Monday, October 7, 2013

Exploring Why Trade and Educational Publishing Business Models Are So Different

You'll see a lot of statistics concerning the percentage comparison between preference for ebooks or physical books. There is a lot of discussion about the format people prefer to read ebooks on. Heck, there is a lot of discussion about whether people ACTUALLY read books anymore. Dueling statistics across various studies and mediums seem to be somewhat contradictory. The key takeaway is fairly simple: the technology enabling ebooks to be utilized exists, and they are cheaper than physical books, so it's only a matter of time until the right combination of technology and aesthetics come together to usher in a new era of reading (whatever that might look like).

In the meantime, we still have these studies and polls that provide conflicting information about the interest in physical vs. digital format. What these studies sometimes do not take into consideration is the purpose behind the particular book, and in market it is being written for: trade or academic/educational. While it is impossible to encompass the differences, and the significance of these differences, in a blog post, here is a short taste.

For those of you that haven't spent years of your life with your nose in books, theorizing whether (*SPOILER*) Henry James meant for us to think the governess is hallucinating or actually seeing a ghost in The Turn of The Screw, trade publishing refers to what most of us think about when we think of books: Fiction, Non-Fiction (not textbooks), Poetry, Haiku's, Literary Journals, and so on. The purpose behind these books is, quite simply, to entertain. Now, before you say “but some writers want to make a statement!” or “biographies aren’t meant to entertain!” keep in mind that entertainment doesn’t necessarily mean laying down on the couch reading an engrossing book series like Game of Thrones. Some people enjoy reading books that are deep and that they can learn something profound and philosophical from (Freakonomics, for example, or a biography like Steve Jobs).

Trade publishers continue to make money from providing entertaining content in a format that people enjoy reading. Any many cases, this still means physical books. For that reason, among others, the decline of stores that rely on that kind of publishing, like Barnes & Noble, can still make a living, because the people who love to read those books are slower to change, and still enjoy reading books in their hands. Since it’s all about entertainment, anyway, it stands to reason that their format of consumption is also a matter of aesthetic and personal preference.

 Academic/Educational is, as you might expect, academic essays/papers, textbooks, technical manuals, etc. These pieces are meant to inform, provide knowledge/information, and assist in the facilitation of learning that knowledge. This could vary from things like popular Psychology textbooks like Pearson’s World of Psychology by Wood, to famous books like Gray’s Anatomy for doctors, and technical books like Whole House Repair Guide (got it from my father-in-law. Pretty useful actually). For the sake of this discussion, the purpose of educational books is what differentiates it from trade: the content is dedicated to teaching as the primary purpose of existence. As educational publishing became big business, this meant finding the most renowned educator/researcher, and utilizing their reputation/knowledge to build a product line out of. As the purpose was to provide the best information possible in order to assist educators in teaching, it seemed like a respectable commercial strategy. But, as this is no longer enough to differentiate a product to a college professor and entice them that the 11th edition of a publisher’s book really makes a difference, the business model must change. So it has.

Therefore, this difference of purpose in trade vs. educational publishing, entertain vs. teach, explains why many educational publishers are hurdling over each other to form a more perfect technology product. Contemporary teaching methods, and new understanding of human learning behaviors, has begun an integration into technology. Furthermore, there are now better methods of collecting data that doesn’t assume that sheer fact regurgitation is the sole indicator of a person’s knowledge (see: any standardized test). Learning technology makes it easier to take notes, transfer notes into a preferable format, etc. and is moving towards personalized learning; when a company can discover learning trends that are demonstrated, rather than imposed, then they, or teachers, can use that to adapt their learning technology, lending itself to the true purpose of the content’s existence: to teach.This point has already been taken by companies that seek to find more efficient ways to educate their employees; an entire industry of e-learning has already been in existence for almost two decades!

This purpose explains why educational publishing is implementing technology more rapidly: it is less expensive than printing, it assists the goal of teaching more effectively, and the content can be altered to reflect quickly changing realities. Trade publishing is mainly an entertainment and aesthetic appeal, so it has less impetus to shift.


  1. I thought that the vast majority of ebook revenues were from novels? How does this mesh with your points here?

    Granted, the tech involved in ebooks that feature straight text is relatively simple, compared to the teaching tools you're talking about, but trade publishing is already switching over quickly to that (simpler) tech for all straight-text-type books.

    Obviously the problem with the more complex layouts isn't the same as in educational publishing. It's that we can't shoehorn an on-board hyphenation and justification engine into the reader apps or dedicated reader hardware.

    Then again -- maybe I'm talking about a different piece of the technological innovation process than you are.

    1. Marion, thank you for your comment. Yes, I believe you are correct that the vast majority of ebook revenue comes from trade publishing. Admittedly, it's difficult to compare the learning technology in higher education to simple ebooks. In a previous post I discuss the difference between ebooks and digital content, so a digital version of a book isn't necessarily a real shift in business model. Trade publishing hasn't had to shift their business model as much as educational publishing. Granted, this model will likely shift in the future. But this is moving at a slower pace than educational publishing.

      Regardless, you bring up a valid point about the nuances of the trade publishing.

      Additionally, while a lot of revenue for ebooks IS in trade publishing, it still only accounts for roughly 20% of trade publisher revenue. I wouldn't really call that a real shift in the business model.

  2. This web page design makes it impossible to read black text

    1. Many of my friends have pointed out some of the flaws in my design. I hadn't, unfortunately, put as much time into the design as I would have liked. But your comment gave me a good reason to change it, even if only a little. Hopefully this makes it easier to read.