Are Etextbooks Affordable Now?

In a bid to gain market share, publishers have slashed the cost of digital textbooks.

May 1, 2018
 
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New print textbooks can still cost students hundreds of dollars, but the cost of etextbooks is falling fast, according to data from etextbook distribution platforms VitalSource and RedShelf -- both of which work with all major publishers.

Since 2016, the average price of etextbooks on VitalSource has fallen by 31 percent, from $56.36 in 2016 to $38.65 in 2018.

Some areas, such as mathematics, have seen more drastic change, said VitalSource. In 2016, the average math etextbook cost $79. Now it’s $39 -- a decrease of almost 50 percent.

RedShelf confirmed a similar price drop. In 2015, the average etextbook cost $53.11, the company said. Now it’s $39.24.

Mike Hale, VitalSource vice president of education for North America, described the price change as “dramatic.” Since January 2016, prices have fallen every month, he said.

“Prices on textbooks were, everybody agrees, way too high,” said Hale. “Publishers have finally responded with pricing that is rational.”

Tom Scotty, chief operating officer at RedShelf, said the reason the publishers were dropping prices was to capture market share.

“Prior to the affordable ebook prices that we’re seeing now, students were looking for low-cost alternatives to new textbooks -- they were going to used books and they were going to print rental books,” said Scotty. Publishers "very wisely" realized that they had to lower prices to “fight the secondary market,” he said.

Scotty, who was formally co-CEO of Macmillan Higher Education, said one of his frustrations as a publisher was that students weren’t buying digital -- despite large investments in technology to make digital a better experience than print. “Students were just looking to spend as little money as possible.”

The $40 mark is one that many in the industry were aiming for, said Hale. Now that this “affordable” goal has been reached, Hale isn’t sure that prices will continue to fall for individual purchases. Scotty agreed that he didn’t expect prices to decrease much more. “The gains have been achieved. I don’t think anybody wants to see a race to the bottom.”

Since publishers dropped their prices, both VitalSource and RedShelf have seen their sales increase. Scotty said that in 2016, RedShelf sold 3.7 times more than in 2015, and 2.6 times more in 2016 than in 2017. Hale said the big five publishers all saw increased sales as a result of their lower prices.

But both Scotty and Hale note that individual sales through their platforms represent a relatively small share of the textbook market. Both companies manage inclusive access deals -- where whole classes are signed up to digital materials by their institution (on the condition that students have the option to opt out, and prices are below competitive market rates). These inclusive access deals are popular, and their low cost per student has encouraged publishers to lower prices for all their digital content, said Scotty. Approximately two-thirds of RedShelf's sales are attributed to inclusive access, and the remainder to individual purchases, said Scotty. Around 72 percent of VitalSource's sales are through inclusive-access programs, said Hale.  

Open educational resources have also had an impact, said Hale. High textbook prices drove some instructors to create their own content and share it with others for free. Now the availability of that content is putting pressure on publishers to evolve. “I compare it to when massive open online courses came out -- they didn’t replace traditional higher education, but they did pioneer models of how to deliver education,” said Hale.

Though etextbook prices are falling, students aren’t buying the content like they would a traditional textbook. Students typically buy access to the content for 120 or 180 days, said Hale.

Nicole Allen, director of open education for SPARC, a coalition that supports open policies and practices in education and research, said that etextbook prices can be deceptive for this reason. “Compared to sticker prices, etextbooks may seem like a better deal, but the cost often works out comparable to tried and true analog options like print rentals or used books,” she said.

“By renting rather than selling digital content, publishers control when, where and for how long students access their learning materials,” said Allen. “It perpetuates the same dynamic that allowed print textbook prices to skyrocket in the first place, except students are even more at publishers’ mercy.” She added, “We should be leveraging digital technology to expand access and use of knowledge through more open models, not further locking it down.”

Richard Baraniuk, founder of OER textbook producer OpenStax, said he was pleased to see etextbook prices coming down so that more students can have access to materials they need. But Baraniuk doesn’t think that lower etextbook prices will make them competitive with OER. “To be competitive with OER, a resource should be adaptable, shareable and allowed to be used across various platforms,” he said.

Baraniuk noted that courseware sold by publishers -- software integrated with an etextbook -- is growing in popularity, and is not being discounted as heavily as etextbooks. Lowering the price of these options would have “significant benefits for a majority of students,” he said.

Brian Starr, vice president of analytics and strategic initiatives for McGraw-Hill Education, said there is a big difference between digital learning platforms that use “adaptive technology and powerful analytics tools to personalize the experience for students,” and etextbooks that are “simply an online version of a traditional textbook.” But Starr said that he believed McGraw-Hill's Connect materials still offer good value -- at 50 percent less than traditional hardbound textbooks. “We continue to see increasing instructor adoptions of these solutions,” he said.

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