Publishers’ Sweepstakes

November 01, 1998 4 min read

With states allocating record amounts of money for textbook purchases this year, publishers are doling out “freebies” and pouring on sales pressure to woo districts and teachers.

Textbook sales representatives are peddling their products at education meetings and conferences across the country--they’re even showing up at the schoolhouse door. At a recent conference for Texas math teachers, publishers anxious to make the state’s list of adopted texts handed out free materials and hosted “happy hours,” parties, and other events with representatives on hand to talk up their products and services.

In Florida, teachers and textbook administrators are getting free wall charts, transparencies, teachers’ manuals, and activity books in exchange for bulk orders of books and other materials. “One publisher is trying to outmarket the other,” says Tom Morris, instructional- materials administrator for the Duval County, Florida, schools. “It’s a regular Madison Avenue technique.”

The healthy economy, rising enrollments, and the push for new academic standards--and textbooks that are aligned with them--have made the past couple of years a boom time for the industry, observers say.

The three largest states that require schools to spend the bulk of their state textbook allocation on approved texts--California, Texas, and Florida--have fueled the demand. In Florida, the instructional-materials budget has increased about 80 percent in the past few years, to $183 million--the state’s all-time high. Texas, meanwhile, has projected a $177 million textbook budget this year, the state’s second consecutive hefty investment in books.

At least eight other “adoption” states plan to approve major textbooks this year, and publishers are realizing big profits throughout the country, according to Al Branch, editor of Educational Marketer, a newsletter published by Stamford, Connecticut-based Simba Information. “Although they’re going to care most about the larger states, there is a trickle-down effect,” Branch says. “There’s probably not a state in the country that’s not affected.”

Though the textbook industry went through some lean times at the beginning of the decade, the last few years have seen a remarkable turnaround in the market. Between 1992 and 1996, sales of textbooks and other educational materials jumped nearly 26 percent, to a total of $2.6 billion, according to the Association of American Publishers.

Sales so far this year are up 13 percent, and that figure could skyrocket on the heels of California’s record budget package, which earmarked more than $682 million for books and other instructional materials.

“With the focus on improving student performance and increasing accountability at the school, district, and state levels, one of the first priorities is to place new textbooks in the hands of students,” says David Wan, president of the K-12 publishing group for Simon and Schuster, based in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

Much of states’ new money for textbooks is flowing in response to public anger over schoolbook shortages. A survey conducted in California by the AAP earlier this year found that residents favored spending more money on textbooks than on any other educational need. News reports about tattered and outdated books and too few materials for students in the Los Angeles school district, the country’s second-largest, recently led officials there to issue $25 million in emergency funds to remedy the situation.

Competition for these new dollars among publishers is fierce as they try to recoup their development and printing costs, which could run up to $40 million or more for a series of texts in a major subject. The courtship of large districts is particularly intense, as deals with bigger districts hold the potential for greater profits.

Though the freedom of districts to choose their texts is limited in the 19 so-called adoption states, local educators are still key players. They influence textbook purchases before and after state and local adoptions, often sitting on selection committees or informally advising the administrators who make the decisions.

Teachers and administrators are impressed when they are showered with free materials, says Kathie Jewell, director of textbook distribution for the Texas Education Agency. But the freebies often have strings attached, requiring the purchase of large quantities of books. And the all-out sales frenzy of the industry giants can overshadow texts from smaller publishers, who often cannot afford big giveaways or armies of sales representatives.

The top three adoption states--California, Texas, and Florida--continue to be concerned by such sales tactics. California requires publishers to make their free goodies available to all districts in the state. The state also insists that publishers donate up to 150 review copies of the books they want approved so that educators throughout the state can see them. In Texas, meanwhile, an ad hoc committee on textbooks will be taking up the issue this fall.

Although the state board in Texas once tried to eliminate the free products, teachers resisted. Still, some education officials would like to abolish the practice, arguing that the giveaways are anything but free. “I always put the term ‘free materials’ in quotes,” Morris says. “Nothing is free. We would rather see them put the money into good, strong textbooks and teacher editions for a lower price.”

--Kathleen Kennedy Manzo