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How Can Indie Publishers Play In the Educational Publishing Market?

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by Richard-Anthony Lena, President, Brattle Publishing Group —

Richard-Anthony Lena

Educational publishing is a $1,350 billion market, and it’s ripe for indie publishers. But to get into this complex market, we first have to know its rules.

What Is Educational Publishing?

When we think about publishing, we tend to think about the titles on the bestseller lists, the imagination of Rick Riordan, or the thousands of indie titles on virtual and physical shelves all over the world. The titles that we don’t often consider to be part of the publishing world are the textbooks and instructional supplements found in our preK-12 classrooms, courseware, instructional audiobooks, and e-books; DIY titles found in retail settings; and other instructional materials produced by community educators, nonprofit organizations, and more. These are the products of educational publishing, and it is a market that has many segments and exciting opportunities for us, as indie publishers, to explore.

Educational publishing is a $1,350 billion market. It is traditionally divided into preK-12 and higher education (college and adult learning) divisions but has several “unofficial” segments, as well. The preK-12 division is the larger segment of the formal market and is approximately $700 billion annually. This includes the sale of textbooks, courseware, and supplemental print and digital materials. This segment continues to grow even as it transforms to a more digital foundation. The higher-ed segment of the market earns approximately $4 billion annually from the sales of similar products but geared toward adult audiences.

Education, however, spans beyond the traditional classroom. Educational publications are produced for other audiences such as community organizations and nonprofit education programs, corporate training and education, vocational certification programs, and the off-the-shelf materials found in brick-and-mortar bookstores and marketed to lifelong learners.

Who Are the Players in Educational Publishing?

With so many types of educational publications, it is no surprise that the list of players is endless. Like trade publishing, the market is dominated by a handful of larger players. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson, and MacMillan dominate the formal school market, while dozens of second tier supplemental publishers such as Cengage/National Geographic Learning, VoyagerSopris, and School Specialty also supply schools with supplemental materials and learning supplies. But there are also hundreds of smaller publishers and author publishers, like us, vying for a piece of this pie. To get into this complex market, we first have to know the shape of the market and its rules.

What Does the Market Look Like?

Unlike other countries where education is controlled and regulated by the national government, the education system of the United States is like a patchwork quilt. The US Constitution grants the power of education to state and local governments. This has created a splintered and somewhat chaotic market, but, frankly, it has also created tremendous opportunity.

On the state level, there are two categories of states: adoption and open territory. Adoption states are by far the more difficult to work due to the requirements. Adoption states strictly regulate the creation and distribution of educational materials that can be purchased with federal and state funds. These states require customized materials that address their state curriculum standards, closely review them for alignment, and control those that districts and schools can purchase.

education market

Overview of adoption and open territory states in the U.S.

The states negotiate contract prices, and the publisher must hold to that price for the life of the contract. Once listed on the state’s official adoption list, a publisher can sell to the schools and education centers within the state. Adoption states are typically large states such as California, Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina. To sell products in these states, you must watch for the states’ departments of education to announce an open-bid period. In the announcement, a state will typically post information regarding the submission process. You should note the process is typically several months long and involves multiple reviews of the material you want to sell to schools, a revision period, and question-and-answer sessions. The process to get into adoption states can be costly, so make sure you factor this into your pricing.

Open territory states are the exact opposite of their adoption counterparts. These states are wide open for sales by educational publishers. Open territory states leave the regulation and distribution of educational materials to the individual school districts. Although there is a certain level of deregulation in these states, adoption here can still be a multi-step process requiring a considerable amount of work and expense. The districts and schools will place the call for materials. Although this is not a statewide effort, the process has similarities to that of the adoption states. Much is the same, but it all happens on an individual district or school level. The state may have curriculum standards or other minimum requirements to entry, but they leave greater powers to the districts and/or schools. In some districts, publishers also face district curriculum requirements as well. Open territory states include Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York.

