Home 9 Against the Grain 9 v31 #3 Textbooks in Libraryland — Perspectives from a Publisher

v31 #3 Textbooks in Libraryland — Perspectives from a Publisher

by | Jun 28, 2019 | 0 comments


by Kevin Ohe  (Academic Publishing Director, Bloomsbury Digital Resources, Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc.)  

Traditional American-style textbooks and college libraries have engaged in a curious, sideways-glance kind of relationship for many years.  In bygone days textbooks often would have been purchased by librarians in small numbers and relegated to the reserve desk. Those textbooks may not have even been added to the library catalog or OPAC as an official part of the collection.  On their side, textbook publishers and their sales representatives may never have set foot in the library, except to ask directions to a certain academic building or possibly just by mistake.

Our current era of digital disruption is jumbling traditional practices and is enabling — or perhaps more accurately, forcing — libraries and publishers of textbooks to review old practices and experiment with new models.

New models potentially affecting libraries abound:  inclusive access, aggregated textbook packages, licensed pedagogical content, among others.  We will return to these in a moment, but first an overview from a textbook publisher’s vantage.

As all ATG readers will know, the commercial higher education textbook sector has struggled mightily over the course of the past decade.  A few core elements have contributed to the decline, related in some way or another to digital technology. Digital’s ability to present pedagogical content in new, interactive ways created either the demand or the perception of a demand for educational materials that moved from the page to the screen.  It seems safe to say that a lot of these early iterations now look more like exercises in wishful thinking and gee-whiz technology. Shades of CD-ROM’s in the early ’90’s. With extensive amounts of time, imagination, and investment, educational technology continues to evolve, and it also seems safe to say that we are working toward better and more effective digital interaction in the education and research processes. 

Meanwhile publishers solely continue to finance the creation of textbooks and their appurtenant materials but sell relatively fewer new books than in previous eras due to a variety of reasons.  Perhaps the greatest digital-enabled textbook disrupter has been the Internet’s effect on the textbook supply chain. With the Internet’s enabling of sales of used and rental books from anywhere on the planet, students are no longer limited to their own college bookstore’s offerings and avail themselves of books with more advantageous pricing.  In most cases, publishers — and authors — don’t realize any revenue from used and rental sales. That money goes to the third-party resellers. The Internet also made geographical distances less of a logistical impediment, and as a result cheaper international editions of textbooks sold by the publishers at significant discounts in export territories find their way back to the States.  Internet-enabled piracy takes a bite out of publisher — and author — earnings as well. Also, students in greater numbers are opting to share or bypass accessing assigned textbooks altogether. Textbook publishers needed to find ways to address the reduction in new book sales. In very broad strokes, the reduced market of potential new book buyers and lower new book sales led to tightened revision cycles (the timespan between a book’s editions).  Tightened cycles led to smaller print runs. Smaller print runs led to higher production costs. Higher production costs led to higher list prices.  

And of course, textbook publishers didn’t and don’t publish textbooks as simple, freestanding entities.  Textbook publishers need to support both the teaching and learning enterprises in a course. In order to support that mission and thereby secure and retain adoptions, ancillary materials for students and, crucially, instructor resources ride along with the core text.  Oftentimes there is no additional cost attached to these materials, but of course there is a cost to produce them. So in essence, a good deal of professional development for instructors (think adjuncts and other academics given a course adjacent to their specialty at the eleventh hour) is provided by publishers and supported by the cost of a textbook’s list price. 

Commercial publishers expect to make a profit for their efforts.  Their survival depends upon it. It’s been my experience that most publishers operate under the guiding principle that being attuned to the market and publishing quality materials marks the best path to success.  This certainly holds true at Bloomsbury with our Fairchild Books imprint.  Publishers make a commitment to the field.  Publishing core textbooks is not a one-off. In essence publishers pledge to commission and craft text, images, videos, ancillaries, etc. to enable instruction and learning for a particular class or course of study; and publishers are there for the long haul, keeping material up-to-date, including items that might seem invisible, like test bank questions and image banks.  Publishers spend lots of time investigating courses and how they are structured. Publishers spend lots of time searching for qualified writers; they spend lots of time on peer review and working with the authors to craft the materials for maximal utility. Publishers spend lots of time selling the materials which often requires sales reps to walk instructors through the features and benefits of each book and its associated array of supporting materials.  These associated tasks have proven to be requirements in ensuring quality textbook programs. Textbook publishers take on these tasks because they charge for their wares and need to deliver a valuable, consistent educational experience to their customers. Cutting corners introduces the risk of lost adoptions, tarnished reputations, and a diminishment of the business in all ways, including financial. 

As you will have noticed, none of the activities cited above mentioned libraries or research.  Most of us have been enculturated to view textbooks as living firmly in the realm of instruction and as a result firmly outside the realm of research and by extension outside the realm of the library.  Rick Anderson in The Scholarly Kitchen posted a thought-provoking piece entitled “Academic Libraries and the Textbook Taboo: Time to Get over it?” that neatly frames this issue in relation to our current times.1  He concludes by offering a rationale for libraries to justify considering offering wide scale access to textbooks: their commitment to ensuring students’ academic success.  While librarians and publishers may canter toward each other from different directions, we both converge at this point: student success leads to our success.

