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Commentary & Analysis

Is the Future of the Traditional Textbook Business at Risk?

Time and again, we have seen non-traditional competitors storm a market to the detriment of the establishment. Senior Editor Cary Sherburne came across a fascinating story that could be a bellwether indication of trouble ahead for the textbook industry.

By Cary Sherburne
Published: August 10, 2017

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Martin James, Manager of Graphic Communications at the Deer Valley Unified School District in Arizona. The District’s Graphic Communications Department was recognized by IPMA for its innovative approach to the creation of course materials for its K-8 students, a well-deserved recognition.

Deer Valley Unified School District is comprised of 38 campuses, including five high schools, with 33,000 students and 4,000 employees, and one of the largest land demographics in the state. The K-12 district is spread out over 367 square miles serving six cities as well as unincorporated areas of Maricopa County, Arizona, the largest district in the State in terms of land within its boundaries. Its centralized Graphic Communications Department produces K-8 curriculum and brings in business from 15 outside school districts as well as several non-profits.

James reports that the State of Arizona is 48th in the country in educational spending per student (the average spend per student for education in the U.S. is $13,000. Arizona spends $8,000). Deer Valley Unified School District was seeking a way to make its limited textbook dollars go further to ensure the best possible quality of education for its students while also ensuring teachers spent less time on administrative functions. The solution? Royalty-free course materials that the Department could print on demand.

This approach offered several advantages:

  • Obviously, it significantly reduced the cost per student for course materials, while also reducing costs associated with waste and inventory obsolescence. This alone has saved the District millions of dollars.
  • Coursework can be produced based on the specific needs of each classroom. For example, if a teacher believes the class will only be able to get through six of eight modules in a course, only those six need to be printed.
  • Course materials can be produced in a workbook form so that the student has all materials, including notes, in one place.
  • Changes in curriculum can be accommodated rapidly. James states that the District was able to completely change K-8 curriculum over the summer, a process that would have taken more than a year with the traditional textbook adoption process.
  • Teachers no longer need to spend administrative time copying materials on the District’s fleet of workgroup copiers. All materials are produced centrally and distributed, with an added benefit of a lower cost per copy on centralized production printers.

The District uses color and monochrome printers from Xerox along with EFI’s Quick Print Suite powered by PrintSmith Vision with Digital Storefront as the front-end catalog for the system. This allows teachers to order curriculum from any device, 24/7, with a 5-day standard turnaround time for delivery to the school, choosing from more than 20,000 SKUs.

The Results

James has seen a 1,000% increase in volume in the centralized department, from 2 million to 33 million impressions annually. He estimates that about 21,000 teacher prep hours have been saved over the last three years, equating to about $35,000 in savings over the last year. In the first 11 months of the current fiscal year, the Graphic Communications Department handled 32,942 job tickets with seven employees, an amazing throughput coup. And James was able to bring in outside work from other districts to the tune of about $500,000 in annual revenue for the district.

Finally, the recent curriculum switch was accomplished with relatively minor cost, as compared to the millions of dollars it would have cost to do this with conventional textbooks.

In addition to the use of royalty-free curriculum materials in K-8, the District’s five high schools are primarily using iPads, with some hardcopy text books. Although there are likely licensing fees associated with iPad curriculum, the cost here is also significantly lower while providing students with an interactive experience in a medium they are used to as digital natives. This also takes a chunk of revenue from the traditional textbook pot.

What’s Next for Traditional Textbooks?

Good question. The IPMA award gave the Deer Valley approach some great visibility among its peers. School districts are always struggling with funding, and conventional textbooks are a significant cost. Plus, they don’t always provide the flexibility today’s teachers – and their students – want for an optimum educational experience.

It will be interesting to watch this unfold over the next few years. I wonder what the response from educational publishers will be? Will they come forth with creative solutions that still give them a dog in the hunt? Or will they, like so many traditional businesses before them, fall victim to non-traditional competition while in a state of denial? Think about what the auto industry did to the horse and buggy business, or telephones to telegraphs, or happening now, Amazon to bricks-and-mortar retailers. We certainly live in interesting times.

Cary Sherburne is a well-known author, journalist and marketing consultant whose practice is focused on marketing communications strategies for the printing and publishing industries.

Cary Sherburne is available for speaking engagements and consulting projects. To get more information contact us.

Please offer your feedback to Cary. She can be reached at cary@whattheythink.com.



By Cary Sherburne on Aug 10, 2017

Today I received a press release from Rice University headlined "Nearly 1.5 million college students to use free textbooks this school year," referring to the university's OpenStax initiative.

So this trend is much broader than Deer Valley. Rice estimates students will save an estimated $145 million in the 2017-18 academic year by using their free textbooks.

Educational publishers, take note!


By John J. Conley on Aug 11, 2017

While this is an fascinating example of alternative classroom material it is hardly new news. In fact the sales of K-12 text books has been in constant decline for almost 10 years or more. Alternative materials in the key NASTA spec states have going on since Governor Arnold S declared open curriculum in California a decade ago to save money. Since the expense of classroom teaching materials makes up less than 1% of the total education budget the overall saving do not move the total expense needle. The more important question remains are these alternative curriculums or technology base materials platforms increasing the learning ability and translating to higher states of learning and better preparation for College. The answer here is not yet. That is the real story.

In Higher Education the textbook model has again been in trouble for years so again not new news. And again the question has to be asked are the alternative methods yielding better graduates? When you look at where the US education system now ranks in both K-12 and Higher Education against the other developed nations of the world the answer again is no.

Education Publishers are faced with a significant conundrum. There is the unproven believe that print is a poor platform for education and that alternative channels are better. They have had a lot of time to work this model and look for alternatives but they have been slave to their old revenue models. Publishers like Pearson who spent billions on alternative channels are divesting themselves of these assets at a fraction of what they paid because the promise of better never materialized. Publishers do have to shoulder the blame for not being creative and developing new multi channel curriculums based on the capabilities of the digital native audience. At the same time you have 14 years of government interference in the K-12 system that has dumb downed the standards and is a large part to blame for the ongoing slide to mediocrity of the overall US Education system. So there is lots of blame to go around and it not all the Publishers.

While all of this conflict takes place between the people who know how to build curriculum and pedagogy and those in the Tech world who believe all knowledge should be free and there are plenty of quality free materials in the market the student performance continues to suffer. Until the top priority in both K-12 and Higher Ed is significantly improved performance at any cost we will not get any solution which is worth what ever investment or saving is being touted as the cause of the day. When improved performance becomes the primary KPI you will get a change in the educational materials market that will have sustainable results and take advantage of the best aspects of all available platforms. Until then it is the same old news over and over with the same lack of results.


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