There are real-world problems in the college and test prep category, namely the expense of college itself: tuition costs continue to rise (the 2008—2009 academic year average for four-year private colleges: $25,143) even as savings shrink. Yet many publishers in this area remain bullish.

Says Cindy Kitchel, publisher of Wiley’s professional trade division, which publishes the CliffsNotes study guides, “Our expectation is that the test-prep market will not be as adversely affected by the economy downturn as other categories. Certainly people look to undergraduate and graduate college to better position themselves in the workplace, so look for increased demand for test-prep products for standardized tests like the GMAT and GRE as a whole.”

Below are some additional trends in the category.

The Upside to the Downturn

The current economic crisis has an effect on book sales, but it’s also having an impact on the popularity of certain titles. Tom Vanderberg, senior editor for college planning services at the College Board, says, “Students and families know that education is the best plan for the future. So it appears they’re not stinting on resources that can help them find dollars for college. Over the last two quarters, sales of the College Board’s Getting Financial Aid and Scholarship Handbook have stood out by remaining steady.”

Likewise, the Princeton Review continues its annual updates of Paying for College Without Going Broke. Publishing manager Nicole Benhabib says, “The financial crisis, combined with skyrocketing college costs, have made paying for college a whole lot tougher this year. Add to that the increase in applicants, competition for limited amounts of financial aid and, on the home front, losses in jobs, savings and values of investments, 529 plans and homes, and you have a perfect storm.” Since 2002, the publisher has taken an annual survey of college applicants and their parents, and this year’s results show that both are more worried about how they will pay for college than they are about applicants getting into their first-choice schools.

Books that help test takers prepare for vocational exams also seem to be on the upswing during the downturn. “With so many people out of jobs or competing for jobs in fields that have been particularly hit with layoffs,” LearningExpress editorial director Karen Wolny says, “a lot of people are looking to change careers altogether. So our books like Border Patrol Exam or Firefighter Exam are flying off the shelves. Our entire focus now is to get books out there that will help people get back on track in areas that are in growth mode—like the health-care professions. There are a lot of career opportunities available that require licensing and certification—35 million people a year take a licensing or certification exam as opposed to over two million who take the SAT. Those 35 million are our audience.”

Christopher Brown, publisher for the education group at McGraw-Hill, points to strong sales of books that help test takers prepare for the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery). He explains, “As jobs disappear, the military becomes an increasingly appealing option; with more candidates seeking to enlist, military testing has become much more competitive.”

Pearson Certification continues to focus on computer certification. “With the recent downturn in the economy,” notes executive marketing manager Douglas S. Ingersoll, “certification preparation continues to grow at a measured pace, as members of the workforce either prepare for new careers or strive to advance in their current positions.” The company has launched online flashcards and video training available either streamed online or as a packaged retail product.

Finally, stimulus money funneled to green initiatives is likely to bolster the number of positions such as those listed in Green Jobs for a New Economy: The College and Career Guide to Emerging Technologies.

You Can Get It (Almost) All Online

Members of the generation currently preparing for college can’t imagine a day without Twitter and Facebook, so this category continues to migrate rapidly to electronic rather than paper-based resources.

In June, Kaplan Publishing will launch Premier Live Online, a series of interactive online prep classes with Kaplan instructors offered in conjunction with GMAT, SAT, LSAT, GRE and PSAT test guides. (Books will include class dates and access codes.) Publisher Maureen McMahon notes that CD-ROMs “have come to be perceived as 'old’ technology,” so their content, too, is being moved to the Internet. Kaplan has already introduced applications for iPhones and iPod touches.

Luke Skurman, CEO of College Prowler, says, “Brick and mortar book sales are down a little right now, but traffic on our Web site,, is higher than it’s ever been. Revenues are getting more Web-centric. It’s been trending that way, but now it seems that no one even wants to consider hard copy. It went up a really big notch in the last 12 to 18 months. The Kindle got people thinking a lot, and people are reading books on their iPhones.”

Peterson’s has now completely switched over to electronic data collection for its college guides. Schools can input information via downloadable PDF, if preferred, so that any number of people can be involved in the process easily.

Publishers are also going online for environmental reasons, and those still using paper are exhibiting a new environmental consciousness. Beginning this year, the College Board will use recycled paper for all of its printed products, and Peterson’s, too, will use 100% recycled paper and will print the SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative) logo on all of its books.

