Educational Publisher Pearson Says Print Textbooks are on the Way Out

The world’s largest educational publisher is making the pivot to “digital-first” and will begin phasing out print books, according to the BBC citing a Pearson Publishing press release.

“Pearson said students would only be able to rent physical textbooks from now on, and they would be updated much less frequently,” the BBC article notes. “The British firm hopes the move will make more students buy its e-textbooks which are updated continually.”

Print titles, on the other hand, will be updated much less frequently than they are now.  According to Pearson CEO John Fallon, the company is at the “digital tipping point,” with over half their annual revenues coming from digital sales.

“… so we’ve decided a little bit like in other industries like newspapers or music or in broadcast that it is time to flick the switch in how we primarily make and create our products.”

There’s a critical difference in his analogy though. While consumers often prefer digital music and streaming broadcasting, students have shown a marked preference for printed textbooks.

It’s a financial consideration, not a preference for digital that often pushes students in the digital direction when it’s available. When asked which they would choose if the price were the same, 87% said they’d prefer paper.

“And 92% said it was easiest for them to concentrate when they read on hard copy,” said Dr. Naomi Baron, an expert on communication in the digital age. “And to me, that’s an astounding figure from this generation.”

Fallon argues that the digital environment is more conducive to learning, an argument largely debunked by research.

“We learn by engaging and sharing with others, and a digital environment enables you to do that in a much more effective way,” he says.

Grove City College engineering student Jeffrey Camloh calls that nonsense.

“In my experience, the most successful students are the ones who have their books spread out in front of them,” Camloh says. “It’s been proven that you learn better and remember more in print, and some of our professors insist on print copies, not digital.”

In his field, digital is especially problematic.

“When you’re working with formulas, processes, and looking things up in tables, it’s far more convenient to have it laid out in front of you,” Camloh continues, calling digital textbooks “horrible.”

“Print’s easier to read.”

“Ebooks are difficult to navigate.”

“Lack of focus and concentration in digital.”

These are just some of the reasons given by more than 500 college students when asked about their preference in textbook format, according to a study by book supplier Direct Textbook.

Twenty-seven percent say they prefer digital for textbooks, and a few more said they do enjoy reading ebooks for enjoyment. But by far the overwhelming majority of these digitally-native students are leaning toward print when it comes time to hit the books. And it shows at the sales register.

For Fallon and Pearson Publishing, it’s a business decision. But by failing to truly understand their market and how they want to learn, they could be making a serious mistake.

We now know that digital books result in lower reading recall and memory than print, and comprehension drops when reading on a screen. Add in the constant distraction of reading on a digital device, and there’s three strikes against the digital textbook.

So far, Pearson is rolling out the “pivot to digital” in the U.S. first; we’ll have to see how it’s received and what the blowback will be.