Instruction and research are closely bound, with instruction often leading to research.  In truth, while occasionally clear cut, the separation between instruction and research is often tenuous if not effectively indistinct.  I’ve spent many years in reference publishing, and currently I work for an academic publisher which publishes both research and instructional material.  I am fortunate to split my time between two editorial departments, one devoted to publishing digital materials for research libraries, the other devoted to publishing core textbooks in the subjects of fashion and interior design.  Fairchild Books’ title Survey of Historic Costume serves as an example of the fluidity in function textbooks can display.  Survey is the leading adopted text for required courses on costume history, but researchers looking for solid, foundational information about this subject would be well-served by its information.  Practically speaking, it’s an outstanding reference work. Most of our works, in fact, provide essential reference functions: identifying and defining terms, techniques, and concepts; providing an informed and authoritative overview of a subject’s history; suggesting ideas for further research and sources to pursue those ideas.  The same can be said of many textbooks regardless of the publisher. Is it possible that traditional models and terminology no longer apply in the same way in a digital world? In recent years the models for content delivery of textbook and reference offerings have changed dramatically while their underlying educational need continues unabated.  We can ask ourselves, “what is reference?” or “what is a textbook?”, but perhaps the more urgent question is Rick Anderson’s, “how do we help our students succeed?”.

When we were creating a digital platform for our varied fashion content which included Berg Fashion Library, the Applied Visual Arts imprint’s fashion books, and the Fashion Photography Archive, we thought about the de facto reference role that textbooks play and also considered textbook buying and usage habits outside of North America.  Given that U.S. textbook sales were showing declines, and given Bloomsbury’s willingness to experiment with new models, we decided to aggregate all our fashion textbooks into a single database-like research product.  Fairchild Books Library https://www.bloomsburyfashioncentral.com/products/whats-in-fairchild-books-library2 contains virtually every fashion textbook we publish (the few exceptions are books that come packaged with physical materials like fabric swatches).  We chose to host the product on our Bloomsbury Fashion Central (BFC) platform https://bloomsburyfashioncentral.com3 so that it is cross-searchable and shares a unified BFC taxonomy that covers all of our widespread fashion publishing.  We included the ancillary materials and self-assessment quizzes so that students and instructors could access all of the valuable content we create and assemble in our individual textbooks.  Test banks and other instructor-specific materials are made available to those with instructor accounts but not to students. 

We knew we were putting out a product that differed fundamentally from most research products on the market, and yet we looked around and saw purely instructional entries like Lynda.com finding homes in academic libraries’ collections, and considering the aforementioned reference service that our textbook content offers, we forged ahead with the product.  We did not expect it to supplant our books or eBooks but rather simply to stand next to them as another model, an experimental model that might hold appeal for certain libraries that would be interested in offering full-text access on an unlimited basis to all of their users.  Those users may engage with the content because a book is a set text; instructors may want to combine content from multiple books on a similar topic to create a customized set of chapters; students from any number of fields may need definitions or other reference-type information; or users may simply want to explore any of the panoply of elements of fashion and the fashion industry for their own enlightenment.  As an aggregation, the content set is flexible and opens itself to an abundance of uses. 

It is early days in the product life of Fairchild Books Library, but it has secured a toehold in a variety of ex-North American academic libraries.  We have recently released the product on a pilot basis in North America, and our first pilot libraries are just starting to roll out the offering. 

Library experimentation with textbook models brims with activity these days.  The promise of OER’s has captured the imaginations of many librarians, and led in meaningful ways by the advocacy of librarians, OER’s have already carved out a place in the educational landscape.  Using its expertise in largescale licensing, OhioLink helped forge a framework for an Inclusive Access model for eBooks which offers students considerable and consistent discounts in exchange for the purchase coming from the school rather than the individual student.  Greater discoverability, streaming products, and new product types like Bloomsbury Digital Resources’ unlimited access Bloomsbury Fashion Business Cases https://www.bloomsburyfashioncentral.com/products/whats-in-bloomsbury-fashion-business-cases4 that offers a much used teaching method in a reference model will all populate the library sphere striving toward the aim of helping students succeed.  With any luck, students will succeed like never before.  


  1. Anderson, Rick. “Academic Libraries and the Textbook Taboo: Time to Get Over It?”  The Scholarly Kitchen, Society for Scholarly Publishing, 7 July 2016, scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/.
  2. “What’s in Fairchild Books Library.” Bloomsbury Fashion Central, Bloomsbury Digital Resources, 2016, www.bloomsburyfashioncentral.com/products/whats-in-fairchild-books-library.
  3. Bloomsbury Fashion Central, Bloomsbury Digital Resources, 2015, www.bloomsburyfashioncentral.com/.
  4. “What’s in Bloomsbury Fashion Business Cases.”  Bloomsbury Fashion Central, Bloomsbury Digital Resources, 2015, www.bloomsburyfashioncentral.com/.



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