Ivory Tower with a view

For more than 35 years, the undergraduates at the Yale Daily News have compiled information from undergraduates at hundreds of schools about their experiences and published it. The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges, 2010, to be published by St. Martin’s/Griffin in June, continues that tradition. Publisher and senior v-p Matthew Shear calls it “the gold standard for insider guidebooks.” Shear adds, “When prospective students want the real down and dirty dish, whether it’s a party school and what’s really happening from a social point of view, they look at The Insider’s Guide.”

Workman’s Up Your Score: The Underground Guide to the SAT (revised in alternating years) offers a similar insider’s view, not to specific schools but to the test high school students take to get into most of those schools, resulting in a book with an edge and a sense of humor. “Many kids just aren’t engaged by the more traditional ways of studying,” Cassie Murdoch, primary editor for the guide, says. “In an informal focus group we conducted, we found that kids were put off by time-consuming classes and those giant study guides.” The book now includes a code that enables purchasers to download podcasts of audible vocabulary lists.

College Prowler’s Big Book of Colleges, updated annually, is also based on content from actual students. CEO Luke Skurman reports that the by-students/for-students model is not only useful for readers but cost-effective as well. This fall will see the first edition of a similar title on study abroad programs.

Getting It Write

Writing is an increasingly important part of the college application process. Barron’s editorial director Kevin Ryan explains: “Since the mandatory essay was added to the SAT in 2005, we have seen an increased demand for student material on writing. And in these tough economic times, students are competing more for college entrance and scholarships—and submitting a quality essay is a major component of that process.” In response, Barron’s is revising its Essays That Will Get You Into... series, which includes such titles as Essays That Will Get You into College and Essays That Will Get You into Business School, both out in third editions in August.

Also out soon in a new edition—its second—is Fiske Real College Essays That Work by Edward B. Fiske and Bruce G. Hammond (Sourcebooks, Aug.). “Students looking for these books are almost always smart students who just don’t happen to be natural writers, and thus the authors tailor their advice to help these students get across their voice and personality in the essay instead of worrying about impressing with their writing style,” says Peter Lynch, editorial manager for trade books.

Matthew Shear, publisher of St. Martin’s/Griffin, reports steady sales of Harvard-affiliated titles, including 65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays; a second edition is due out in September. The press began working with Harvard on the Let’s Go travel guide series and the relationship developed from there. The selling point for this title, as well as 55 Successful Harvard Law School Essays, published in 2007, and 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays, which dates back to 1999, is obvious, Shear says: “What makes it special is that it’s Harvard.”

Kids on the Hall

There is no shortage of guides that purport to prepare readers to take the SAT or the ACT, and there are even plenty of guides to choosing a college and a major. But what about the rest of it? Attending college is important for academic purposes, but also for life experience.

Sourcebooks has had a hit with Harlan Cohen’s The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College, which it believes is the bestselling of the going-to-college guides. The third edition of this title, which offers advice on everything from birth control to campus religious activities, published earlier this month.

Ten Speed is following up its 2008 title College Cooking with College Vegetarian Cooking by Megan Carle and Jill Carle in July. “Learning to adjust to college life requires more than just developing new study habits,” says senior publicist Kara Van de Water. “For the first time, many college students are learning the basics of living and surviving on their own, from doing their own laundry to cooking their own meals.”

Geared to both high school students about to take the plunge and those already there is Decide Better! for College (Mar.), the second title in the Decide Better! series from Motivation Publishing, by the father/son team Michael E. McGrath and Christopher K. McGrath. “Decision making is a skill,” says Michael E. McGrath, “but one that is often overlooked in preparing students to jump into a world where their decisions have life-shaping ramifications.”

And parents need to be informed as well. Marie Pinak Carr wrote the Dicmar Publishing title Sending Your Child to College: The Prepared Parent’s Operational Manual with input from her three daughters. Carr says she wanted to write a handbook that would “help reduce anxiety so parents can provide a safety net and enjoy this exciting time.” Information ranges from tips on furnishing a dorm room to the important and frequently unknown fact that “HIPAA and other privacy laws require health care proxies and a power of attorney before parents can communicate with any medical personnel attending to a sick or hospitalized child.”

Check It Out

Vocational testing books are selling in stores, but there’s another outlet that tends to stock a large number of these titles, especially during difficult economic times: libraries. And with the unemployment rate rising, many public library systems are strengthening their job search programs. Indeed, the New York Public Library currently promotes the Job Information Center at its Mid-Manhattan Branch with a quote from President Obama, recalling how he visited the center to find his first job as a community organizer in Chicago.