The formal adoption/open territory system into the school market is just one facet of the education market. As education is no longer confined to the classroom, neither is educational publishing entirely governed by the system above. Today, educational publishing has expanded to include lifelong learning opportunities. Adult learning can be seen from formal higher education in colleges and universities to online courses, vocational certification programs, and informal audio and video-based course opportunities. We’ve seen adult learning products in learning centers, on the shelves of our favorite bookstores, and even advertised on television. There are also other avenues to education including informal community-based learning. Nonprofit organizations such as the Virginia-based Read to Them is an example of an organization that promotes literacy and purchases materials from various publishers.

Who Are the Customers and Decision Makers?

As in many other markets, the customers and the end users may be different people. As you might have assumed, the millions of students and teens that use preK-12 educational materials are not the purchasers; they are the end users. The states or school district officials and representatives are the gatekeepers and, therefore, we have multiple audiences to consider in the development and sales process. We must take into consideration that we are creating and selling learning products to students, teachers, and the school district—three audiences and three agendas to keep in mind. This is one of our greatest challenges and, like any complex business, one that requires considerable thought and planning.

If we open up our view a bit more and consider all forms of education, then we must consider trainers and professional development educators. These folks educate on the corporate level using a variety of materials. These can include online course materials, books, and journals. Corporate education is a huge market, estimated at $27 billion and falls largely outside of the formal education system. Each year, in addition to ongoing professional development, corporations spend millions re-teaching basic skills and leadership skills that American workers lack. The decision makers can hold any number of positions within corporations from human resources to training department personnel. To sell products to these companies, the effort largely depends on finding the right person to present your product to, identifying the corporate learning need or the remedial skills lacking in that organization, and the value add to the company.

With community education (e.g., Big Brother, Big Sister and the Boys Club), the gatekeepers will also vary based on the organization, but you should tailor your sales pitch to meet the organization’s mission. What are they trying to teach? How can your product meet their goal? Think these through as you approach the gatekeeper. This seems obvious but is often forgotten in our excitement to sell a product.

The final group to consider are lifelong learners: adult learners or consumers who purchase educationally oriented trade products. These learners are interested in self-paced learning products and spend millions each year to buy products. Reaching these customers is as wide open an opportunity as trade publishing.

In general, as you would approach any sale, you will need to identify who is paying for the product, their needs, and who the actual users are.

What Are My Next Steps?

Like any new venture, you need to determine what the best outlet for your product is and how to reach your customer. How can your product fit into the educational publishing market? Who is the audience? However, to do this you should spend some time researching potential outlets and keeping in mind the following:

  • Review Department of Education or school district websites to determine what type of products they are looking for and when they need them.
  • Pay close attention to the submission and review process and note important dates and expected formats.
  • Determine how much this will cost you to play in the school purchasing system.
  • Research co-ops that negotiate and contract sales to schools.
  • Identify community organizations that share your mission or themes. Think about how you might market your book with the organization.

If you are interested in corporate education, explore companies that might benefit from your materials. Identify the individual in that organization in charge of professional development, training, or human resources. Send them a copy of your materials with a short proposal before you reach out to them.

Finally, for educational materials that will sell on the retail market, such as those for lifelong learners, research these as you would for any other product. These products should be treated like any of your other products.

Onward and Upward

The education market is a large and very segmented market. Although it’s dominated by big players like those in retail trade publishing, there is room for the creative small indie publishers. It’s a big market with a lot of noise, but there are many ways to enter it. Clearly identifying the segment that best fits your products and devising a creative plan for marketing to that segment’s gatekeepers and users are the first steps to take. Once you have the information, you can make educated decisions about this exciting new market opportunity.

Richard-Anthony Lena is the president and publisher at the Brattle Publishing Group, an independent publisher and full-service development house. He is a curriculum developer and an instructional designer specializing in print-based and digital learning experiences for diverse audiences. For more than 25 years, Lena has worked in conceptualizing, designing, and managing the development of educational, entertainment, and “edutainment” products in various media forms, including print, digital, video, and audio products.

Want to learn more about non-fiction publishing? Check out our IBPA Independent article, “Why That Book Title Caught Your Eye”.

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