Beware! The Second Coming of the Textbook Wars

It may not happen today, or tomorrow, but the coming textbook wars will be massive, if quietly so. Why? The world of educational publishing is enormous; it is much bigger than you might imagine. It dwarfs, for example, the feeble trade publishing market. At the turn of the last decade, Pearson’s educational arm alone brought in more revenue than all other publishers, with the exception of education-driven Reed Elsevier. That’s just the arm that produces textbooks and other educational material. Frankly, when we talk about publishing as a whole, what we say makes little sense unless we’re talking about textbooks and educational publishing.

Enter Amazon. It announced this week that it will launch a new arm of its Kindle Direct Publishing service, one that will “help educators and authors easily prepare, publish, and promote eTextbooks and other educational content for students to access on a broad range of devices.” Amazon’s new service, which will also help “turn PDFs of their textbooks and course materials into Kindle books,” is meant to compete directly with Apple’s iBooks Author platform. Now, in other words, we have two behemoths competing to allow for the publication of textbooks outside the purview of Big Publishing.

Consider the 2013 revenue of The New York Times company: $1.577 billion. Now consider Pearson’s 2014 revenue: more than $9 billion. The power to circulate and publish ideas, one could argue on this basis, rests far more substantially with educational publishing. Not only that, companies driven largely by revenue from educational publishing often own other media properties. Let’s stick with Pearson, which owns, for example, the Financial Times. These companies are probably better thought of as data strongholds, where information gleaned from one property feeds into another. Though, we should say, the landscape of educational publishing is changing dramatically.

Amazon and Apple’s sought-after “democratization” of textbook production could alter education irrevocably in the coming years. And these developments may affect academic publishing more rapidly, as it’s an industry whose strengths are also its market weaknesses. The peer review process that lends academic publishing much of its prestige also requires slow, painstaking analysis. Add to this the brute fact that many university presses are run primarily to mitigate losses: this means they pay little to authors and sometimes fail to keep up with developments in a given field. You can see the appeal, in theory, of Amazon’s DIY platform.

Although the complex of state and federal laws regarding textbooks is imposing — what counts as a textbook? what material can be taught to students? — some teachers have already started producing their own textbooks, with modest educational and financial results. As an author, there are certainly some advantages to self-publishing textbooks: you may keep a larger share of profits; the book could be more easily updated into new editions; and, arguably, you could control the price. As yet, we have no Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon to spur the self-publication of textbooks for educational use. Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why Amazon and Apple want a piece of the educational publishing pie. It’s huge.

But what happens when a self-published textbook goes big? It’s not hard to envision a more politically complicated version of the previous textbook wars, where creationists books were first taught to kids, then justly maligned by the scientific and academic communities. One can easily imagine an army of conservatives teaching a curriculum of self-published materials at public schools, where oversight and regulation may be lacking. On the other hand, the pedagogical models and publishing practices of major academic institutions are more scrutinized than ever.

On the other hand, academic institutions are facing heavy criticism from a generation of adjunct instructors and students mired in debt. Is the prestige process of academic and textbook production helping these students, teachers, and aspiring authors? Are the skyrocketing costs of textbooks justifiable? On the other side, too: education is moving, for better or worse, to an online arena that could be more amenable to self-published textbooks.

In any case, the entry of Apple, and now Amazon, into the textbook publishing market is a sign that the circulation and publication of educational materials will change significantly in the coming years. What will students read? Who will write and review this material? And if you don’t think Jeff Bezos has any interest in controlling what you read and think, why did he buy The Washington Post? Now consider this on a substantially larger scale.