For March 2009, Mary Boone, state librarian for the State Library of North Carolina, has organized a job search program intended to help career changers and the recently unemployed get their skills in order. Part of that program is the creation of a “JobSearch Bookshelf.” The plan was to assemble a bibliography and acquire 15 copies of each of the titles on that list, but Boone discovered that of the 20 titles on her original list, five were out of stock from the publisher. When she drew up a supplemental list of eight more titles to add to the mix, three of those were out of stock as well. Apparently, says Boone, “These books sell like hotcakes in economic downturns.”

Q&A with Christie Garton
Christie Garton (University of Kansas class of 2001) is creator of the Web site, a networking community for college women, and now the author of U Chic: The College Girl’s Guide to Everything (Sourcebooks, Apr.). PW asked her a few questions about today’s college experience.

PW: What’s the one piece of advice you wish someone had given you before you started college?

Christie Garton: Find a mentor or adviser as soon as you can and plan to check in with him or her throughout your entire time in college.

PW: What has changed the most since you graduated?

CG: The level of competition has increased almost to a breaking point. It used to be that you were ahead of the curve if you took a prep course for a standardized test. Today, pretty much everyone does. Not only do college students put pressure on themselves to get top grades, but they feel that they have to be involved in student government, serve as president for as many clubs as possible, snag the most prestigious internships, volunteer on a weekly basis and spend their spring break doing the same while having full social lives. And some women feel the added stress of having to look gorgeous while they’re doing all this.

PW: What will never change?

CG: The importance of building a strong network of friends and mentors along the way. If you take the time to grow and nurture these relationships, these people will be there to support you for the rest of your life.

PW: What three items should every new college student have on hand?

CG: A credit card with a reasonable limit. A favorite item from home or childhood. And a day planner, whether accessed through your calendar software on a BlackBerry or iPhone or even hand-written in a super-cute day planner.
Books Mentioned in This Feature
Getting Financial Aid 2010 (The College Board, July; ISBN 978-0-87447-848-0)

Scholarship Handbook 2010 (The College Board, July; ISBN 978-0-87447-849-5)

Paying for College Without Going Broke: 2010 Edition by Kalman A. Chany with Geoff Martz (Princeton Review, Oct.; ISBN 978-0-375-42942-2)

Border Patrol Exam, Fourth Edition (LearningExpress, Jan.; ISBN 978-1-57685-672-7)

Firefighter Exam, Fourth Edition (LearningExpress, Feb.; ISBN 978-1-57685-671-0)

Green Jobs for a New Economy: The College and Career Guide to Emerging Technologies (Peterson’s, Dec.; ISBN 978-0-76892-815-0)

The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges, 2010 by the Yale Daily News editors, (St. Martin’s/Griffin, June; ISBN 978-0-312-36691-9)

Up Your Score: The Underground Guide to the SAT 2009—2010 by Larry Berger, Michael Colton, Manek Mistry and Paul Rossi (Workman, 2008; ISBN 978-0-76114-942-2)

The Big Book of Colleges 2010 by the College Prowler editors (College Prowler, July; ISBN 978-1-4274-0005-5)

The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College, 3rd Edition by Harlan Cohen (Sourcebooks, Mar.; ISBN 978-1-40221-901-6)

College Vegetarian Cooking by Megan Carle and Jill Carle (Ten Speed Press, July; ISBN 978-1-58008-982-1)

Decide Better! for College by Michael E. McGrath with Christopher K. McGrath (Motivation Publishing, Mar.; ISBN 978-1-935112-03-7)

Sending Your Child to College: The Prepared Parent’s Operational Manual by Marie Pinak Carr with Katharine Carr, Ann Carr and Elizabeth Carr (Dicmar Publishing [Midpoint, dist.], Apr.; ISBN 978-0-933165-16-8)

Essays That Will Get You Into College, Third Edition by Dan Kaufman, Chris Dowhan and Adrienne Dowhan (Barron’s, Aug.; ISBN 978-0-7641-4210-9)

Essays That Will Get You Into Business School, Third Edition by Dan Kaufman, Chris Dowhan and Adrienne Dowhan (Barron’s, Aug.; ISBN 978-0-7641-4228-4)

Fiske Real College Essays That Work, Second Edition by Edward B. Fiske and Bruce G. Hammond (Sourcebooks, Aug.; ISBN 978-1-40222-510-9)

65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays by Lauren Sullivan (St. Martin’s/Griffin, Sept.; ISBN 0-978-312-55007-3)

U Chic: The College Girl’s Guide to Everything by Christie Garton (Sourcebooks, Apr.; ISBN 978-1-4022-1508-7)