Local publishing companies see new interest in virtual textbooks during pandemic

When colleges around the U.S. shuttered campuses to limit the spread of COVID-19, many students home on break learned they would not be allowed back on campus to pick up their textbooks.

Suddenly, thousands of calls began pouring into publishing companies such as Kendall Hunt, urging the business to give students access to virtual textbooks, company President Chad Chandlee said.

“These places that had textbooks and no online ability were calling and saying, ‘These kids need online access,’ so we provided online access for free from March until the end of the semester,” he said.

Kendall Hunt had been pushing schools to move from traditional print textbooks to digital books prior to the pandemic, but it wasn’t until campuses began closing down that the company really saw a surge.

Area publishers and colleges say they have also seen students and instructors increasingly turn toward virtual books in recent months.

“We already offer basically every one of our products digitally and have been making that transition over the last 15 years,” Chandlee said. “What has changed is the marketplace’s acceptance of it. In higher education, we would sometimes have professors say, ‘We only want to have the book available to (students).’ That would be, I would say, a quarter of the professors we work with.”

But when students lost access to their print textbooks, they were required to shift to virtual books.

Compared to this time last year, the number of students purchasing virtual or print textbooks directly from Kendall Hunt is up 60%, Chandlee said.

“I think partially what that is is bookstores on campus were not open at all,” he said. “You cannot physically go into the bookstore.”

Just last year, only 38% of the products Kendall Hunt sold were virtual textbooks. This year, that number has increased to 53%.

“That’s a pretty big jump,” Chandlee said.

For years, libraries in Iowa and across the U.S. have been preparing for the transition from print books to digital, said Christopher Doll, director of the Charles C. Myers Library at the University of Dubuque.

But now, because of the pandemic, many professors are more willing to toss the traditional textbook aside and begin compiling course curriculum on a virtual platform.

“COVID definitely has helped other people become more aware of why this shift is important, but this is something other libraries have already done,” he said. “As soon as you buy a textbook in the sciences, it is outdated.”

Doll said he recently formed a focus group to teach instructors how to write online textbooks. So far, a dozen people have signed up.

“Now they are seeing the barriers of when things (such as COVID-19 happen), how difficult it was to get the textbook into the students’ hands, and I think a lot of the faculty members understand the textbook prices have gone out of control,” he said. “I think for a lot of them, it was the final push to show them how beneficial it is.”

While UD is pushing to move studies and coursework to a virtual format, many students at Clarke University prefer traditional print textbooks.

“I think the professors, especially after this semester, are going to look at the virtual option,” said Sarah Haas, director of the college’s campus store. “Right now, at Clarke, students still want that hard copy book to mark the pages and highlight.”

Earlier this summer, Clarke began working with online bookstore Akademos to transition students away from purchasing books on campus and toward ordering them online. Haas noted that students already had started to purchase textbooks online, anyway, rather than picking them up on campus.

“It actually was a godsend at that point in time because we didn’t know if we would be having their books on campus or not,” she said. “We have done the switch not really because of the virtual piece but because the students were going online and bypassing the store.”

Like at Kendall Hunt, staff at publisher McGraw-Hill’s Dubuque office needed to respond quickly when students were left without access to their physical textbooks and needed free virtual access.

“We did actually start engaging very quickly as we learned schools were closing,” said Lynn Breithaupt, the company’s executive director of custom marketing and strategy. “Definitely, there was a surge.”

Breithaupt said the company’s digital product sales are up 12% from last year, and participants in the back-to-school training courses it offers to instructors are triple what they were last year.

“Here in Dubuque, and really across the company, we were all hands on deck,” Breithaupt said. “The team we have here in Dubuque has really been supporting the nation.”