Perhaps more than in any other category, test prep and college guide publishers are being challenged by a generation of consumers who seem permanently tethered to the Internet via their laptops and phones, young people increasingly accustomed to getting whatever information they need right now and often at no cost.

Fiction publishers might have to grapple with formatting their titles for audiobooks, Kindle, or iPad (all of which produce revenue), but test prep and college guide publishers are competing for customers across the landscape of a constantly changing brave new digital world. Looking for a college that offers a major in Greek history? Google it. Need work on your vocabulary before the SAT? Download a free study app from iTunes or Facebook. While publishers feel confident they can produce product for the tech-savvy customer, learning how to navigate these turbulent digital waters while remaining both viable and profitable can be a formidable task.

“If you look at social media, Web sites, and handheld devices as something to navigate, then you’ve largely already lost,” Peterson’s managing director of publishing and research Steve Clemente says. “We’re developing applications for a multitude of devices, but we don’t see that as the future—we see it as the here and now.”

College Prowler CEO Luke Skurman agrees, reporting, “We’re making sure our Web offerings and business model are fully equipped for a world where print products may no longer exist.”

“In terms of competing with free information,” says Sourcebooks editorial manager Peter Lynch, “it all comes down to voice and authority. Why will someone want to read your college guide instead of a college brochure? Why pay $20 for SAT preparation instead of taking the free online test? These are the questions every book and author now faces head-on, and only those with compelling answers will survive in this new world. But for those that do, the opportunities are enormous.”

Some publishers have already tested the viability of making a profit in “free” waters. For more than 10 years, the College Board has offered all the data in its guides for free on, “yet our book sales have trended up slightly over the past few years,” reports Renee Gerand, director of college planning services. “Format is everything. Searching and creating lists is better done on the Web; comparing colleges and learning about colleges or majors in depth is best done with a book.” The revenue from books pays for data collection and allows the College Board to provide the online data at no cost, says Gerand.

In March 2007, College Prowler began to sell its online content by subscription. The experiment lasted until July 2009, when content once again became available at no charge. Skurman describes charging as a “moderate success—a single or a double, but not a home run.” Revenue on the site is now coming from business-to-business (financial companies, the military, and higher education) rather than business-to-consumer. Since the change to a site with free access, Skurman has seen “traffic soaring—unique visitors grew 300% and page views 500% with an increase in revenues following.”

What’s Hot

Even as publishers wrestle with the challenges ahead, there’s good news being reported—despite the recession, sales of test prep and college guides remain strong. “So many other areas of publishing have been hard hit by the economic downturn,” says Cindy Kitchel, publisher of Wiley’s professional and trade division, “but test prep titles have remained strong. We see sales of test-prep guides, especially those that prepare for certification or entry to advanced programs like M.B.A. programs, as a lagging indicator of the economy. We often say we’ll know that the economy is truly in recovery when we start to see sales of these type of books begin to slow.” In June, Wiley will expand its Cram Plan series to include military tests, with CliffsNotes ASVAB AFQT Cram Plan. Kitchel also notes increasing demand by students for creative approaches to their test prep needs and a growing market for books like Brian Leaf’s Defining Eclipse: Vocabulary Workbook for Unlocking the SAT, ACT, GED, and SSAT (Apr.).

Practicality tops the “what sells” list at Ten Speed Press, says editorial director Julie Bennett. “We’ve done well with titles that help readers get into college and succeed while they’re there. Don’t Stalk the Admissions Officer: How to Survive the College Admissions Process Without Losing Your Mind (July) by pre-admissions counselor and recruiter Risa Lewak presents all the right steps with insight and humor, and Philip Mitchell Freeman’s Lecture Notes: A Professor’s Inside Guide to College Success (Apr.) is every incoming freshman’s antidote to the culture shock of campus life and the pressures of scholastic expectations and financial commitments.”

At McGraw-Hill, it’s all about the AP exams. The updated new editions (15 titles, ranging from biology and statistics to world history) of the 5 Steps to a 5 series offer a complete review of each course, test-taking strategies, and plenty of practice with AP-style test questions. The series, reports senior editor Charles Wall, “is off to its best start ever.”

For Barron’s, flash cards are hot. Test prep publisher Bob O’Sullivan reports that during a recent trip to the AP National Conference, “it was all about flash cards at our booth. Teachers were gobbling them up—they loved the portable format.” Especially popular was the upcoming Picture These SAT Words in a Flash (Aug.), a set of vocabulary-building cards featuring humorous cartoons and puns that supply clues to a word’s meaning.

