Printed Word Evolves Again: Education Publisher Ditches Print Textbooks

pearson to push e-textbooks on subscription basis

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Pearson, the world’s largest education publisher, is phasing out print books, BBC News reported. The shift in focus will emphasize digital sales of e-textbooks. Printed books were once the cutting-edge technology in reading.

Stack of textbooks open in front of chalkboard
Education publisher, Pearson, is moving from printed textbooks to providing subscription-based e-textbooks. Photo by pong-photo9 / Shutterstock

According to the BBC News article, Pearson’s revenues have suffered as students rent or purchase second-hand textbooks. To counter this, Pearson will eschew the industry standard of releasing revised texts every three years. Instead, they will scale down on revising their printed works and push subscription-based access to their digital counterparts, which will offer more frequent updates. This change could be the tipping point that makes reading a primarily digital activity, hearkening back to other major shifts in world literacy.

Paper Predecessors

The “Gutenberg Bible,” the early edition of the Christian holy scripture that was printed and distributed en masse due to the printing press revolutionized by Johannes Gutenberg, remains a symbol of world literacy and documentation. However, other valuable printing methods paved the way to it. “Prior to paper, there were clay tablets,” said Dr. W. Bernard Carlson, Professor in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia. “The scribes and accountants of Mesopotamia wrote in cuneiform on tablets of wet clay that were then baked in kilns. What emerged from the kiln were hard, flat pieces of pottery, so durable that archaeologists have found thousands upon thousands of tablets, most of them still in excellent condition after centuries.” Unfortunately, baked and hardened clay ruled out any editing or changes of records—and they weren’t very portable.

“In contrast, the Egyptians wrote their hieroglyphs on sheets of papyrus, a reed that grows in the marshes along the Nile River, and the Egyptians found that the pith—the soft, white tissue inside the stalk—could be pounded into long, flat strips,” Dr. Carlson said. “Because it was light, compact, and portable, papyrus soon became the writing material of choice in the Mediterranean world.”

Dr. Carlson was quick to point out that in early medieval times, Europeans also wrote on parchment, which is untanned goatskin or sheepskin. Unfortunately, the amount of animal skin required to make a substantial amount of parchment made it an expensive process.

How China Invented Paper

According to Dr. Carlson, the Chinese invented paper in the first century B.C. “To make paper, you take fibrous materials—say the leaves from the mulberry tree, linen rags, bits of hemp—and you beat these fibers, literally, to a pulp,” he said. “To soften the fibers, you might boil the pulp in an alkali-like wood ash. You then wash the pulp, spread it onto porous screens, and let it dry.”

But how did it spread? “According to tradition, a eunuch in the emperor’s court in 105 A.D. began advocating that books should be written on paper instead of bamboo tablets or silk,” Dr. Carlson said. “Papermaking traveled along the Silk Road, reaching the Arab world in the 8th century and Europe via the Moors in Spain around the 12th century.” The Silk Road, of course, was the popular trade route most popular from the 500s to the 1500s along which, in Dr. Carlson’s words, “ideas and machines moved steadily east to west, from Chinese and Islamic societies to Europe.”

Pearson’s subscription-based e-textbook model could revolutionize textbook purchasing in schools or it could spend years embroiled in controversy as authors fight for royalties to their writing, much as musicians have with streaming music services. One thing in its favor, for now, which certainly follows historical trends as we’ve moved from clay tablets to the Gutenberg press, is its increased portability and ease of access.

Dr. W. Bernard Carlson contributed to this article. Dr. Carlson is a professor in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia, where he directs the Engineering Business Program. He earned his A.B. from College of the Holy Cross and his M.A. and Ph.D. in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania.