Publishers Ponder Impact Of a Decade of Changes

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Washington--Textbook publishers met here last week to discuss the future of their industry in the wake of extraordinary educational, financial, and technological changes.

"What publishing was 10 years ago, it's not today," said David A. Bice, director of the educational division of the Walsworth Publishing Company. "What it's going to be 10 years from now, it's not today. There's something happening, and we've got to react to it."

Mr. Bice and other participants at the annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers' school division noted that the recent wave of mergers and acquisitions of textbook firms has substantially altered the industry's structure.

In addition, they said, the advances in technology that have opened opportunities for publishers have, at the same time, generated new forms of competition.

And changes in schools, particularly the increasing proportion of minority students enrolled and reforms that give more authority to teachers, could lead, participants said, to demands for new kinds of materials.

If publishers adapt to these upheavals, suggested J. Kendrick Noble Jr., first vice president of Paine Webber Inc., the 1990's could be "very bright" for the industry.

"It could be the best 10 years since the period 1955 to 1965," he told the publishers, "if you don't, as an industry, prevent that from happening."

Mergers and Acquisitions

The meeting followed a year many industry officials consider a disappointment. Although revenues in the $1.8-billion industry increased by about 8 percent last year, according to Mr. Noble, publishers had expected a much greater increase because of the large number of reading texts purchased in 1989.

Their dismay over the financial returns was compounded, others here said, by the turmoil engendered by the flurry of mergers and acquisitions that has led to an increased consolidation within the industry. (See Education Week, Dec. 6, 1989.)

The recent takeover wave has concentrated control over the bulk of the market into the hands of the top few firms, said E. Addison Ellis 3rd, senior vice president and editor-in-chief of the Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company. Merrill was sold last year to the Macmillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing Company, creating the largest firm in the industry.

But Mr. Ellis noted in an interview that a similar consolidation, which occurred earlier this century, also opened opportunities for smaller firms to compete for "niches," such as supplemental materials and textbooks for particular states or grade levels.

"If history repeats itself," said the chairman of the school division's executive committee, "as publishers get larger, there will be a lot of areas big publishers won't try to market. That will allow smaller publishers to meet those needs."

The Way of the Dinosaur?

The publishers also expressed mixed emotions about the growth of new technologies.

On the one hand, noted John T. Ridley, vice president and editor-in-chief of the elementary-school division of Houghton Mifflin Company, advances in computer technology have enabled publishers to more efficiently produce new kinds of materials, such as different textbooks for different regions of the country.

Using text compiled on a computerized database, he said, publishers can reassemble and repackage materials to match states' curricular needs.

But overuse of such techniques, Mr. Ridley warned, could destroy the pedagogical value of the textbook.

"If the pedagogy was developed for particular learning in a particular context, what about derivations?" he asked. "We cannot simply view the material as an array we can mix and match at will."

In addition, noted James Milliot, executive editor of the trade publication Educational Marketer, another by-product of the technological revolution--the growing use of computer software and video technology in schools--threatens to make textbooks obsolete.

"I don't think you'll have to worry about textbooks going the way of the dinosaur anytime soon," he said. "But it seems inevitable that textbooks will be less important for mainstream instruction in the year 2000 than they are in 1990."

School-Based Management

Samuel B. Husk, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, stressed that the growing diversity of the school population will demand materials that are multicultural and "gender-fair." He noted that the council, working with the publishers' association, has approved a policy statement urging districts to evaluate textbooks on how they treat women and minorities.

"You have to have a market, and we're trying to create a market," he said.

But Kenneth E. Beckel, senior vice president and editor-in-chief of the school publishing group of South-Western Publishing Company, said such policies may lead to materials that can only be sold in large cities.

To produce books that would pass muster in such districts, "you'd have to customize," he said. "What he's talking about is an urban textbook."

The movement among school reformers to give more authority over curriculum to teachers and parents would also require a greater diversity of materials, suggested June B. Lee, president of the Jefferson County (Ky.) Teachers Association.

"Producing the same 3rd-grade basal reader for San Francisco and Flat Lick, Ky., will be a thing of the past," she said.

But Mr. Ridley of Houghton Mifflin warned that such experiments may not lead to better materials, since teachers currently are less able than curriculum specialists to judge the pedagogical value of textbooks.

"They look at the glitz, the packaging," he said.

Vol. 09, Issue 19

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