21 July 2019 Business

Pearson's move sounds death knell for college print

US students will rent digital versions of text books published by Pearson, rather than having to shell out for printed versions – and commentators say this is a bad decision.

Pearson last week became the first publisher to shift to a digital-first publishing strategy, albeit for a limited element of its portfolio. The company will not longer focus on printed textbooks for the US college market, but will instead provide students with digital versions that are rented rather than sold.

It hopes to puncture the market for secondhand versions of the physical books which is booming in US universities and colleges and damages demand for new sales, hence Pearson’s revenues. The digital version cannot be passed on in this way. Its price is set below that of a new book, which can cost some $70-80 each.

The move has provoked a noisy response bemoaning the death of school text books where pupils have doctored titles, scribbled in the margins and highlighted comic or salacious content. This is no longer possible in the digital versions.

Two Sides reckons that the loss of 1,500 titles in print, which have been updated every three years, is a blow both to the printers of these books and to students who prefer the physical to the digital for serious reading and study. It quotes a US professor of linguistics who conducted research among 300 university students in the US, Japan, Germany and Slovakia.

Naomi Baron says that it showed the 92% concentrate better with ink on paper. “There are two big issues with e-reading. The first was [the student] say they get distracted, pulled away to other things. The second had to do with eye strain and headaches and physical discomfort.”

The lower cost of learning materials appears to be helpful, but it is not about asking student what they think she says.

And Intergraf, the association representing Europe’s print associations points to he conclusions of the E-Read project leading to the Stavanger Declaration in favour of print over digital. Reading off the page provided a deeper comprehension of the text, especially under time constraints, than scrolling though digital content. And that this effect starts in primary schools, not just in tertiary education.

It says: “The whole education sector in Europe and beyond will be affected by Pearson’s decision to phase out printed textbooks, potentially hindering the full development of educated, critical thinking citizens in our society for decades.”

“Education must be safeguarded and learning methods used in schools must be based on sound research. Policymakers need to ensure that print reading is prioritised over digital reading in schools unless or until there is a proven learning advantage of digital. This is currently not the case for longer, more complex texts like many textbooks. Inaction on a political level risks the long term and irreversible degradation of students’ reading comprehension and critical thinking skills.

“Following Pearson’s decision, it has become more urgent than ever to promote reading in print and to publicise the wide body of research on this topic to policymakers, educators and society alike. Print is vital for the future of education.”

Other publishers have yet to say they plan to follow suit and Pearson is only taking this action in the US. In other areas it remains committed to print. This does not mean print is not changing. It has been a pilot customer for HP’s Piazza software to improve the publishing workflow by consolidating multiple small orders into print runs for stock eliminating on demand printing.

By Gareth Ward

« »
Academic questions

Academic questions

Pearson may have started an avalanche away from printed text books towards digital, but so far its intentions are confined to the peculiar conditions of the US college market.

Explore more...

Pearson to pioneer HP's Piazza

Statistics show books remain popular