Is the print book dead?

For publishers and content creators it is clear that print or digital, or blended, needs to be one consideration among many when scoping a new product.

  • Subject:Digital Content

  • Reading Time:5 - 10 minutes

If you follow publishing news, you will have seen Pearson’s recent announcement that they are terminating the sale of print textbooks within the US Higher Education market. Instead, all new publishing will be digital only. In a sector which has traditionally relied on regular printed re-editions of titles, this seems a bold move.

And the reaction to Pearson’s announcement only serves to emphasise what a new direction this appears to be. Press commentary was extensive and loud, with publications such as Forbes citing Pearson’s decision as disruptive and game-changing for both publishers and students: “This development upends several traditions that are more than a century old”. Some commentators went a step further, lamenting the ‘death’ of print books and therefore of education as we know it: “If you no longer have – and no longer own – physical textbooks, you are not only spoiling your present but robbing your future self of the embodied memories of childhood,” The Guardian.

But, is Pearson’s move really unexpected (or unwelcome)? For a number of years now, higher education publishing has seen a gradual shift towards digital delivery, and in recent years this shift has been gaining momentum. Cengage is just one example of a publisher that has embraced this shift with the Cengage Unlimited service, which gives student subscribers access to ebook versions of Cengage’s entire textbook catalogue, for a fee that is a lot lower than buying the titles they need as individual print books.

And in the educational publishing industry more widely, digital-first, digital-only and blended product suites are rapidly becoming the new baseline package. Here at TCS we work with a diverse range of publishers and content providers, and while we certainly still work on lots of print publishing projects, the number of digital projects has definitely increased in our nearly five-years as a company.

But the types of digital product and project have changed too. In previous years the norm was to deliver the printed products first, and only then begin work on the digital components, which would be offshoots of the print in terms of content, such as fixed-format ebooks and interactive versions of Activity Book exercises. Now increasingly teachers, students and therefore publishers view the digital components as an intrinsic part of the offer. Digital components are given equal standing at project scoping stage, and are kicked off much earlier in the project, sometimes (although still rarely) at the same time as the print. These components can be student apps or enhanced ebooks, which complement any printed components but aren’t subsidiary to them.

Now increasingly teachers, students and therefore publishers view the digital components as an intrinsic part of the offer.

There are clearly pros and cons to digital delivery. For publishers, while there is significant initial investment required in a new platform or product, and in migrating any existing print content into it, after that there will be large cost savings due to not having to print and hold stock, and particularly if – as in higher education – new content creation is mainly iterative. Some of this cost-saving will be passed on to customers, who also enjoy the added benefit of more up-to-date, easily accessible content, that in some situations – eg. enhanced ebooks – can also be more engaging for the student. AI offers even more benefits for students, including personalisation. However, accessing digital content requires technological infrastructure, which not all schools and students may have.

For publishers and content creators it is clear that print or digital, or blended, needs to be one consideration among many when scoping a new product. The crucial thing is to select the right delivery method and format for the market and the end user – the learner; the one that will most effectively enhance learner outcomes. And, as you might expect, at The Content Station we believe that high-quality content is the most important thing of all, regardless of whether that’s print or digital content.

What do you think – is this the end of print publishing? Which sectors are most affected in your experience? Is this a positive or negative development? Or do you think print books are here to stay?

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