The good old segmented world market suits us publishers. We like sharing the joy between different global groupings in a “logical” way which we favor because we are used to it, and find it easier than the jungle which would be an international free-for-all where we might have to think about selling our wares to individuals on the other side of the earth. It is hallowed in our author contracts and in our relationships with our own international branches or other publishing companies. It makes sense — naturally, or we’d never have come up with it — except that in an on-line world it make no sense at all. Information wants to be free they keep saying. The more significant sense of free in this discussion is “liberated” not “without payment”. We publishers certainly don’t like free in either sense, but the one where the carpet is being ripped out from beneath our feet right now is the “liberated” one.

Wiley lost at the Supreme Court, as we probably all did (at least those of us in the book business). The Economist of 23 March covers the story. Higher Ed publishers bring out cheap editions of text books so that students overseas can afford to buy them. That is altruism, but it’s an interested altruism — making a sale at a reduced price is obviously better than making no sale at all. The question of textbook pricing may be one that could be debated, but publishers seem to find that American students will pay quite high prices, which obviously students in say India or Kenya cannot. The overseas edition is usually a paperback rather than a hardback, tends to be printed black & white rather than 4-color, may omit some of the material, may be organized slightly differently, and will of course have a different ISBN.

Here’s Joe Esposito’s take in The Scholarly Kitchen. He provides a useful link to a previous piece about the cost of developing textbooks, and has a nice discussion of market segmentation and differential pricing, something which publishers have recently become involved with in the context of e-book price offers on such as Kindle’s Daily Deals.

It doesn’t seem to me it should be beyond man’s devising to come up with a solution to the overseas student problem, without having to say “OK, then, those foreigners will just have to pay the same as US students”. I think I notice many foreign versions of US textbooks having less material, maybe differently organized, than their US counterparts. US students can of course work their way though a course using the wrong textbook, but it’s work. Even having the third edition when the rest of the class has the fourth is a bit difficult. (Of course that’s why we publishers strive to make as much difference between this edition and its predecessor as we can.) So how about keeping the old edition for the cheap overseas edition, and the current one for sale here?

Of course it’s not as if all is sweetness and light in the domestic US market for textbooks. The second-hand market presents a real challenge, recently joined by the textbook rental business. Plus, to hear some people talk, all textbooks are going to be electronic any day now. The shift to digital may be underway, though as far as I can see students are not flocking to use digital textbooks. I am however prepared to believe it is indeed a long term trend which we cannot be seen to be (and are not) ignoring.

Getting away from the familiar traditional market is however not just a matter of making up your mind to do that. We couldn’t just come in to work on Monday (appropriately April Fool’s Day) and decide that we were not going to pay any more attention to the traditional market. Quite apart from the problem of getting our computer system to accept the contention that we really can make a sale to a customer in Indonesia, and telling it what price to charge, indeed what currency to use, we are, Gulliver-like, tied down by thousands and thousands of strings each representing a different clause in a different contract with authors, with other publishers, and maybe with other entities. But it may well be that we ultimately have no alternative to making the change. E-books are leading the charge, and as the balance of sales shifts more and more in favor of digital, the less sustainable becomes our attachment to the old world picture.