Peter Cochrane's Blog: Textbook case of redundancy

Will it be the end of the line for all educational textbooks within five years?

With devices such as the Kindle, the ebook market is now really starting to bite into paper book sales

With devices such as the Kindle, the ebook market is now really starting to bite into paper book salesPhoto: Amazon

Written on UA 958 flying Chicago to London and dispatched to via a wide-open wi-fi site providing more than 30Mbps connectivity in Leicester Square, London.

Textbooks based on a national curriculum or specific courses have been the staple of education for decades but that situation looks to be changing fast.

For reasons that are not always clear, I sometimes receive a clutch of reports, articles and blogs broadly on the same topic. This past week it has been the rapidly diminishing future of the learned textbook.

The speed of technological advance and availability of course materials online, plus electronic textbooks, coupled with new generations of students who only do online or not at all, seems to be pushing textbooks from the shelves.

Some university departments are now seeing a year-on-year drop of between 10 per cent and 14 per cent in students buying recommended reading since 1997, with some predicting a fall of 20 per cent or more for 2011.

Graph: Textbook sales
Image: Peter Cochrane/

What is happening here? The mechanisms of demise are logical and plentiful, and a matter of natural progression away from an ancient mode to a modern one:

  1. The global expansion of industrialisation and the associated growing student body makes paper books increasingly untenable from a cost, materials-processing and ecological standpoint
  2. The ebook market is now really starting to bite, and is way beyond the Kindle with laptop, tablet and mobile readers readily available
  3. Rightly or wrongly, students scanning and sharing selected pages is rife and hitting the sales of books
  4. Even worse, the cost of scanning completed books is now so low it is promoting a growing pirate copy market
  5. Changes in college and university funding regimes are putting expensive paper books beyond the reach of many
  6. The multidisciplinary nature of study, especially in science and technology, heralds the end of the era of one book per course
  7. A large percentage of course material is now online for free
  8. Libraries cannot cope - they don't have the buildings, shelf space, budgets or buying power to service an expanding student body
  9. Libraries are also grossly uneconomic and under increasing pressure to cut costs, and in some cases under threat of closure
  10. Words on paper and fixed diagrams present a very poor medium for communicating the dynamic and complex, which are mostly better served with animations, movies and interactive experiments

Most studies and pundits seem to agree that the tipping point for textbooks is somewhere between three and eight years away. My guess is that it will arrive early and probably within the next five years. At that point, paper textbook sales will go into rapid decline and these artefacts that served us so well in the past will rapidly become curios and collectors' items.

In marketing terms, it is the magic 30 per cent that rules. When people are buying and owning a particular product, we don't feel any significant peer pressure provided the buyers constitute less than 30 per cent of the population. But above 30 per cent, we increasingly feel compelled to buy. The ebook brigade is now approaching this point and the pressure is on.

There now come two more interesting mechanisms. First, as book sales fall, prices go up and even fewer students can afford them, and the loop of collapse is amplified. Secondly, authors see their financial returns diminish, and their investment of time becomes untenable, so they stop writing. Further, if fame is what they are looking for, paper books no longer do it for them, but ebooks and websites do.

My student days were spent in books with a slide rule in hand. All my old books are annotated in the margins and across page after page in red, blue and green ink. I was the publisher's friend and the librarian's enemy as I slowly degraded book after book with my penned comments, observations and diagrams.

Today, I still own a substantial number of those books but never look at them. But I find it very hard to despatch them. All those purchased on the advice of some reading list but which turned out to be of little use have long gone to charity shops, universities, colleges and schools. What I have left I fear are, sooner or later, destined for the log burner.