Digital Transformation & History of the Textbook in Higher Education

in Research   Posted on March 31, 2021  Author: Imed Bouchrika,

Textbooks. Tomes of knowledge that can weigh up to a ton. These instruction resources used to dominate schools but now they are giving way to their digital counterparts. Though the first electronic book came about in 1971 when Project Gutenberg digitized the Declaration of Independence (Government Book Talk, 2014), it was not until the 2000s that electronic textbooks became ubiquitous. One of the reasons for this was the push by then-governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger. With the state’s coffers in dire straits, the actor-turned-politician pushed for the use of free and open-source e-textbooks or e-texts in schools (Lewin, 2009).

And, of course, there is the matter of the rising costs of textbooks, especially in college. In this level of education, a single textbook can have a price tag of over $100 (Smith, 2009). For most students, that is not practical, as they may not use such textbooks again or they could become outdated quickly. As a result, many turned to rent-a-textbook services or bought cheaper electronic textbooks instead.

How The Textbook Evolved Through Time: Table of Contents

  1. Evolution of the Textbook
  2. Textbook Prices and Sales in the Past 20 Years
  3. Intrusion by Rent-a-Textbook Services
  4. How Big Publishers Are Reacting to the Shift
  5. Current Digital Textbooks Prices and Sales

Evolution of the Textbook

From paper-based to digital

The transformation of the textbook from paper to electronic began when Apple released the iBooks Author. This application was designed for users of Mac desktops and MacBooks. With this software, Bass (2012) explained that publishers were able to produce electronic books that others can peruse on iPads.

Of course, eBooks were already around long before iBooks Author, according to the same writer. However, they were available only in limited formats, some of which were not compatible with iPads.

Education publishers also took advantage of this innovation. Even schools themselves utilized it to help their instructors publish or to provide their students with a different kind of resource. Ebooks became more attractive, as iPads and similar devices would be more lightweight to carry.

Multi-touch books, as Apple likes to call eBooks, are also more interactive compared to the traditional textbook (Educause, 2012). Because it supports rich media, an ebook can include learning materials that make it more engaging such as videos, 3D objects, and interactive maps and tables, quizzes, and instant assessments.

The emergence of eBooks and ePubs

As discussed above, iBooks Author was one of the applications that propelled the eBook and the eTextbook forward in their early days. That app is now defunct, though, and has been replaced by the more modern Pages. It has similar functions but it has an improved range of capabilities as well. Among these is the ability to edit eBooks created with its precursor. In this way, those who did not finish writing their books before Apple halted support for iBooks Author could pick up where they left off. Additionally, it enables real-time collaboration between authors and editors. There is a whole slew of features for designing and adding media, too.

Apart from Pages, there are numerous apps that have powerful capabilities for creating, designing, and publishing eBooks. These robust solutions are part of the worldwide trend toward interactive learningDifferent entities have different opinions but here are some that appear in various lists:


Scrivener is a word-processing software similar to Microsoft Word. What makes it different is its interface and features are designed for ease of use by writers, editors, and publishers alike. For the latter, Scrivener offers a compilation feature, which readies the work in publication-ready formats like PDF (Literature & Latte, 2021).


Some may know Calibre as an eBook library organizer. However, the software is more than that: it can convert eBooks into different formats like MOBI and AZW3. It also lets users edit metadata so that authors and publishers can change the cover image, edit the title, and add tags and descriptions (, 2020).

Adobe InDesign

This eBook publication heavyweight is great for publishing companies’ designers. Because of Adobe’s background in design, Adobe InDesign has a whole feature set that allows publishers and authors to be creative with their covers. Of course, they can also customize the formatting and other visual elements of the book (Birand, 2018).

EDUCAUSE (2012) also mentions other products or services that publishers utilize to enrich their electronic textbooks:

3D Issue

It is a digital publishing app that allows users to make materials for Android and iOS that are formatted like magazines. 3D Issue is also a flipbook software that enables users to convert PDFs into flipbooks that can be read using any device.

Inkling Habitat

This is a cloud-based authoring platform that is interactive and lets authors and publishers preview the content on different devices. Remote teams use Inkling Habitat to help them collaborate in creating interactive content.


This digital publishing service helps authors and companies to customize their eBook content. Vook allows content creators to easily add images, videos, and audio from anywhere.


