Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Collapse (and Rebirth?) of the Textbook Market

Headline: Nelson Acquires McGraw-Hill-Ryerson


The continuing consolidation of the legacy publishers into one giant corporation continues apace. Even when the branding remains to provide the illusion of consumer choice, the reality is that there are fewer and fewer publishers to whom authors can submit, and fewer and fewer differences in content for consumers to choose between.

As each publishers seeks to increase profit and therefore market share, it is much easier to do so by buying out the competition, then by predicting which books will sell. As the giant publishers acquire every other imprint, they do so by taking on debt (on the assumption larger market share will pay off the new debt over time). Having debt on that scale requires that each title produce a higher profit margin then when they had no debt, since the debt has to be serviced in addition to all the previous costs, and the only way to do that without moving price point beyond anything consumers would accept, is with economies of scale. Which means each title has to sell in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Mid-list authors no longer earn enough to be kept on, and niche markets can no longer be served.

These trends mean publishers can no longer afford to take risks, which means we’re looking at an increased tendency towards lowest common denominator and processed cheese.

In the Sf markets I write for, the number of major imprints (defined here as being available in brick and mortar stores) has fallen from over 40 when I started my novel to about 6 I can think of now. It’s worse in the textbook market—the strains have reached critical mass and the whole damn thing is (in my view) about to crash. My daughter’s textbook for the course she is taking in summer school is $210. But what choice does the instructor have? There are no cheaper choices because there are no other publishers, certainly no cheaper publishers, to choose from. But that is a ridiculous price! That could be a $5 ebook. Students complain, and instructors shrug, but eventually that trend will lead to rebellion. Instructors will (like me) stop assigning texts that students won’t even pretend to read, because they can’t afford to buy them. (My daughter’s roommate showed us her new $1000 bedside table in residence: it was a pile of four textbooks with a lamp on top.)

The collapse of McGraw-Hill-Ryerson in the k-12 market signals the end of the Canadian market—Nelson has made a miscalculation. As the increasing monopoly drives textbook prices even higher, there will simply be no k-12 textbook market left for it to service. The current attitude among the remaining publishers seems to be, well, what are schools going to do? Buy ereaders for every student and buy ebooks? No problem, we control the ebook market too and will make them pay hundreds for an ebook. Schools have to have textbooks, right? Bwahahahahahah!

But that’s not going to work this time. As I may have mentioned here before, I still have colleagues from when I worked in Alberta Learning (Albert's ministry of education) and I am reliably told that Alberta has made the policy decision to completely stop buying textbooks in 2018. That’s it’s. Done. No more textbooks. Because, they said, textbooks are "so 19th century" and no longer serve any purpose.

Textbooks were invented as a way a getting readings into the classroom economically when books were scarce. Previously, itinerate teachers would teach from whatever book they happened to have in their backpacks, but when schools evolved as stable public institutions, they became stable book markets: textbooks were provided via the state to make sure every classroom had a set of books cheaply; then to ensure that every classroom had a set of approved books [the Irish Readers being the first official textbook, whose explicit purpose was to teach Irish school children loyalty to the British Empire and suppress republican sentiments. The first Canadian Reader was the Irish Reader with a new cover on it; it wasn’t until the 1920’s that Irish Reader was replaced with a pro-Canada version]; and then to better organize material by grade and reading level.

And that tradition has continued pretty much up to now. Largely out of force of habit. But the Alberta government has figured out it can save millions by not buying any more textbooks. Because, why bother? Teachers can assign the appropriate entries on Wikipedia, or choose from the millions of pages—or more likely, video*mdash;of appropriate material available on the web. Which will be more up-to-date than any textbook, since it takes years for textbook to go from commission to publication, and so are two to three years out of date by the time they reach classrooms. But schools only renew textbooks for any particular curriculum once every ten years. In Alberta, it's done on a rotating basis, so this year social studies, next year Language arts, and so. That way curriculum committees have ten years to refine the next curriculum based on new research, assigning authors to write the update, arranging with publishers and so on. . . And schools only have to invest in textbooks for one subject per year, keeping those textbooks for ten years while they buy one other subjects per year, by the end of which time those initial texts are both worn out and too out of date to continue using, but then that subject comes up again in the rotation. But the down side has always been that teachers always had to supplement to bring up to date, particularly in social studies and science. Now, skip the cost and inconvenience of the outdated textbook entirely and let teachers use free, uptodate materials by following self-updating wikipedia and various teacher sites. Let classroom teachers custom make the readings for their particular class’ range of abilities and interests, for their particular community and neighbourhood (let’s use the Chinese examples in this class since 28% of this neighbourhood is ethnic Chinese, or use Calgary example for this class in Calgary, etc) for their particular slant. Let math teachers show the Khan academy videos. Why pay for textbooks at all?

