College Publishing Comes of Age: Highlights of the BISG Higher Education Conference

In 1913, Richard P. Ettinger and Charles W. Gerstenberg, two NYU professors who had been producing their own monographs for classroom use, founded the business book publisher Prentice Hall (using their mothers’ maiden names). By doing so, they also planted the seeds from which the modern college text book publishing and marketing model grew. It has since followed Richard Ettinger’s later principles of recruiting its editors from among smart young college graduates trained as travelers into the realities of closing adoptions. They first built relationships with professors who themselves would not be paying for the books. They then provided them with free instructional supplements to go with the adoptions. From among those connections they developed a pool of authors to draw from in building the company’s list and future.

Yet, while today the text book has undergone a huge metamorphosis in format and development, and the student population has increased 40-fold, the strategy of developing the market, designing the content architecture and making the sale remains remarkably unchanged.

It is that thought that gives my attendance at trade meetings of college publishers dealing with innovation the bittersweet flavor of hope in its unlimited possibilities and surrender to historic interests that will be maddeningly resistant to change.

Nonetheless, I showed up bright and early at 8 AM for this year’s Book Industry Study Group (BISG) half-day annual conference on Making Information Pay in Higher Education. It was held at the Yale Club in New York City on Feb. 8.

I was not disappointed. BISG has learned how to pack enriched expert presentations into a 3-and-a-half-hour session that provides useful perspectives, allows for productive networking and a savory luncheon, and for the rest of the day to catch up on business.

Pitched to the theme of “Innovation in the New Reality,” the meeting brought together on neutral ground and in equal standing publisher, distributor and vendor stakeholders in the college sector to consider matters of mutual interest to their business development. Len Vlahos, recently installed as the BISG executive director, characterized its unique blend of multi-sector membership as “The Switzerland of the Industry.”

We were focused on a $7.6 billion college publishing industry that has experienced steady growth in the past seven years (except for a small dip in the last year) even as its ranks thinned. The industry’s traditional print-based platforms and adoption-based distribution channels are yielding its hallowed practices. They are giving way to student-and faculty driven custom publishing, integrated learning systems (ILS), used and new book rentals and to experiments with bundling basic texts into the student course fees themselves.

Some of my take-away highlights:

  1. While the printed text retains its eminence and is holding its own, growth is accelerating in the use of integrated learning systems (ILS) whose sales have now surpassed that of the conventional stand alone text.
  2. Digital editions on their own make up 5% of college sales compared to 17% overall for trade.
  3. Two new emerging distribution practices promise to reshape retailing: text book rentals, and bundling text books with course fees.
  4. Custom publishing is growing. Providers such as Shared Book’s AcademcPub ( and Gutenenberg Technologies ( made presentations describing viable and economical production and publication applications.
  5. Students overwhelmingly prefer the learning experience approach (ILS) as against the conventional book package (print or digital) that most of them use.
  6. No one to my recollection mentioned the new Apple iBooksAuthor intended for the education market. In fact, Apple itself was not represented.

Publishers and booksellers want data that will guide their design of content and delivery systems that will serve the market effectively, but also assure their robust survival. The benefit of MIP is that it brings together reporting from key people who spend their time and apply their talent assembling this data.

Trends in print, digital and integrated platforms

Steve Paxhia, President of Beacon Hill Strategic Solutions identified the three main platforms for published content delivery: the traditional book, the replica digital edition (essentially the printer file converted to computer and portable device readability) and the born digital version that comes as a unit in an integrated suite of content and of learning, feedback and assessment tools that engage the student in a process.

After relevance, a student’s primary criteria in their purchasing decisions are cost and availability. Their decisions regarding availability, and also platforms, are strongly influenced by whether they are part or full time and whether their experience is on campus or through distance learning

As the average textbook price has risen from $84 to $99 since 2005, student satisfaction with materials has dropped in all categories. Although rental programs are increasing in usage for reasons of economics, those students that can afford to buy books prefer to do so, since they can recover their resale value in the used book market.

Even as tablets and portable devices proliferate, students overwhelmingly use desk tops and laptops for their digital learning experience. ILS is seen as providing the strongest potential for growth, while the replica digital edition is expected to remain static. At the same time, the printed textbook remains the stalwart of the industry

Surveys show that students favor learning experience approaches as against content as a commodity in book form. While ILS products have now passed textbooks in sales, only 25% of students report an e-book learning experience. Two-thirds of students interviewed by Beacon Hill would favor text books bundled with their course fees.

A look at sales and buying behavior

Kelley Gallagher, Vice President of Publisher Services at Bowker reviewed trends in the higher education publishing markets. He provided an interesting pro forma pricing profile for an average text book: $99 new, $86 used, $46 new rental and $38 used rental, eBook prices falling in mid range at $63.

While percentages vary according to subject areas, digital editions (replica and custom) overall account for 5% of sales in the college market compared to 17% in the trade market. Currently text book rentals are 11% of the market: new editions are 62% of rental sales, and used are 27%. Campus stores enjoy 21% of the rental market and their share is growing because of the high inventory investment,

The top disciplines for which students keep their texts are ESL and career-based subjects. The top disciplines for sales overall are, in descending order: Math, English, Biological Sciences, Psychology, Economics, History, Accounting, Language and Chemistry. At the top of growing disciplines are: Voc-Tech, Business Education, ESL,Interdisciplinary, Math, Computer Science and Food Service.