AcademicPub, now XanEdu, offers a platform that lets authors and publishers build books by themselves. An account also gives users access to a vast content library. Apart from this, they can opt to take advantage of the full service that includes book building and personalized support.

Challenges of interactive learning

There is much ado about electronic textbooks because they are a rich resource for interactive learning. This is a game-changer, as content is more engaging, allowing learners to grasp ideas and concepts better with various elements like photos and videos. Best of all, it also activates various sections of the neurological system (Infonerd, 2019).

But while it is promising, there are still challenges that come with interactive learning. Rutgers University (2020) shares some of the common issues that their instructors have encountered themselves:

  • Difficulty in controlling the direction of class discussion. Interactive learning means that lecturers veer away from presenting topics in class, thus making it difficult to steer the class discussion.
  • Course design. Interactive learning, together with interactive resources, change the way lecturers handle courses. Current course designs may not be enough or are not able to keep up with the new technologies.
  • Distracting elements. While images, videos, 3D elements, and other assets enhance understanding, they can also be causes of distractions.
  • Assessment. Instructors are used to handing out written assessments but those may not be enough in the changing the learning landscape.

Textbook Prices and Sales in the Past 20 Years

In 2018, textbook publishers had combined revenues of $8.79 billion. This is more than $1 billion less than the previous year’s total revenue. From 2010 to 2018, the textbook publishing industry’s peak year was 2015. That year, they earned $11.7 billion in revenue (U.S. Census Bureau, 2019). Of that number, around $4.53 billion came from publishers of higher education textbooks, according to the Association of American Publishers (AAP, 2020).

However, the latest data from the same organization of publishers shows that educational books’ revenue is on a downward trend. In 2019, educational publishers earned only $7.3 billion. The textbooks sold at the higher education level only amounted to $3.23 billion while PreK-12 textbooks earned $4.07 billion. Between the two, only the latter has a positive growth with a 20.4% difference between 2018 and 2019. The former, on the other hand, had a -10.9% difference.

This change coincides with the report by Student Watch (2020) that student spending on course materials went down to an average of $415 in 2018/2019 from $484 in 2017/2018. This is due to the rising price of textbooks, which has increased by 885% between January 2006 and July 2016 (UTA Libraries, 2020).

The reason for this decline is two-fold: the prevalence of rent-a-textbook services and the popularity of e-textbooks.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016

Intrusion by Rent-a-Textbook Services

Buying textbooks, even used ones, can be financially prohibitive. To remedy that, many students have turned to rent-a-textbook services. Not only do they get the course materials that they need, but they also save money. These services, however, have become educational publishers’ biggest competition.

While the savings are a huge pro when it comes to renting textbooks, there are also cons. One of those is quite similar to borrowing a book from the library: late fees. If a student is to return a book even a day late, they will incur a penalty. With Chegg, borrowers pay 25% of the rental cost plus tax. However, that extends the rental and gives them ample time to return the books on loan. After that, they will be charged a purchase fee. Nevertheless, they still have seven days to return the book and given a refund on the purchase (Chegg, 2020).

Additionally, students can be penalized if they damage the books they rent. In some cases, companies might ask borrowers to replace the damaged book. Plus, students cannot, of course, resell the books they loaned. That means they are unable to recoup their rental expenses, unlike books they own, which they could resell for a fraction of the original price. Another con would be the temporary use of borrowed books. Some titles may be useful beyond one semester, so continuing to rent the books may hurt the finances more than just buying them (Tretina, 2020).

Chegg had its start in 2005 as a textbook rental company for students. The service is one of the earliest and one of the biggest in the field. The company ships rented books directly to the doorsteps of borrowers and they can return the books at no cost to them at all. Students can take advantage of convenient rental terms, as they can choose to loan a book for a semester or a quarter. Best of all, many of the textbooks in the Chegg database can be rented for $13. And if students prefer, they can also borrow an electronic version of a textbook, if available.

The website also shows that by the end of 2019, Chegg had 3.9 million subscribers. This translates to a 29% year-on-year increase. While this number reflects not just the textbook rental service but all of the company’s services, it still goes to show that it is successful in its business model.


In 2012, Amazon announced that it was launching a new service: textbook rental. Just like Chegg, Amazon offers free shipping of books to students and makes returning them hassle-free at no cost, too. Additionally, the company offers the option to purchase the book at the end of the rental term. It is not only physical textbooks that are available in the Amazon database, e-textbooks abound for students who prefer digital course materials (Bishop, 2012).


