September 30, 2021
Textbooks play a central role in discussions around higher ed affordability, and publishers have long been cast as the villain, pulling in high profits as textbook prices rise.
These days some publishers are trying a new sales model they say will save students money: textbook subscription services. The latest player to jump in is Pearson, which released Pearson Plus over the summer as a “pay-as-you-go” alternative to traditional textbooks.
Subscribers to Pearson Plus pay $9.99 per month for one access to one digital textbook or $14.99 per month to access all of the more than 1,500 titles on the company’s platform, with each plan requiring a four-month minimum. Users also get access to audiobook versions of their texts一available for about 60 percent of titles一along with study guides and a discount on a separate tutoring service for premium subscribers.
That pricing comes in slightly lower than a similar model offered by Cengage, which charges $69.99 per semester for what it calls Cengage Unlimited, its full e-library, and another $50 for access to a related homework system that professors often assign with the textbook. A smaller publisher with a subscription model, Perlego, charges users $18 monthly for use of its textbook catalog with a discounted rate for those who buy a year-long subscription up-front.
The model has been referred to as a “Netflix for textbooks,” comparing it to the popular subscription streaming service that has long charged a flat monthly fee for all of its content. And textbook publishers trying the approach argue that it could save students money, provided they are assigned more than one of the publisher’s titles in any given semester. But the question of textbook subscriptions’ value may be more complicated than the price listed on the checkout page.
Experts say perhaps the biggest change Pearson’s move represents is the continued squeezing of the secondary textbook market, where students recoup some of their money when they resell used books, but publishers don’t get a cut in the resale. After all, students can’t resell a digital book that goes away after the semester ends. And the concern by industry-watchers is that in the long run, publishers could raise prices even higher should the alternatives of used textbooks one day disappear completely from the landscape.