In the third annual focus on Higher Ed Publishing in The Book Industry Study Group’s series of Making Information Pay conferences, speakers offered a wealth of data that show a college textbook market moving slowly but surely to digital delivery, the rise of, and illicit support for, shadow digital libraries and the growing popularity of digital learning systems offering interactivity and analytics as well traditional content. The textbook market was about $7.4 billion in 2012; prices for new textbooks, about 2/3 of the market, continued to rise while used book prices held steady in the face of even cheaper alternatives such as rental textbooks.

Armed with a wide range of data on the higher ed market, Carl Kulo, U.S. director of Bower Market Research, BISG executive director Len Vlahos and Joe Karanganis, v-p, The American Assembly at Columbia University, outlined a high ed market in transition to digital. Vlahos offered data on a higher ed market of students ambivalent about digital texts but weary of high priced print material, while Karanganis highlighted a crisis in access to highly technical content that is giving rise to the growth of “shadow libraries,” created by a combination of faculty and students, who have allowed their access to institutional network to be used to stockpile pirated content.

Kulo offered data on both new and used textbooks in the higher ed market using only retail data that can be tied to schools (so numbers do not represent Amazon). The average price of a new print textbook is $65 and the average price of a digital textbook is $61, up form $56. The top categories in the used textbook market are nursing, math, business and engineering. The highest grossing subject matter for textbooks is math, generating $875 million in sales and the fastest growing revenue-grossers in subject categories are finance, engineering, computers and animal science. Subject areas with declining revenues are English, classics, history, art and philosophy.

About 58% of students would rather have print textbooks, Kulo reported, while about 19% pick digital content and 17% choose customized material. Kulo also said that data showed that about 40% of English students actually buy the text assigned for a class (its less in other subjects) while 72% of English students tend to buy customized course packs. Bookstore purchases are declining, app purchases are small but rising and, Kulo said, “digital content is entering the high schools so the transition to digital overall is coming, but not just yet.”

BISG executive director Vlahos offered data on “Why Students Go Digital,” from a survey of 1,500 four and two year college students. “Migration to digital is a mystery,” he said, “college students are beginning to migrate but we don’t know where to.” The BISG study also found a decline in the number of students who use the course textbook, students also appear to be “less satisfied” with rental, which may be peaking, he said. Indeed, he said, digital texts are not popular among students—unless they are paying for them themselves rather than their parents buying—but lower pricing is attractive. “Piracy is driven by price,” he said pointing to a continued rise in unauthorized pirated versions, foreign editions and scans of copyrighted content. “Free, illicit access to content is growing,” Vlahos said.

While he said the use of tablet devices has doubled since 2011, data on their use for study “is ambiguous,” he said. Students appear “less satisfied over time with straight digital text,” but at the same time many students (39%) believe that new Integrated Learning Systems—digital learning environments that combine conventional content with interactive quizzes offering analytics and feedback—“help them a little more.” But he also noted that ILS are often ill defined and the industry should move to do a better job defining, “what an ILS is,” Vlahos said.

Karanganis’ presentation—similar to the address he gave at last year’s Tools of Change in New York—was particularly interesting. Citing a crisis in access to content, Karanganis once again outlined a growing phenomenon of “shadow libraries,” essentially large, well-organized but illicit databases of highly technical content (STM subjects usually) harvested from western publishers and institutions. Generally accessed by international students and stockpiled by “self-organized digital copying,” by students (via organized networks and classroom copying) and even faculty members, who allow their legal access to university databases to be used to download content to these huge databases. He highlighted two such illicit databases:, shut down in 2012, had nearly 900,000 documents, and Pbooks, another site with more 1.5 million digital documents, all available for free. “These sites are moving information from the West to the developing world,” he said emphasizing that “professors are opening the walled gardens of institutional content databases to the public.”

Looking ahead, he issued a warning about the new legal challenges, in partcular the possibility of “legalizing the concept of First Sale rights” —the ability for a consumer to sell a legally purchased physical copy—in the software and digital world, pointing to the ongoing court case of Kirtsaeng vs. John Wiley & Sons. He also wondered “will there ever be a good model for e-lending?” suggesting that publishers may “bypass libraries completely and do [e-book lending] themselves.” He also noted that “the unit sale is disappearing in the digital age and the videogame model,” is probably the best for publishers to use. “Offering an ongoing schedule of upgradeable materials with add-ons that are less shareable.”