements (instructor's manual, student workbook, video and supporting website), at a price of £24.99. The production cost of the 1999 edition (including supplements) is more than 20 times that of the 1985 edition.

Introductory marketing textbooks offer another example of the changes in the UK business education and textbook market. Ten years ago the UK and European market was dominated by US textbooks; some UK textbooks sold well on professional marketing courses, but they did not make much impact on undergraduate or postgraduate courses. Today, introductory marketing courses are served primarily by four books, all printed in full colour over more than 700 pages, with full support packages - and all authored or co-authored by UK academics.

In the future, as students pay more for their higher education, they are likely to become more sophisticated and discerning consumers of all educational services, including textbooks. Less favourable staff-to-student ratios and more emphasis on teaching quality mean that to compete in this increasingly sophisticated market, publishers will have to invest more in delivering high-quality learning and teaching support material in both book and electronic form.

Simon Lake is product development director, higher education division, Pearson Education.

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