v31 #3 Textbooks — An Ever Changing Landscape and the Move Towards Digital

by | Jun 28, 2019 | 0 comments

by Dominic Broadhurst  (Academic Engagement Manager, University of Manchester)  

The last few years have seen unprecedented changes in the textbook sector.  These have been driven by a number of developments combining a mixture of supply side issues and initiatives aligned to demand side factors i.e., students, libraries and other consumers.  This special issue of Against the Grain aims to examine some of the major issues and also provide incisive commentary from a range of contributors.

The textbook sector has been a major professional interest of mine for a number of years, with a particular focus on practical and value added solutions for students and academic colleagues.  From 2015-2018, I led the textbook work packages of a major project at the University of Manchester called Books Right Here Right Now.  This work involved making complex changes to the paradigm for textbooks for academic libraries, including in particular the acquisition and supply of textbooks to our students on a 1:1 basis.  It also encompassed considerable market research and analysis which enabled us to leverage influence and additional finance from our University to expand the programme into a full service, as described by Olivia Walsby and Flora Bourne in their article for this issue.  Over many years I have had extensive dialogue with publishers and fellow librarians interested in this area, both in the UK and overseas, in addition to a range of other stakeholders in the textbook sector.  I have been asked to speak at a range of conferences and continue to comment regularly via various social media channels. This has helped me to develop an understanding of challenges and opportunities faced by all actors in the sector.

Taking a holistic perspective on the textbook sector, and in particular the growth towards digital, I have identified three main themes, which I think will be of interest to ATG readers and indeed lead to a logical progression into the articles in this special issue.

First, I will give some perspectives on major issues affecting the sector, which has experienced significant change in recent years.  Secondly, I will show how some of these issues translate into potential challenges and opportunities for publishers and other industry stakeholders.  Thirdly, I consider the key drivers for increased library activity in the textbook sector, a major growth area in recent years and of course influenced by the wider sectoral issues.

State of the Sector

If I were to use one word to sum up the current state of the textbook sector, volatile is the word that springs to mind.  There are a number of factors contributing to this volatility.

Move from Traditional Print and Growth of Digital

In recent years there has been a shift away from provision and consumption of print textbooks to digital offerings, with publishers and new intermediaries in the sector both driving and responding to this change.  There is still a market for print, with some students and academic faculty favouring the format, but a significant transition is taking place. What this transition also highlights is a flat lining in sales of print textbooks and revenue losses at some major publishers.  Naturally this has also pre-empted shifts in strategy and focus from within the publishing sector.

Changing Student Demand Patterns and Finances

Another key driver in the sector is the changing buying and consumption patterns of students across all key markets.  Students are increasingly looking at alternatives to purchasing their own individual textbooks, either opting out of purchasing or looking to source in different ways.  This change in itself is driven by both individual concerns about lack of finances to purchase these books in line with growing tuition fees, and other student costs. Allied to this are concerted campaigns by institutions to look at relieving the cost burden on their students.  The move towards digital, which offers publishers opportunities to change their business models and enhance the textbook content, also reduces students’ traditional reliance on a print textbook, whilst at the same time offering alternative means of obtaining them. Underpinning all of this is an undisputed fact that students themselves are increasingly reluctant or unable to pay for what they deem as over expensive resources.  On occasions where students will pay, or increasingly where institutions and libraries want to set up institutional access across cohorts, increased levels of functionality and analytics are required to both raise the learning experience and justify a return on investment. This is more often enabled through digital rather than traditional print.


Piracy is an increasing issue in the sector and one that is unlikely to disappear in the near future.  I have had a number of private discussions with publishers, where they have informed that their companies are attempting to shut down piracy sites every week.  Research on piracy of eBooks has highlighted both the extent of student illegal piracy and how this was often rooted in their desire to obtain free versions of their textbooks.  The potential implications of piracy are clear, and innovative solutions are needed both to combat it and also to reduce the pressure on the student to go down this route.

Open Education Resources (OER)

A big topic especially gaining ground in recent years has been the move towards developing OER, which has particularly gathered pace in the U.S. where federal funding has been granted for some programmes.  Essentially an OER textbook movement has formed, often around the social media hashtag #textbookbroke.  OER could potentially supplant traditional textbooks offered by publishers, as content is both developed and offered though non-traditional and crucially non-chargeable routes.  There are also opportunities from some industry suppliers to segment their own offering with links to OER. From my perspective I would say OER still has some way to go but is something which could have a major impact in coming years ahead, especially if textbook pricing models are not subject to major revision.

