Educating the Netflix Generation: Digital-First Strategies for Textbooks Take Hold

by Cenveo Publisher Services

In 2017 we published a white paper entitled Six Big Trends Reshaping K-12 Education Publishing which focused on some of the major developments driving innovation and change in the sector. The report homed in on issues such as changing legislation and standards, accessibility and demographic shifts, while also exploring how publishers are adapting to classroom and curricula trends such as OER (Open Educational Resource) and adaptive tech.

Two years on and education publishers, not just in the K-12 market, but also those serving higher education, are still grappling with unfamiliar business and distribution models and fresh ways of delivering content to meet the changing requirements and demands of students, teachers, institutions and policy makers.

Image used under license from

Image used under license from

Earlier this summer, publishing giant Pearson boldly announced that it was moving towards a digital-first strategy, thus rendering the century old traditional textbook model as good as dead. Meanwhile, higher education specialist Cengage has been steadily expanding its online textbook subscription offering globally, experimenting with new cost-effective digital distribution models to cater to the Netflix and Spotify generation.

There are a number of reasons why, in this day and age, digital-first strategies make more sense than ever for education publishers. The most blindingly obvious is that printed textbooks are becoming increasingly untenable to justify. For the end user, they have become almost unfathomably expensive to purchase, which has led to an increase in reselling, borrowing and piracy, hitting publishers’ pockets hard. And for the publisher, print is a spiraling drain on finances and resources, as academic material constantly needs to be refreshed, republished, reprinted and redistributed in order to remain relevant and aligned with the curriculum.

But aside from cost and resource savings, digital-first strategies also enable publishers to simplify their editorial and production workflows, helping them to improve their speed to market and become more dynamic and experimental with the delivery of their content. In addition, when it comes to making content more accessible to those with disabilities, adhering to shifting legislation and standards in education, and keeping up with the expectations of digital natives, a move in the direction of digital content certainly allows publishers to better serve its communities.   

Since 2008, the three largest K-12 publishers have steadily been losing market share on textbooks. While this could well be indicative of the migration towards reselling, borrowing and an increase in piracy, it could also be a sign that culturally the education market is changing, and there is no longer such a need for a textbook to exist in its familiar format. Teachers, course leaders and professors are increasingly looking beyond what publishers can provide for curriculum content, often stitching together classroom material and lesson plans from free online resources, library books, media articles and OER.

Publishers are fully aware of this trend and are rightfully preoccupied about the implications of being cut out of the equation by educational professionals doing their job for them. They are also mindful that e-textbooks, which they haven’t exactly gone all out to promote in the past, are not necessarily the printed textbook’s natural successor. Instead, many are exploring how they can harness OER to work for them, investing in adaptive tech, building web products and pursuing ways of repackaging and repurposing content to make it sing on electronic classroom whiteboards and multiple handheld devices. 

While education publishing has experienced many a false dawn over the years, Pearson and Cengage’s bold strategy pivots are certainly strong signals that perhaps a new kingdom come, one in which XML is finally the newly anointed king.

Cenveo Publisher Services is the industry leader in editorial and production services for every stage of the content lifecycle. We are your source for intelligent automation, high-speed publishing, accessibility compliance, digital learning solutions and more. Email us at


Mike Groth

Michael Groth is Director of Marketing at Cenveo Publisher Services, where he oversees all aspects of marketing strategy and implementation across digital, social, conference, advertising and PR channels. Mike has spent over 20 years in marketing for scholarly publishing, previously at Emerald, Ingenta, Publishers Communication Group, the New England Journal of Medicine and Wolters Kluwer. He has made the rounds at information industry events, organized conference sessions, presented at SSP, ALA, ER&L and Charleston, and blogged on topics ranging from market trends, library budgets and research impact, to emerging markets and online communities.. Twitter Handle: @mikegroth72