Where Are the Self-Pubs in Educational Publishing?

by Carla Douglas @CarlaJDouglas

image by Libby Levi

It’s no secret that change comes slowly to education—it’s a big ship, and for so many reasons, it can’t change course as quickly as most of us think it should.

But education, at least in the K–12 stream, is embracing digital—from e-textbooks to tablets to blended and online learning, digital is making its presence known. The large, traditional educational publishers are certainly present, having introduced digital components to textbooks (iClickers, for example), online testing, e-textbooks and more.

And you don’t have to look far to see that there’s a mad scramble to be innovative. Startups are elbowing in with learning apps and other tech solutions for curriculum design and delivery. The digital dynamic is well represented. But the self-publishing revolution that accompanied the digital disruption of the wider publishing industry doesn’t appear to have hit education yet.

Where Are the Self-Pubs?

Well, I think they’re where they’ve always been: in the classroom, hiding in plain view. They’re here, but they haven’t yet embraced the idea that the education ship can and should change direction.

Teachers have always been self-pubs. Remember the Ditto machine? For generations, it was the instrument of content production. Teachers ran off math sheets, language arts readings and questions, review units, chapter summaries, tests and exams—anything that might be called a consumable. Much of the content they created themselves.

The Sharing Economy

Teachers are resourceful, and in public education there is often an air of scarcity and a perceived need for frugality. Teaching exemplifies the sharing economy—busy teachers trade their custom-made resources amongst each other to meet their local curriculum needs and to keep the classroom machine humming along. (Sometimes they share a little too generously: as creators of educational resources, we know that the photocopier has never been our friend.)

What does this have to do with the self-pub revolution? Teachers are already performing that role, to a degree, by doing what they’ve always done. They’re creating content—original or patched together from various sources—and distributing it to colleagues at little or no cost. Course textbooks selected and prescribed by school and board administrators provide the bulk of the curriculum, but locally developed materials supply the rest, and sometimes this is a large gap to fill.

Educational Self-Publishing?

But K–12 teachers haven’t yet embraced the indie model. For one thing, they’re distributing their content to a narrow base without considering wider opportunities. I get this—the life of a classroom teacher is hectic and demanding, and sometimes just looking beyond the next period is a challenge, let alone casting one’s eye to the horizon. But whether they are suppliers of content or consumers, teachers don’t yet seem ready to upset the apple cart.

Time for Disruption?

Is anyone prepared to interfere with what’s going on up the food chain in traditional publishing? Yes, there are small independent publishers that contribute handsomely to the curriculum resources pot. But they seem to have agreed—tacitly or not—to play by all the old rules. Not just by observing traditional pricing strategies, but also by following the terms for discounts, purchasing, shipping, billing, and so on, that harken back to the old model.

It’s like there are two worlds: the industrious hives of activity in schools and classrooms, which are carrying on much as they always have, and the established traditional educational publishers who continue to occupy their share of the turf.

There’s room for disruption here. We plan to be part of it.

Image by Libby Levi

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