Visit the BISG web site ( for information about BISG’s survey “Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education.”

Future forms of content access

The major forms of access for digital experience according to Gallagher are 40% online, 50% Mac or PC based and 8% mobile.

Kent Freeman, President of Ingram’s Vital Source Technologies drew on Vital Source experience to describe student usage of premium digital products. He reported that Vital Source manages 90,000 digital titles for over 80 key publishers reaching 2,000,000 users in 180 countries. Students have varied modes of access. The most favored by 90% are laptops and the internet; 44% and 42% respectively use desktops or mobile devices, 25% tablets and 11% dedicated e-readers.

Attitudes of students toward using social networks with textbooks: 51% favor them for collaboration, 42% for access to other texts and 42% for contact with teachers – 36% see them as a distraction.

As compelling evidence for the immediate future of print, Gary Shapiro, Senior Vice president of the Follett Higher Education Group described the new 550,000 square foot, robot-operated distribution center they were currently building to service the 930 physical and 330 virtual stores they operate in the college market.

Expectations held for the future of custom publishing as a business opportunity are forthrightly expressed in the title, Chief Revenue Officer, which is held by Michael Cairns, who is responsible for developing Shared Book’s new custom textbook, on demand publishing program.

Adrien Basdevant of Gutenberg Technologies presented an insightful and telling profile of the old and the new forms of content presentation: analog vs. digital, fixed vs. anywhere, isolated vs. connected, standardized vs. customized and closed vs. open.

Technology is not the real innovation in learning

Wrapping up the morning event, was an energetic presentation prosaically entitled “Innovations in Higher Learning,” given by Dr. Bror Saxberg, Chief Learning Officer of Kaplan, Inc. Saxberg was a Rhodes Scholar, who also holds advanced degrees in Math, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT and Oxford University, as well as an MD from Harvard Medical School.

Far from the prosaic, Saxberg has been driving an inside out and top to bottom review of the entire Kaplan product line. Researching and probing inside the learning process and the design of learning materials, he observed that about 70% of the skill sets needed for success ad employed by experts in the professional working world are not taught in the classroom.

Saxberg showed how courses and materials can be re-designed by starting with the learning outcomes desired and “designing backwards.” The outcomes may not be what you think, however. They are derived from a “cognitive task analysis” through interviews with the experts who actually perform the tasks in the workplace that subject matter based learning fails to impart.

The take home is that learning innovation does not take place through technology – but technology is employed in support of how human beings actually learn and of how they develop and apply their skills. This is in contrast to course curriculum and texts designed more to satisfy the authoring goals of the producers than the realities of the workplace.

The human scale of a BISG event

Of all of the various conferences, panels and special events I have attended, the ones most human in scale when well planned and focused can prove to provide the most satisfaction and have the greatest impact on its attendees. They recharge their energies and refresh their outlooks, while providing an unpressured great social experience through the chance encounters and brainstorming of networking.

BISG has consistently provided that kind of experience at its Yale Club meetings. The Club is located on Vanderbilt Avenue across the street from Grand Central Station in the heartland of traditional publishing. Vanderbilt itself is only 5 blocks long, extending north from 42d to 47th streets. The Club’s elegant 20th floor ballroom and meeting center reminds us that altho we now live in a fast virtual world of on line publishing, distribution and learning that spans the globe, there is nothing like a baroque human scale physical experience to bring life to the whole business.

The new BISG team of Len Vlahos together with Associate Director Angela Bole and Project Coordinator Nadine Vassallo have more than proved their bona fides in carrying forward this tradition.

Eugene G. Schwartz is editor at large for ForeWord Reviews, an industry observer and an occasional columnist for Book Business magazine. In an earlier career, he was in the printing business and held production management positions at Random House, Prentice-Hall/Goodyear and CRM Books/Psychology Today. A former PMA (IBPA) board member, he has headed his own publishing consultancy, Consortium House. He is also Co-Founder of Worthy Shorts Inc., a development stage online private press and publication service for professionals as well as an online back office publication service for publishers and associations. He is on the Publishing Business Conference and Expo Advisory Board.

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  • Laura Hulscher

    Thanks for this readable, information-packed overview – I’ll be coming back to it as a reference.

  • James Chitakunye

    Comprehensive oversight of trends and market stats. I enjoyed analysis by Dr. Bror Saxberg (Kaplan). Very insightful – it’s not the devices or technology users are after, but intuitive processes. Similar to the workplace environment, businesses are begining to introduce Bring Your Own Device (BOYD) policies, simply because the devices used by employees tend to be more intuitive than the office machines.

  • James Chitakunye

    Dr. Bror Saxberg (Kaplan). Very insightful – it’s not the devices or technology users are after, but intuitive processes. Similar to the workplace environment, businesses are begining to introduce Bring Your Own Device (BOYD) policies, simply because the devices used by employees tend to be more intuitive than the office machines.