Textbook Case: Before You Say What You Think, See What Your Customers Say

Posted by Katherine O’Brien, GC WorldBiz

How well do you know your customers? Often, we find it easier to go with what we think they want vs. their actual desires. Why does this happen? Probably because our suppositions seem logical—so logical that we never test or challenge them. And sometimes we focus on one stakeholder without considering other equally important players.

I thought of this as I read “For Many Students, Print is Still King.” According to author Jessica Howard, “Even [textbook] publishers that have invested more heavily in new digital features say they’re not doing away with books but making them part of ‘customizable learning experiences,’ to borrow a phrase from Pearson, the biggest player in the field.”


Other quotes that caught my eye:

“The vast majority of students still prefer print,” says Michael Wright, director of college sales at Norton. “…As people become more sensitive to the overall costs of higher education, these are seen as a good value, so that’s part of their staying power.”

“We still print everything,” says Jerome Grant, the company’s chief learning officer for higher education. Pearson’s aim is not “to bias print or digital but to offer the experience in multiple formats.”

“Our students don’t really want to have e-books,” says Julie K. Bartley, an associate professor of geology and chair of the geology department at Gustavus Adolphus College. “What I hear from them a lot of times is that they feel some sort of comfort in being able to hold the thing in their hands.”

Students’ major concern about textbooks isn’t format but cost. “Probably the second biggest complaint in northern Minnesota after the weather is the cost of textbooks,” Bartley says.

“We’ve found that, at least so far, students are not terribly interested in the e-books,” says Tanya C. Noel, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Windsor, in Ontario. “That surprised me at first because I thought students would want something they could access on their mobile devices.”

Howard reports that Norton’s editorial team plans to offer a digital edition of the company’s biggest seller when it creates one it’s satisfied with. “The big question in creating digital Norton anthologies is, how you replicate the reading experience?” says Julia A. Reidhead, editorial director of Norton’s college department. The company wants digital editions to share the distinctive aspects of its workhorse print volumes, with their annotations and a format “that keeps the student focused on reading.” Digital permissions are a hurdle, too.


It would be easy (and logical) to assume that digital savvy students would gravitate toward e-books. Apparently, however, some things don’t change. Modern college students may have smart phones and tablet computers but most are still stocking their dorm rooms and apartments with ramen noodles. And most textbook publishers want flexibility—print as well as other options. (But as new e—platform developers court the “old school” publishers, things will really get interesting.)

The moral of the story? Don’t let your preconceived notions give you tunnel vision. Seek an objective perspective. And if you find evidence that supports your view (print is great, even college students prefer printed textbooks) spend equal time evaluating a contrarian view, such a  German study that found a person’s preference for the printed book is not an indicator of how fast and how well the information is processed. Most importantly—ask your customers what they want—and then give it to them!


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