Xuanlong Yixian, Consultant

For the most part, competition is absent from the textbook industry. And that’s what drives most innovation and disruption in other industries, particularly the tech industry. If one company makes a product, and another comes along with a better one, consumers suddenly have a choice to make. So both companies can either lower their price or improve their own product in an attempt to woo customers. That just doesn’t happen with textbooks. There’s no choice a all, the class requires one or more books, and only those will do. You can choose to buy the book from store A or store B, maybe rent the book or buy it used, or even choose not to buy the book at all, but nothing else that comes along can replace the assigned textbook. This gives the textbook companies a huge advantage. You have to buy their book to be successful in a class, so they can charge as much as they want for it. It’s not uncommon to see books priced at $300 or more. Even if they charge $1,000 for the book, students are still going to need it to be successful in a class which requires it. Similarly, there’s little pressure to make the product any better, so textbooks today are really not that much different from those from 30 years ago. The content may have changed, but little about the business has.

To disrupt the textbook industry would require a significant investment of time, money, and resources on the part of the textbook companies to develop and implement whatever that better thing happened to be, nobody else can really do it. And considering the captive market that they have right now, there’s no reason to do so. They just sit back and rake in the profits. When people are forced to buy a product at any price, don’t expect any innovation.

Unfortunately, chances are that this problem is here to stay. Teachers and professors generally teach from a single book. If they say to read page 10 or answer the questions on page 45, that only works if everybody’s using the same book. And everybody being forced to buy one book is the very root of the problem.

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