Changing Market Place 

This is characterised by two major supply-side shifts, which highlight the innovation and adjustments taking place.  Traditional publishers are reacting to these changes with a number of initiatives and changes to their business models and indeed business portfolios.  I have highlighted a few of these developments elsewhere in this piece, but there are two other major developments I would like to focus on. The first is the increasing presence and reach of intermediaries such as Kortext and VitalSource, who help both publishers and institutions to facilitate immediate and intuitive access to the textbooks and increasingly offer a range of detailed analytics to assess usage and value.  These companies are also looking to increase their service proposition offering a range of solutions to an increasing customer base, which includes publishers, universities and libraries.  The second major development is the growth of new players into the market who are positioning themselves as the “Spotify” of textbooks offering what they consider as new streaming-based options to both students and corporate customers.  The most well-known are the companies Bibliotech and Perlego.

Publisher Issues

As previously discussed, volatility is ever-present in the sector.  Some of the threats revolving around pressure on student finances, OER and piracy I have touched upon, but of course there are a number of opportunities arising, especially from the move towards digital from print.

  • New Sales Models.  In reaction to changes in the sector and to counter falling sales of traditional print, publishers are looking at new models of supply opposed to the traditional 1:1 retail model.  Examples include rental offers either by publishers themselves or digital intermediaries, subscription offers such as Cengage Unlimited or institutional access models (sometimes known as inclusive access) where publishers strike deals with universities to supply to entire cohorts.  Whilst still sometimes loath to totally lose the 1:1 student model, publishers are reacting to changes with new models.
  • Increased Use of Learning and Analytics.  In tandem with these new offerings, publishers are increasingly interested in positioning themselves as learning analytics or learning outcomes focused organisations.  This means a greater focus on highlighting the learning value their offerings bring to the students and faculty, often through integration with learning tools, either their own or from partners.  Rather than just being a provider of static content they are focused on both a greater offer and showing how this makes an impact on students and their universities.
  • New Product Focus.  Allied to the above shift is a focus on new products and markets possibly positioning themselves when a traditional textbook, even in digital format, may be a thing of the past.  The move towards learning and analytics focus is something I have highlighted above, but new markets have also been identified in tandem with companies re-focusing their products, for example, Pearson’s move into artificial intelligence.

Growth of Library Involvement

In the UK there are a number of issues for libraries which I believe also apply to libraries outside of the UK.  A number of key drivers exist, relating also to a strategic relevance for libraries to position themselves centrally to the textbook debate in their universities.  Many of these can chime with what the publishers and technology intermediaries want to achieve and more particularly these resonate strongly with the needs of their students and the learning ambitions of their institutions.  In summary these relate to the following:

  • Rising student costs and student fees are an issue increasingly coming to the fore, with textbooks seen as one of the major elements of these rising costs.  This is a long established issue in the U.S. and increasingly one in the UK. Both universities and their libraries are actively seeking to address these issues head on, and finding a solution to the textbook cost issue is of paramount concern.
  • Response to student feedback about the library from students is central to what libraries do.  An often heard lament from students is that whilst libraries may hold thousands, if not millions of books and eBooks, the very books they need (textbooks) are often not available, or if available not in sufficient quantities.  Wanting to and/or being asked to tackle this issue head-on is an increasingly important service proposition for libraries.
  • Developments in the e-textbook marketplace have opened the door for greater involvement for libraries, especially with the shift from print to digital.  Previously libraries would not want or be able to afford to stock multiple copies of textbooks, but digital access offers libraries innovative and progressive acquisition and access options on a mass scale.
  • The plethora of growing usage options for digital textbooks with their increased functionality and analytics resound very strongly with the needs of libraries to both prove their value and inform their increasing trend towards data driven decision making.
  • All of these developments enable institutions to facilitate more effective teaching and learning, both for academics undertaking the pedagogy and students enhancing their own learning and understanding.  Digital textbooks offer a wealth of opportunities in this realm that were never available for solely print based options. Libraries themselves have evolved to position themselves as pro-active contributors to effective teaching and learning.  Digital textbook provision is a key example of their active work here.

This special issue attempts to look at the questions from a number of perspectives to facilitate a more rounded and nuanced analysis of where the sector is moving and how it is attempting to react to both the opportunities and challenges faced.  This issue includes the following contributions:

  • Academic libraries working in the sector;
  • A publisher viewpoint;
  • An organisational insight into opportunities for open textbooks;
  • A revealing insight from a recent student using digital textbooks;
  • A major technology stakeholder in the sector who has driven the digital textbook agenda in technology and access terms.

From a library perspective we have contributions from three academic libraries in the UK who are amongst the leaders in the new area of activity for libraries.  As referenced earlier, libraries are increasingly involved in textbook acquisition and supply and the three articles from these libraries look at the issues involved and also map a route and direction for other libraries to either follow or look for inspiration to.  Olivia Walsby and Flora Bourne explain how at, our institution, the University of Manchester, we have scaled up the offer to a fully-fledged integral institutional service from the Library.  Jason Harper from the University of Plymouth provides a thoughtful analysis of three key issues that libraries have in order to overcome with e-textbook provision.  Suzanne Tatham and Annette Moore from the University of Sussex provide a nuanced perspective on some of the potential pitfalls to consider in what is often a complex and rapidly evolving service offer.

