Despite the hype about e-books, the classic textbook hasn’t gone away. In fact, the hold-it-in-your-hands book remains the first choice for many instructors and students.
January 27 2013
by Jennifer Howard
Despite the hype about e-books, the classic textbook hasn’t gone
away. In fact, the hold-it-in-your-hands book remains the first choice
for many instructors and students.
Even as publishers scramble to produce new kinds of content for a
digital learning environment, print is still king for many of the
Take the familiar Norton Anthology of English Literature, which
celebrated its 50th anniversary this past year. Norton doesn’t even
offer an electronic version, but the book is going strong in its ninth
edition. Its success has spawned a long line of Norton anthologies,
devoted to American literature, African-American literature, children’s
literature, Latino literature, and more.
Collectively the anthologies have sold more than 15 million copies,
says Julia A. Reidhead, editorial director of Norton’s college
That doesn’t mean that Norton has ignored the Web or the current push
in educational publishing to deliver online assessment tools and
tutorials along with textbooks.
The Norton anthologies, with their distinctive onionskin-thin pages,
now come with an access code that gives students the key to online
quizzes, photo galleries, audio recordings, and an archive of works that
appeared in previous editions but are not in the current volumes.
Students who rent the books or buy used copies can pay a small fee and
get access codes of their own.
Students want cheaper textbooks and have gotten more creative about
acquiring them, but most aren’t calling for a digital revolution,
according to some recent surveys. “The vast majority of students still
prefer print,” says Michael Wright, director of college sales at Norton.
Even publishers that have invested more heavily in new digital
features say they’re not doing away with books but making them part of
“customizable learning experiences,” to borrow a phrase from Pearson,
the biggest player in the field. “We still print everything,” says
Jerome Grant, the company’s chief learning officer for higher education.
Pearson’s aim is not “to bias print or digital but to offer the
experience in multiple formats.”
Think of this as the era of “print-plus,” when the most popular
textbook option remains a bookoften printed and bound, sometimes
digitalplus whatever extras and enhancements professors and students
are willing to pay for.
The ‘Comfort’ of Print
Literature is not the only field where many students still show a preference for printed textbooks.
Julie K. Bartley, an associate professor of geology and chair of the
geology department at Gustavus Adolphus College, hears the sentiment
from her undergraduates. “Our students don’t really want to have
e-books,” Ms. Bartley says. “What I hear from them a lot of times is
that they feel some sort of comfort in being able to hold the thing in
Her department’s decision to stick with a classic textbook has been
driven partly by students’ preferences, partly by the college’s
pedagogical philosophy. The “Principles of Geology” course that Ms.
Bartley and her colleagues teach satisfies a core science requirement
and serves as an introduction to the major. Any textbook it uses has to
appeal both to general-ed students and rising science majors. The
assigned text, Earth: Portrait of a Planet, Fourth Edition,
published by Norton, “is neither excessively complicated nor excessively
simplified,” Ms. Bartley says. “It’s right at the reading level of most
of our students.”
The book requires some careful reading attention, which remains a
priority for the college. At Gustavus Adolphus, Ms. Bartley says, “we
feel that every college student should be able to read a relatively
complicated, unfamiliar text.”
Students’ major concern about textbooks isn’t format but cost.
“Probably the second biggest complaint in northern Minnesota after the
weather is the cost of textbooks,” Ms. Bartley says. The department has
used the book for several years. To accommodate the desire for used-book
options, the instructors phased in the latest edition of the book so
that the older edition could stay in use a little longer.
So far, supplemental online material hasn’t been a deciding factor in
choosing a textbook, according to Ms. Bartley. “We don’t feel like it’s
central enough to the way we teach,” she says, because the course
revolves around what happens in the classroom.
Tanya C. Noel, an assistant professor of biology at the University of
Windsor, in Ontario, who is on leave from York University, sometimes
teaches introductory biology courses. She’s used different standard
biology texts, including the widely used Campbell Biology line from
Pearson. Her undergraduates,, too, haven’t switched en masse to digital.
“We’ve found that, at least so far, students are not terribly
interested in the e-books,” Ms. Noel says. “That surprised me at first
because I thought students would want something they could access on
their mobile devices.” As for the online tutorial-and-assessment systems
that publishers are pushing these daysPearson’s MasteringBiology is
one popular exampleMs. Noel tends not to use them, because she’s found
that “the quality of the questions is not very consistent.”
