Shifting Focus of Publishers Signals Tough Times for Textbook Authors

Leading academic publishers are signing fewer textbook authors and instead channeling investments into digital courseware.

December 12, 2018
 

Few academics make their fortunes writing textbooks, and if current trends in academic publishing continue, it's possible that even fewer will become star authors in the future.

Large academic publishers such as Pearson and Cengage are working with fewer and fewer textbook authors as the companies shift their focus and investments from traditional textbooks to digital courseware.

Paul Corey, managing director of global higher education at Pearson, said large investments of time and expertise into digital courseware mean the publisher’s capacity to sign new textbook authors is “not as great as it once was.”

Best-selling digital courseware still has “all the elements of a traditional textbook,” said Corey. But the publishers are also developing costly additional features such as adaptive assessment, data analytics and user-friendly interfaces with videos and animations.

“We must pick our shots more carefully,” he said.

Rather than signing new authors, Pearson is primarily “reincarnating in digital format” successful textbook franchises from established authors, Corey said. He declined to say how many new authors the publisher has signed in recent years.

Like Pearson, Cengage is investing in digital products designed to improve student learning outcomes. Erin Joyner, senior vice president for higher education product at Cengage, said the publisher is still signing new authors but is more selective now than in the past.

She said by investing more in its products, the company is improving the efficacy of its products and putting quality over quantity. “As a content provider, we’re much more strategic and focused,” she said.

Joyner said Cengage published 120 first-edition textbooks in the past four years but is scheduled to publish just 11 in 2020.

Both Wiley and McGraw-Hill Education declined to provide the numbers of new authors they have signed in recent years.

Scott Virkler, chief product officer for higher education at McGraw-Hill, said there has been "a general decline in traditional new product agreements compared to, say, a decade ago."

"Those agreements are being replaced by new, innovative content partnerships with leading authors and content experts to build new solutions for instructors and students," he said.

Charles Linsmeier, senior vice president of content strategy for publisher Macmillan Learning, said even as other academic publishers are signing fewer authors and launching fewer first editions, Macmillan has been “careful about resisting that trend.”

“We feel pretty strongly that we need more points of view, more new content and new pedagogies,” he said. He added that while Macmillan has no set target for signing new authors, the number of first editions published each year hovers “pretty consistently” between 13 and 20 percent of the total number of titles published.

Oxford University Press is also bucking the trend and continues to sign new authors, said John Challice, vice president and publisher for higher education content.

"We're signing at the same level we always have," said Challice. Approximately 40 percent of the books the company publishes each year are first editions.

"For the big guys, author acquisition is basically zero now in the traditional sense of having one quarterback on a project," said Challice.

Because the big publishers control such a large share of the market, it makes sense there will be fewer opportunities for academics to write textbooks than in the past, he said. "Only those who are truly stellar will rise to the top."

Challice said there will still be opportunities for academics to contribute to courseware, but they may be one of many contributing authors.

"If you're writing a textbook for the attribution, that is diluted in courseware," he said. "It's not like the old days when textbooks were known by their authors and survived for 40 years."

Michael Spinella, executive director of the Textbook and Academic Authors Association (TAA) said members of his organization are reporting more difficulty securing textbook contracts with big academic publishers.

“It’s always been hard to get your first contract and to get subsequent ones,” said Spinella. “But it is becoming increasingly competitive. It may be harder to get that first contract. We’re in the midst of a changing industry.”

Spinella said academics that do get contracts are being asked to do more by the publishers than in the past.

“It might have been straight writing before, but now it’s also getting permission for use of photos, developing graphics, sometimes getting involved in assessment work,” he said.

Academics that can’t secure contracts are increasingly turning to open educational resources -- producing openly copyrighted textbooks and learning materials, which are free for students to access, said Spinella.

“We do have members that are engaging in OER projects, and some are eager to do it,” he said. “It’s a way for younger academics, particularly newly minted Ph.D.s, to get their work noticed -- and there are some resources compensating authors for their efforts.”

While the textbook industry is continuing to change, Spinella believes “very strongly that there will be an ongoing need for quality educational materials” and that publishers will continue to look to academics for their expertise.

“I think the fundamentals of the practice of developing educational resources will have ongoing strength,” he said.

John Bond, a scholarly publishing consultant and founder of Riverwinds Consulting, said the business model for traditional print textbooks has “always been challenging” for publishers. With subscription-based digital courseware, publishers focus on sales at the academic department level rather than to individual instructors -- and they don’t lose any revenue to the used book market.

Given that it can take several years for a textbook to make it to market, Bond said it may be some time before the full impact of big publishers signing fewer authors is apparent.

“There won’t be much of a diminishment of academics needed to write material,” he said. “But there will be a change from the rosy days of getting a Fed Ex package with your textbook with your name on it.”

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