The Bad News from the Textbook Market Keeps Coming
Both Barnes & Noble Education and Pearson PLC saw double-digit drops in their stock prices recently after sales failed to meet Wall Street expectations. B&N Education (NYSE: BNED) CEO Max Roberts said that the decline was related to lower enrollment at colleges and a “softer retail environment.”
Taking a hit far worse than B&N Education, Pearson PLC (NYSE: PSO) lost 29% of its value in one day in mid-January after dramatically lowering revenue-and-profit expectations for 2017. How bad has it gotten for Pearson? Well, the folks at The Motley Fool write “Pearson stock is now down 66% over the past three years, and the market is showing no confidence that the company will turn itself around anytime soon” and Bloomberg’s “Pearson Forecasts Years of Textbook Gloom; to Sell Penguin” is in no way reassuring.
The Elephant in the Room
B&N Education and Pearson are really proxies for the whole textbook industry. The underlying causes of the industry malaise are rooted in two powerful trends: demographics and technology. After reaching a peak of 17.3 million students in 2010, college enrollment decreased 4% between 2010 and 2014 to 16.6 million in 2014 (according to the National Center of Education Statistics). This falling college enrollment is unprecedented, and obviously fewer students equals fewer textbook sales. Technical trends, including new business models (rentals), online sales, and digital books, further undermine the old model of new textbook sales to students through brick-and mortar-campus bookstores.
While the publishers try new tactics such as access codes and custom publishing in order to revive sales of new textbooks and shrink the used-textbook marketplace, the fact of the matter is these types of tactics only serve to alienate their customer base. Students are not stupid; they realize that algebra doesn’t change that much from year to year, so why should the textbook? The publishers would be well advised to create value-added services or pass on savings for students instead of thinking up new ways to milk students for their last dollar by inflating book prices.
The textbook industry is in the midst of some serious disruption. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.