Not surprisingly, jobs in the health care field are expected to increase in the next decade, and materials for those seeking new careers or certification are also in high demand. The editors of Learning Express have authored two July titles to address those needs: Medical Assistant: Preparation for the CMA and RMA Exams and Physical Therapist Assistant Exam. At Kaplan, NCLEX-RN: Strategies for the Registered Nursing Licensing Exam 2010—2011 Edition (Mar.) combines a strategy guide with a comprehensive review designed to meet the challenges of this rigorous exam. The test prep category, says publisher Maureen McMahon, “is showing stronger trends than the overall nonfiction category, probably because customers see education as a means to navigate the recession by preparing for careers in growing fields, changing careers, or acquiring new skills.” For anyone hoping to trade up for an M.B.A., Kaplan’s GMAT Premier Program 2011 Edition (July) includes free access to a live online seminar—a classroom in real time, complete with audio, video, instant chat, whiteboards, and screen sharing.

College Bound

For many parents and students, the college experience is now all about “ROI [return on investment],” says Nicole Benhabib, publishing manager, Random House/Princeton Review Books. “The view has been that a college degree will pay for itself long-term, but given the steep cost of college and the sobering debt many students incur to get their degrees ($20,000 on average), people are choosing colleges and courses of study with an eye to career potential, not just intellectual enrichment.” With that in mind, the ranking lists added to Princeton Review’s The Best 373 Colleges: 2011 Edition (Aug.) include the top 20 schools for “Best Career Service Centers” and 100 “Best Value” colleges. Benhabib also sees college guides that help people shop for and get into affordable schools—e.g., Paying for College Without Going Broke: 2011 Edition (Oct.)—being “well worth their cost to consumers.” For those seeking a major that will land them a top job at the end of four years, the College Board’s updated Book of Majors 2011 (June) lists some 900 majors from physics to equestrian studies and indicates which schools offer each major.

Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges (July) has been around long enough, says O’Sullivan, “that people who grew up using it are now buying it for their kids.” And to meet the needs of tech-savvy kids, instead of the CD-ROM that formerly accompanied the book, the new edition will direct buyers to a Barron’s Web site that offers free access to a college search engine with exclusive online information. Peterson’s latest edition of Four-Year Colleges 2011 (Aug.) includes detailed two-page descriptions written by admissions personnel at more than 600 colleges. The College Board’s College Handbook 2011 (June) offers more than 40 indexes to help students compare schools by such key features as size and sports programs, and Edward B. Fiske’s perennial Fiske Guide to Colleges 2011 (Sourcebooks, July) looks at the academic, social, and extracurricular scenes at the “best and most interesting” institutions in the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain.

But college guides aren’t all about facts, figures, and money. College Prowler’s Big Book of Colleges 2011 (June) has new quotes, new editorials, and new insider facts—all generated by students, for students. And St. Martin’s The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges, 2011: Students on Campus Tell You What You Really Want to Know, 37th Edition is compiled and edited by the staff of the Yale Daily News. Like College Prowler’s “by students, for students” approach, this June title, says SMP associate editor Matthew Martz, “combines the straight talk high schoolers find on blogs with the authority that comes from a trusted source.” An eagerly anticipated title at Sourcebooks is The Happiest Kid on Campus: A Parent’s Guide to the Very Best College Experience (for You and Your Child!) (May) by Harlan Cohen, author of The Naked Roommate. “We’ve been receiving rave responses from parents and the colleges,” says Lynch, “and believe it can open a new avenue of dialogue to help parents and students.”

The End of Books?

Despite all the talk about “the book” being devoured by apps and online content, publishers believe there will still be a place for the printed word in a world of Google and iPads. The guides that will survive as printed books, says Lynch at Sourcebooks, are “the ones with a voice, where the reader can settle down, tune out the world, and listen to a trusted voice guide them through the college search or test preparation process. Guides based on widely available information will either fade or take on new life as online apps and products. Publishers must find a way to present information in a way that is useful in a digital format while providing quality high enough that consumers won’t question the need to pay for it.” While McGraw-Hill’s Wall sees test prep apps that present small chunks of material, such as vocabulary flashcards or single multiple-choice questions, working well, he believes that “teaching materials that require large illustrations or diagrams work less well, and the same is true of essay questions. Print is still the preferred medium for those kinds of content and we anticipate that the print business for test prep will remain robust.”

O’Sullivan at Barron’s points out a fact often overlooked in this digital age: “Students are still taking tests using pen and paper, and materials from publishers must still reflect that reality.” The College Board’s Gerand agrees, noting the results of a recent focus group. “When students are studying for a test, they want to mimic the test-taking experience.” For Princeton Review’s Benhabib, the printed college guide will always have at least one leg up on its fancy digital cousins. “When it comes to the serious homework of comparing one school to another, a book is a much more user-friendly resource—you can curl up with it, dog-ear the pages, mark it up. It’s cozier.”