There are more than ten big textbook rental services available now. Even Barnes & Noble has its own textbook rental offering. Other companies, though, like Campus Book Rentals, w1ere put up specifically to provide college students with more affordable textbook options. These allow students to borrow a physical copy of a course material for a set time. The pricing of these services vary and they may not provide free shipping and free return but offer other perks. For example, Campus Book Rentals allow students to treat their borrowed books as their own and does not penalize them for highlighting texts (Farrington, 2020).

How Big Publishers Are Reacting to the Shift


Pearson is one of the largest publishers of educational books. Because of the rise of textbook rental services, their market size had a huge chunk bitten off. To remedy this, they have turned to electronic textbooks or e-textbooks.

With this turn towards the digital, textbooks that once cost more than $100 could now be acquired for as little as $40. This has borne great rewards to Pearson, as more than half of its revenue is now coming from digital textbook sales (Barrett, 2019).

Apart from that, the publishing house has launched an app called Aida that aids learners who are studying calculus. It personalizes learning and even provides feedback to users.


McGraw-Hill has also embraced the digital. The publisher reported that in 2019, for the first time, digital sales overtook print sales. Digital products had an 8% year-on-year growth and accounted for more than 50% of the company’s earnings.

The publisher has also ventured on a digital platform that students from K-12 to higher education can use for adaptive learning. It considers a student’s knowledge and guides them to what to study next using that information.

Apart from these, McGraw-Hill has other initiatives as well, like textbook rental. This has made materials from the educational publisher more affordable (McGraw-Hill, 2019).


Cengage (2020) reported in early 2020 that the company will be assisting college students in saving on textbooks. This help came in the form of a subscription to a service called Cengage Unlimited eTextbooks. This allows higher education learners to access more than 14,000 educational texts for only $69.99 a semester. 

Before that, the publishing company already had the Cengage Unlimited subscription package. This enabled 2.2 million students to save on textbooks and other materials required for their courses. 

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Net Revenue of Higher Education Book Publishers in the U.S. from 2013 to 2019

in billion U.S. dollars

Net Revenue of Higher Education Book Publishers in the U.S. from 2013 to 2019
2013: 4.81


Net Revenue of Higher Education Book Publishers in the U.S. from 2013 to 2019
2014: 4.85


Net Revenue of Higher Education Book Publishers in the U.S. from 2013 to 2019
2015: 4.53


Net Revenue of Higher Education Book Publishers in the U.S. from 2013 to 2019
2016: 3.96


Net Revenue of Higher Education Book Publishers in the U.S. from 2013 to 2019
2017: 3.98


Net Revenue of Higher Education Book Publishers in the U.S. from 2013 to 2019
2018: 3.62


Net Revenue of Higher Education Book Publishers in the U.S. from 2013 to 2019
2019: 3.23


Source: AAP, 2020

Designed by

Current Digital Textbook Prices and Sales

By estimates, around 1.8 billion units of ebooks were sold from 2010 to 2019. It is, however, difficult to determine how much of that went to educational ebooks, as sales are difficult to track. Nevertheless, this demonstrates the continuing rise of electronic books.

A cursory look at Amazon would show that an electronic textbook can cost as much as $30 less than a physical textbook or even a loose-leaf textbook. For example, the Essentials of Sociology costs $65 to own. In contrast, a new paperback version of the title goes for $99.95 while the loose-leaf version is $77.

With this turn towards the digital, textbooks that once cost more than $100 could now be acquired for as little as $40 or even less. Perhaps, that is why educational publishers are taking a more active digital approach. Not only does it make their textbooks attractive to students, professors, and schools alike, but it also lets them remain competitive against rent-a-textbook services and used textbooks stores.

The Future of Physical Textbooks

Judging from the data, it is unlikely that physical textbooks will regain their foothold in the publishing realm. Electronic textbooks have overtaken them and with publishing houses taking a digital-first stance, physical textbooks may remain but they wouldn’t be as popular as they used to be.

However, there are still things that could impede the complete adoption of digital textbooks in schools in the United States: the digital divide. Not all students have all-around access to computers, laptops, or other devices that would allow them to read and study electronic textbooks all the time. Thus, they may have to get creative in acquiring the materials they need for their courses.

Nevertheless, with the change in the approach of educational publishers regarding educational texts, digital textbooks could continue gaining traction.



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