Robert Todd talks about the education publishing industry, the challenges in using off shoring, and why publishing science programs is more complicated than it used to be.
You worked at Holt, Rinehart and Winston, the publishing firm. What did you do there?
Yes, I was the VP of Editorial for Science and Health, and my department created educational programs for middle schools and high schools. The programs from my department created about $100M in revenue each year. Our expertise has traditionally been in developing books and other print materials, but today the educational needs of our market are moving towards more online and interactive materials. We’re finding that experts who can turn content into compelling, interactive formats for electronic delivery are slim, at least within our financial limitations. On one large project that I worked on, we were forced to go overseas to develop a new interactive science product.
How was your off shoring experience?
It turned out to be horrible. They had a great deal of difficulty developing appropriate interactive science content for the web.
Was it an expertise issue or just the wrong group?
The group we agreed to go with was disbanded immediately after we accepted the prototype. The manager took another job, so we ended up with a brand new team. They seemed to have excellent technical skills, but they didn’t worry about the science details. In publishing, if we get it wrong, we get crucified.
What does the education publishing landscape look like?
There are approximately 20 states that are considered adoption states. Each one has a state-wide adoption process which starts with bids and eventually ends with a selection committee that selects the programs that fulfill the curriculum standards published by the state. These selections are then approved by the Board of Education. This is how Texas adopts its educational materials.
I hear Texas is a large state and has substantial sway over the textbook industry. Is that true?
It seems like all the larger states says that. If your program is placed on the approved list, it can represent a substantial revenue opportunity, but the competition is fierce. California has almost twice as many kids as Texas. Then there’s also Florida which is also quite big.
What’s the challenge in science publishing?
Every state creates its own science curriculum which is an expensive endeavor. There are national standards, but there is nothing that says the states have to follow them. It used to be in middle school, which is a big market, you had life science, physical science, and an earth science courses. Publishers could produce a book on each of those topics. Now, more than half of the schools are going to an integrated science curriculum, which combines all three subjects at each grade level. It is very difficult to publish a national edition of a book that meets everyone’s expectations because there seem to be an infinite number combinations on how the states want their content. This forces the publisher into the process of customizing their programs for each state, which is difficult, time consuming, and expensive.
I really believe that the nation would be better served if mandatory national standards were established and individual states did not have the option of spending large amounts of time and money developing their own curriculums. I think this money could be better spent on schools, teachers, and teaching.
What’s your philosophy in publishing?
I still believe in the “publish or perish” paradigm.
Why is that?
Spend more time actually publishing programs than you spend talking about publishing programs.