K-12 Publishers’ Sales Slip, But States’ Buying Cycles May Be to Blame

Managing Editor

Sales in the pre-K through grade 12 market among major publishers have fallen slightly over the past year, the third straight year of decline, according to new data released by a leading industry association.

The dip in sales may not, however, reflect a downturn in education publishers’ fortunes so much as the cyclical nature of state buying of academic materials, the group says.

Net sales for pre-K-12 publishers fell to $2.8 billion in 2017 from $2.9 billion the previous year, according to data provided by the Association of American Publishers to Marketplace K-12. Net sales have slipped from a recent peak of $3.4 billion in 2014, and the last time they stood at $2.8 billion was a decade ago.

The chart below traces the arc of publishers’ net sales over a 15-year period:

The sales estimates include financial information collected from a group of the largest pre-K-12 publishers, and it includes both print and digital materials. The numbers don’t include smaller publishers from the supplemental education market, or tech companies that compete with publishers in the e-learning arena, explained Marisa Bluestone, director of communications for the AAP.

What accounts for the dip in sales over the past three years? One likely factor is that the peak year, 2014, was a “huge adoption year,” meaning a year when individual states created lists of approved academic materials that districts were allowed to select, Bluestone said. The years since then have included fewer of those big purchases.

Texas, a major K-12 market, was one of the states adopting materials in 2014, in math and science.

“Each adoption cycle gives states tens of millions (sometimes hundreds of millions) of dollars to ‘adopt’ a new set of school books for K-12,” Bluestone said in an e-mail.

When “it’s time for a state with a large population to update a core topic that each student will need—say, math or science—this impacts the overall amount of sales publishers will make in those years.”

One thing that stands out over that decade and a half is the fairly steady rise in publishers’ sales from 2002 through 2010.

A couple factors almost certainly fueled growth during that era. One was the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed into law in 2002 and set new testing and accountability requirements on states and districts—which in turn created a demand for new academic standards, and classroom materials to help teachers and schools meet those benchmarks.

Later in that same decade, momentum gathered behind the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, which eventually led to a wave purchasing of new curriculum resources, Bluestone points out. (Most states did not adopt the common-core standards until 2010 and 2011.) The transition to digital materials also gained momentum during that period, she said.

It’s safe to say that curriculum—in one format or another—will remain a major buying priority in districts for the immediate future.

In a survey conducted by EdWeek Market Brief last year, curriculum was named as a top purchasing priority for district officials, topping digital devices, PD, assessment, and other needs.

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