As Textbooks Go Digital, Will Professors Build Their Own Books?

October 08, 2010

For years, major textbook publishers have offered professors the option of customizing textbooks—cutting unneeded chapters or adding original material—but the vast majority have stuck with the official versions. As e-textbooks gain popularity, however, publishers are betting that the "build-a-book" option, as it is sometimes called, will take off.

Next week McGraw-Hill Higher Education plans to announce its revamped custom-publishing system, called Create, with an emphasis on electronic versions of mix-and-match books. Macmillan Publishers this year announced a similar custom-textbook platform, called DynamicBooks. And upstart Flat World Knowledge touts the customization features of its textbooks, which it gives away online, charging only for printed copies and study guides. Other publishers have long offered custom-textbook services in print as well, though they have always represented just a sliver of sales.

"The reality is by and large they don’t customize," said Ed Stanford, president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education, in an interview. "We think the more all this becomes digital, the more people will want to customze, and we want to be able to do that." McGraw-Hill officials say custom textbooks are now the fastest-growing area of the industry.

The new Create system lets professors go to a Web site and select sections of 4,000 McGraw-Hill books, thousands of articles and case studies, or any document that the professors themselves upload. A price tag displays how much the resulting book will cost. Professors can then choose whether to make the book available to students as a printed book or an e-book. In a demonstration for The Chronicle this week, a book on health care cost about $6 as an e-book but jumped to $16.96 as printed book.

The system does not include material from other textbook publishers. That is typical of custom systems but makes it impossible for professors to blend a chapter from one publisher with a competitor's. When Macmillan announced its system, in February, it said it hoped that other publishers would join in its effort. But Mr. Stanford said McGraw-Hill had no intention of doing that, and he doesn't expect other publishers to want to join his company's project, either.

He said that as much as his company would love to become the iTunes store of e-textbooks, he didn't expect that to happen. "If any of us could be the distributor," he added, "we would."

Major publishers did team up to create an online e-textbook distribution service called Coursesmart, but it does not include custom-publishing features or some of the latest evaluation materials that publishers offer on their own advanced online platforms.

That means the textbook landscape is becoming more and more fragmented—and more confusing for professors, who may have to learn different interfaces for the different textbooks they use.

One reason publishers may like customization is that it makes selling used copies difficult for students, unless they sell to those taking the course from the same professor.

"In many, many ways, it's up for grabs," said Mr. Stanford of the future of textbook distribution. "It’s just not at all clear where this is going to end up."