For education publishers, the shift from print textbooks to digital materials isn’t as simple as just churning out a library of new online programs, e-books, apps, or other Web-based resources. If publishers are serious about getting new, digital products into schools, the process is likely to require them to take risks and make and potentially difficult changes to their sales strategies, personnel, and the overall way they look at the market.
Those were some of the takeaways from a panel of speakers who work in the K-12 publishing industry or are connected with it, at a conference of the Association of American Publishers’ PreK-12 Learning Group, held at the Capitol Hilton hotel here Tuesday.
The title of the panel was “Mom, Are We There Yet? The Long Ride From Print to Digital,” and there was little consensus on the expected length of the journey—except perhaps that it’s a long way from being over.
One panelist, Carl Robinson, who works with publishers as a senior consultant for Ixxus Limited, said one of the biggest challenges he sees is in companies not having a coherent plan for what their goals are for moving into the digital world—they only have a vague sense they need to increase their presence there.
“Too many publishers only know where they want to go in the next 6-8 months,” Robinson said.
Fady Khairallah, the chief strategist and president of MDR, a marketing-services company which also conducts reearch on the K-12 market, urged publishers to use “extreme caution” in the making the shift to digital. While it’s true that the K-12 market has seen a decrease in print sales, he said, it isn’t entirely clear what’s driving that downturn.
Many schools clearly still want print materials, he said, and publishers would be foolish not to listen to them.
If a company sees itself as a “disruptor” in the market, Khairallah said, it might make sense for it to make a quick jump from print into digital. Others should experiment—or, if their customers tell them they aren’t buying into digital yet, they should avoid moving too quickly, he said.
The fundamental question is “as a publisher, do you lead or respond to these things?” Khairallah said.
One company that is moving aggressively into digital—and clearly has the resources to do so—is Pearson, the worldwide education provider.
Larry Singer, the managing director for K-12 North America sales at Pearson, described the shift to digital as “monumental,” and one that is forcing major changes in how Pearson tries to sell its products to schools, and work with K-12 officials.
The company’s digital sales staff needs to be able to talk to district officials about not only their academic needs, but also the technology demands placed on schools by digital tools, such as increased Internet connecticity, Singer said.
In trying to provide that expertise to schools, Pearson has made a “wholesale change” of its sale force, replacing about one-third of those staff members over the past year, Singer said.
The company’s move into digital has been so ambitious that it doesn’t see itself as merely doing a different form of publishing, Singer said: “We don’t think of ourselves as [just] a publisher anymore.”