We are building a new model for textbook publishing that turns the commercial model upside down. Instead of protecting our own interests with digital rentals, loose-leaf publications, two-year revision cycles, and other methods designed to promote sales and defeat the used-book market, we look at our students and design the books that they need at prices they can afford.
Where it began
In 2015, writing professor Steve Richardson asked this question: “Could a community college publish its own affordable and effective textbooks?” He had published his own writing textbook using a print-on-demand publishing system, and he wondered if Chemeketa Community College couldn’t do the same and better.
Julie Huckestein, Chemeketa’s president, asked Richardson to find the answer to the question. She wanted the books to be affordable, but she also wanted to make sure they were effective books that served students well. That spring, Richardson set aside his teaching duties and reached out to faculty about developing affordable textbooks for their classes.
Over the spring and summer of 2015, faculty from math, art, academic development, and English worked on four pilot books. Faculty and students from the visual communications program designed and laid out the books for publication. By fall 2015, four new books were on sale in the Chemeketa Bookstore. That winter, a three-volume set of US History books were added. In 2015-16, Chemeketa Press sold about 1500 copies of these pilot books. This saved Chemeketa students more than $150,000 over the price of commercial textbooks. Sales of these books brought in about $10,000 in revenue for the Press.
How it’s gone
Encouraged by early results, the college made Chemeketa Press a special project within the college’s Support Services Division. Associate Vice-President Tim Rogers provided oversight for the endeavor as its publisher. Richardson became the managing editor, and Brian Mosher, another writing professor, became production editor. The next question to answer was whether a community college could continue to publish its own textbooks without the extensive infrastructure of a commercial publishing house.
With traditional publishing, all the work happens before the first book is ever sold. Authors and editors development the manuscript. Designers develop the physical book and prepare it for printers. Reviewers examine the content for accuracy. Copyeditors proofread the text. Only when the book is fully finished is it made available for sale. This system requires investing a large amount of human and financial resources up front and gives no guarantee that the publisher will recover their costs.
Chemeketa Press did things differently in two ways. First, it adopted a development model similar to software development that puts its product into use as a “beta edition” as soon as it is fully functional. This model requires fewer up-front resources, but more importantly, it draws help from its users — in this case, teaching faculty and students — to improve the product with feedback about errors and suggestions for how to make it more effective. This also allows the Press to develop books over a longer time line, revision by revision, and although beta editions are sold to students at a discount, they still bring revenue into the Press before the book is completely finished.
Second, the Press uses print-on-demand publishing. In traditional publishing, books are printed on offset presses that require an expensive set-up process. They are only cost-effective when the book is finished and can be produced with print runs of thousands or tens of thousands. With print-on-demand publishing, books are printed as needed, moving from electronic files to high-speech copiers and book binders. This keep costs low even for short print runs of 10 or 20 books. This also allows the Press to easily update books as corrections come in, sometimes with revised versions released quarter by quarter. The print quality of print-on-demand books is not as high as with offset printing, but high-speech copying has improved to the point that the differences are no longer noticeable to the untrained eye.
Relying on these innovations, Chemeketa Press continued to explore different types of textbook development, from direct reprints of openly licensed books to original works by groups of faculty. In 2016-17, it revised and completed the first set of books and added 14 new titles, including several student workbooks. Students purchased about 7000 Chemeketa Press textbooks in 2106-17. These books saved students about $450,000 over the cost of new commercial textbooks. The sale of these books brought about $60,000 in revenue to the Press.
In 2017-18, the Press continued to revise existing titles and added an additional 13 new titles to its catalog. It also added a design editor, Ronald Cox IV, and an instructional editor, Stephanie Lenox, to over see manuscript development and help integrate the Press into the teaching mission of the college. We project sales this year of about 11,000 books. This will save students more than $600,000 over the price of commercial textbooks and generate about $100,000 in profits for the Press.
Where it’s going
One underlying goal for this project is to build a model for textbook publishing that is financially sustainable. Although there is room for continued growth at Chemeketa, the size of the student body creates a limit for sales that will not allow us to operate internally without on-going college subsidy. To become fully sustainable, the Press will now begin to shift its attention from developing its systems for manuscript and book production to the work of sending its books to a broader audience.
This work consists of several initiatives:
- Developing peer review systems
- Partnering with faculty beta testers outside of Chemeketa
- Licensing selected college-owned titles to national publishers
- Releasing selected titles for adoption outside of Chemeketa
- Developing lean marketing and distribution systems that do no rely on a sales force
- Working with faculty to develop national titles using a royalty-based system
- Supporting faculty at other schools to develop and publish textbooks
Our goal is to become fully self-funded by 2021.