So Alberta is done. Alberta is always at the forefront of any trend in Education (the Deputy Minister appointed my former colleague to the explicit position of seeking out innovations and mandated that there wasn’t to be a single innovation anywhere in the world that Alberta wasn’t on top of evaluating, and immediately adopting if it worked) so I won’t be surprised if we’re the first to go textbook-less. . .but um, won’t be the last.

At the university level, I think there is increasingly the opportunity for small presses and independent authors to put out inexpensive ($10) ebooks or ($40) Print On Demand textbooks without any role for these mega-corporations. Let me finish my text on test construction, post it to Amazon, and let individual instructors decide whether it meets their needs for their class. The author makes $5 per copy, instructors get an expensive text for their students, and everybody’s happy. Universities will eventually figure out to count self-published texts towards a professor’s output by asking about sales (i.e., how many other instructors are using their book) rather than by asking how prestigious the publisher is.

A more boring textbook for Teacher Education than it needed to be.

And we will get much better, much more interesting textbooks. I’ve no doubt already mentioned in previous posts how the publisher of my first textbook insisted on me taking 95% of the humour out because a few of the referees thought I was not sufficiently serious about the subject. So I did take the funny bits out (because I needed the publication credit for tenure), and that textbook tanked after two years—but the stuff I took out and subsequently distributed myself is still in use in some Education Faculties across Canada, 25 years later (and has made me more money than the publisher paid as the advance for the whole book) precisely because they are funny/outrageous. History is BORING, for example, because textbook publishers explicitly remove anything remotely controversial, lest it be unacceptable to some market somewhere: as the saying goes,"if you can’t sell it in Texas, you can’t sell it anywhere.” So no evolution in biology texts, nothing but the bare facts of history, because talking about Louis Riel sells differently in Quebec than Alberta, so just avoid the whole controversy and stick to just dates and indisputable (i.e., uninteresting) facts. Nothing local, because we have to sell the same book to everybody, everywhere. (Or more recently, make only token changes in the new “pick and choose your chapter” textbooks which switch “Alberta” into the sentence from “Ontario”, which are about as useful and meaningful as those kids books you can buy which will print your kid’s name in as one of the character names.) Why you hated every textbook you’ve ever read, but loved every science book by Claire Eamer. . . . Let’s just go with Clarie’s books from now on, eh?

Thus endith today’s rant.


And now it's another day:

Years ago the Social Studies Curriculum changed to include an understanding of the Acadians (specifically, the community of Meteghan, NS) in Grade 2. Unfortunately, teachers found that when they came to that portion of the program of studies, the province hadn't actually gotten around to writing a textbook or providing any other resources about Meteghan. Since I had a daughter in Grade 2 and was an Education professor, I set out to prove to my student teachers how easy it was for a classroom teacher to produce their own curriculum materials--that they don't need to wait around for, or be dependent upon, textbook writers. I produced the "Tigana Learns About the Acadians" website, gathering & filming the material in one day, and constructing the actual website in about two to three weeks of after hours fiddling. And that website got over 80,000 hits by Alberta Grade 2s, until the province got around to producing resources three or four years later.

And that was before YouTube was really a thing! (2006 is so long ago that most modern browsers won't show the .MOV files on that site without some fiddling, though there are workarounds for teachers who are still using the site with their Grade 2 classes.) It is WAY easier to do that these days: which begs the question, why ISN'T producing their own curricular materials an expectation on teachers?

Not every objective in every course, of course, but maybe one thing a year? So that all together we in effect crowd source the whole curriculum? Sounds ridiculous, but it really isn't. Every teacher I have ever met has one unit in their curriculum where they think the text is stupid or the module is missing something key, or, don't just complain, upload something better. Then let other teachers grab it or not, based on their classes and their tastes.

There are in fact, lots of websites like that today--some charge teachers to download lesson plans and pay the teacher who uploaded it a percentage, like any textbook publisher, only better because it's custom made by the people who are teaching the concepts, the frontline workers, not someone who hasn't seen a classroom in 20 years. Not that there isn't room for authored books (see Claire Eamer example above) but teachers could regain a degree of professionalism, of professional autonomy, if as a profession they produced at least some of their own collaborative materials.

Or in sociological terms, the separation of curriculum design from classroom teachers reduces teachers to deskilled workers: technicians who implement other's design, which inevitably leads to alienation from the work process. Allow teachers to develop their own resources and you automatically get better teachers and better resources. The Wiki format or the upload/down load for cash format, or just everyone produce their own Youtube videos and self-published books for sale on Amazon...or something new we haven't thought of doesn't matter, we just need to take charge of our own teaching again.

1 comment:

  1. A reader posted this link in response to my post of this in another forum, so I add it here: Richard Feynman's rant about textbooks: