Pearson, the world’s largest education publisher, recently announced plans to phase out physical textbooks in the US, instead moving into a "digital-first" model with e-textbooks as its focus. Although this is currently announced for the US only, Pearson also confirmed that the model may be rolled out to other markets, including the UK. Harris Interactive conducted a survey in the UK to gauge responses to this potential move.
The decision to phase out printed textbooks is divisive: 39% expect this to negatively impact students. Perhaps surprisingly, students are more likely to see this move as negative (44%) than parents (39%), suggesting we have not yet truly reached a generation ready to go "digital-first". This hesitation reflects reading habits: on average, parents, students and others access physical books more regularly than e-books. This is similar for both education e-textbooks and books for pleasure. If Pearson does roll out its plan to phase out textbooks in the UK, it will be forcing a change in behaviour, rather than reflecting demand.
Printed textbooks are still seen as having key advantages over e-textbooks:
- Printed books are considered more reliable (both in terms of giving authoritative content and not crashing).
- Printed books have tangible/interactive benefits: being easier to annotate, bookmark and navigate.
- Printed books are felt to encourage deeper reading than e-textbooks.
However, the key barrier Pearson is likely to face is physical comfort: 47% feel less comfortable reading digital books than printed books. To overcome this barrier, Pearson (and other e-textbook providers) needs to communicate the advantages of e-books. Eighty-one per cent expect them to be cheaper than print (a key selling point in Pearson’s digital transition), and they are also considered more environmentally friendly, more practical to carry and more readily updated (tackling the idea that print is more authoritative). There is also strong agreement that digital textbooks are better at encouraging shared engagement, a key pillar of Pearson’s move.
Crucially, this is a market where there is potential for publishers to capitalise: direct purchase from a publisher’s website is the third-most common method of accessing e-books (after Amazon and Google Play). Thirty-four per cent of people who access educational e-textbooks do so via publishers’ websites. By phasing out physical textbooks and directly selling e-textbooks to students and parents, Pearson has a real opportunity to become an even stronger player in the e-textbook market.
Laurie Eaves is research manager at Harris Interactive, a full-service, digital consultative custom market research agency.
In response to the research, Pearson said: "We disagree with the premise of this research and the conclusions it reaches. We are shifting all our active US higher education titles to a digital first model, however this does not mean print is going away. We will continue to make printed textbooks for as long as students and teachers need them and students who want a print textbook will be able to rent one from us. The benefits of a digital first model, with frequent releases of content, features and updates no longer tied to an edition cycle, gives students personalised learning experiences much faster and much more efficiently, with a fantastic user experience and better learning outcomes, whilst tackling affordability concerns."
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