She thinks electronic course materials will become more attractive to
students, though, as publishers refine their products and as the
open-textbook movement makes inroads in providing low- or no-cost course
options. “We’re thinking as the technology improves, we’re hopefully
going to see products that are easier for students to use and that they
would see value in using,” she says. “That might make a big change in
the way textbooks are going.”
‘We’re Content People’
The persistence of print is good news for companies like Norton,
where the bookas object and as guiding idearemains the centerpiece of
the company’s publishing program. Mr. Wright, the company’s
college-sales director, says that while his sales representatives report
a growing desire for digital editions and assessment tools, “the
majority of our sales are still for print books.”
“As people become more sensitive to the overall costs of higher
education, these are seen as a good value, so that’s part of their
Norton’s editorial team plans to offer a digital edition of the
company’s biggest seller when it creates one it’s satisfied with. “The
big question in creating digital Norton anthologies is, How do you
replicate the reading experience?” says Ms. Reidhead, editorial director
of the college department. The company wants digital editions to share
the distinctive aspects of its workhorse print volumes, with their
glosses and annotations and a format “that keeps the student focused on
reading.” Digital permissions are a hurdle, too. Sorting all of that out
“is a very active process right now for us,” Ms. Reidhead says.
Identified with its literature offerings, Norton has developed a
multipronged approach to textbook publishing in fields where it’s not as
well establishedsociology, for instance. “It’s a young list,” designed
to match current teaching needs, says Karl Bakeman, vice president and
editor for sociology and the newly appointed editorial director for
digital media. “Sociology is a very diverse field, and people have very
different course goals,” he says.
Instead of one core textbook, then, the company offers three. Essentials of Sociology takes the most traditional approach. The Real World
draws on the authors’ experience teaching students beyond the most
elite institutions. “They know what works in a classroom” and emphasize
engagement strategies like sending students out to do
mini-ethnographies, Mr. Bakeman says.
Norton’s best-selling sociology option is the one that’s least like a traditional textbook: You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to Thinking Like a Sociologist, by Dalton Conley, a professor at New York University and author of the memoir Honky.
“He likes being provocative and asking unexpected questions,” Mr.
Bakeman says. “Its marketing handle is that it’s the un-textbook.”
Sleeker and fresher in design than the classic doorstop, it sells for
the “un-textbook price” of $50 to $60 in a field where books often cost
four times that, according to the editor. It’s also available as an
Mr. Conley’s freewheeling approach has been a hit. “The book has done
amazingly well,” Mr. Bakeman says, noting that a third edition is about
to come out. “In a field like sociology, where so many professors are
ambivalent about textbooks, having something that doesn’t feel like a
textbook appeals to them.”
In an interesting twist on the print-plus idea, Norton has looked
beyond its textbooks and put energy into building not just online
materials but also communities. “We have classic things like test banks
and PowerPoints, and those are awesome,” Mr. Bakeman says. But he’s most
excited about projects like Everyday Sociology,
a Norton-supported group blog whose posts are frequently updated and
used in classes. In partnership with the University of Minnesota, the
publisher has created an online hub for sociology content called the Society Pages. “It’s all open, it’s all out there,” Mr. Bakeman says. “There’s room to be creative and do these experiments.”
He wants to do more with “blurring the boundaries between print and
digital” but emphasizes that the material, not the medium, remains king.
“We’re a book publisher first,” says Mr. Bakeman. “We’re content
people. The platforms and the environment where you might experience
that content might evolve over time, but we’re always going to need
‘A Fast Transition’
Pearson, too, has placed bigger bets on new kinds of digital
services. Jerome Grant, the company’s chief learning officer, describes
how, at Pearson, “print is simply one of the outputs” of a program that
emphasizes combinations of content, applications, platforms, and
services. “Today the dominant model is a sort of text-media value pack,”
he says, “where people use something like MyLab for homework or
remediation.” (MyLab offers interactive content designed to draw
students into course material and help them test their knowledge.) Those
“value packs” often include a textbook, bundled with digital materials
Mr. Grant does not expect print products to vanish. “Do I envision a
time when people won’t buy print? No,” he says. “Do I envision a time
when the predominant distribution mechanism is digital? Absolutely.”
Over at John Wiley & Sons, Tim Stookesberry sees signs of “a fast
transition from a print to a digital world.” He serves as Wiley’s vice
president and editorial director for global education. Less than 50
percent of the company’s higher-education revenue still comes from “pure
print products,” he says, down more than 5 percent from two years ago.
Decline does not spell doom for the old-school textbook, though.
“Increasingly the issue is not either/or,” Mr. Stookesberry says of the
nagging print-versus-digital question. “It’s a both-and-all