One of the big debates around textbooks, which largely originates from the disruptive nature of the current state of the industry, is around the whole concept of both Open Textbooks and Open Educational Resources.  This has really taken hold in the U.S. with a number of recent initiatives, notably the Affordable College Textbook Act in the U.S. Congress.  This bill aims to make higher education more affordable for students by expanding the use and awareness of open educational resource.  Graham Stone and Caren Malloy from the organisation JISC describe how and where they see the potential for Open Textbooks in the UK, with JISC as a leading figure actively supporting this.  For libraries this potentially provides an alternative focus in terms of both access and costs savings.

With our work at Manchester and indeed for most of the UK universities, the student is at the very heart of what we want to do with textbooks.  Industry consultant Becky Hartnup is in a unique position to provide an invaluable commentary as she has both extensive experience working in the textbook sector (including recent consultancy with both VitalSource and JISC), but also recently as an MBA student at Imperial College London.  Her insight from this student perspective, especially in relation to use and functionality of digital textbooks, offers a constructive perspective for publishers and libraries as they look to define their offer in a digital age.  She also documents some of the frustrations of students with traditional textbook provision from libraries, and indeed highlights why so many libraries in the UK are looking to meet and indeed exceed students’ expectations. This complements the article from Saskia Watts and Vanessa Boddington from industry player VitalSource, who look at the opportunities digital textbooks can offer students in real and practical terms through a range of applications and increased functionality.  Kevin Ohe from publishers Bloomsbury offers an intuitive, open and very welcome assessment of the challenges and prospects for publishers in this fast moving environment.

In summary, the range of articles provided in this special issue should provide the reader with perspectives from a number of key participants in the sector, who are both reacting to and pro-actively meeting the immediate challenges faced, whilst embracing all the new options open to students, librarians, academics, publishers and technology companies.


Broadhurst, D. (2017).  The direct library supply of individual textbooks to students: examining the value proposition, Information and Learning Science, 118(11/12), 629-641, https://doi.org/10.1108/ILS-07-2017-00722).  

Cengage Unlimited 22 April 2019 https://www.cengage.com/unlimited/.  

Green, K. (2019).  Reframing the conversation about OER, Inside Higher Ed, February 20, 2019.  https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/digital-tweed/reframing-conversation-about-oer#.XG89SGzMer8.twitter.  

Guest, K. (2019).  I can get any textbook I want in 30 seconds: can book piracy be stopped?  The Guardian, 6 March, 2019  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/mar/06/i-can-get-any-novel-i-want-in-30-seconds-can-book-piracy-be-stopped. 

Lieberman, M. (2018).  Single project earns Federal OER pilot grant, Inside Higher Ed, October 2, 2018.  https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2018/10/02/department-education-awards-pilot-oer-grant-uc-davis-open.  

McKenzie, L. (2018).  Shifting focus of publishers signals tough times for textbook authors, Inside Higher Ed, December 12, 2018.  https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/12/12/switch-digital-first-products-publishers-are-signing-fewer-textbook-authors.  

McKenzie, L. (2018).  Analysts: Textbook rentals could pay off for publishers, Inside Higher Ed, October 29, 2018.  https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2018/10/29/analysts-textbook-rentals-could-pay-publishers#.W9a9-ko1L3E.twitter.  

Olson, P. (2018).  Building Brains, How Pearson Plans To Automate Education with AI,  Forbes, 29 August, 2018.  https://www.forbes.com/sites/parmyolson/2018/08/29/pearson-education-ai/#c479ae11833b.  

Pitt, B, Dobson, H, May, L & Broadhurst, D. (2018).  Self-publishing, Open Textbooks and Open Practices at The University of Manchester, November 19, 2008.  http://ukopentextbooks.org/case-study/self-publishing-open-textbooks-and-open-practices-at-the-university-of-manchester/.  

Rayner, S. & Coyle, D. (2016).  Books Right Here Right Now at the University of Manchester, Library. Insights, 29(2), 172–180.  http://doi.org/10.1629/uksg.309 

Sciponi, J. (2019).  The next thing millennials are going to kill? College Textbooks.  Fox Business 12 March 2019.  https://www.foxbusiness.com/features/the-next-thing-millennials-are-set-to-kill-college-textbooks.  

SPARC (2019).  Affordable College Textbook Act Reintroduced in Congress, 4 April 2019.  https://sparcopen.org/news/2019/affordable-college-textbook-act-reintroduced-congress/.  


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