BISG’s Making Information Pay for Higher Ed Publishing seminar , held February 8 in New York, showed that textbook publishers have much in common with other sectors in publishing when it comes to digital: the tools and technology are there, publishers just have to figure it out how to capitalize on the opportunities.

Kicking off the morning, Steve Paxhia, president of Beacon Hill Strategic Solutions, elaborated on the fall 2011 study “Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education,” and opened by saying, “If you’re looking for the sweet spot in digital users, look at distance learners.” Distance learners buy more e-books for classes than non-distance learners, a statistic the BISG survey found from a sample size of 1,600.

Another finding: sales of both used hardcovers and e-textbooks numbers are down from last year’s survey, the latter because the market is seeing a decline in replica (or straight e-book ) sales. Paxhia stressed that the growth in digital content is in integrated learning systems, and that while e-book satisfaction is declining in the higher education sector, ILS has passed core textbooks in usage and satisfaction. For buying habits, the study found that 50% of students buy textbooks more than one week in advance of the first class, and that when students buy three or more weeks in advance of the first class, Amazon is the number one purchase source. On the whole, 30% of students in the survey reported buying textbooks from Amazon.

Kelly Gallagher, v-p of publishing services for R.R. Bowker, spoke about the state of higher ed publishing, and stated that while the market has seen healthy growth recently, 2011 saw the first decline (down 2% from 2010) in the textbook market in the last six years. One of the contributing factors to this downturn, Gallagher said, was likely the rise of rentals, which now represents 11% of total textbook sales. Comprising that 11%: 5% of total sales is for new textbook rentals and 6% is for used rentals, the latter of which is expected to grow.

While personal computers are still the device of choice for digital textbook usage, 46% of students said they were interested in getting textbooks on an iPad. This enormous interest in tablets, however, has not yet translated to penetration into the higher ed market, as fewer than 10% report using a tablet or smartphone for their classwork. This high interest/low actual usage indicates that digital textbook use is on the verge of taking off—student interest is already there, and once tablets are fully integrated into content development (and the price of tablets comes down), higher ed may see tablets as an essential aspect of business.