Now is the time to tackle the schoolbook publishing industry

Tue, Sep 25, 2012, 01:00

T O BE HONEST:An unheard voice in education


I welcome the fact that so many schools in the country are now moving from traditional printed books to tablets and e-books. These children will get an education for the modern world. I have my concerns, however, about the developing digital book industry and the shape it might take here over the coming years, if strategic thinking is not applied at policy level.

We are all aware of the ridiculous situation that has been allowed to develop with the schoolbook publishing industry. Publishers have had freedom to tinker with editions year-on-year so that parents are forced to keep buying new editions of books instead of reusing old ones. The sector has also offered very little value for money. There has been no appetite among successive ministers for education to call the publishers to heel. Ruairí Quinn is the first to engage with publishers on behalf of parents – he deserves great credit. But let’s build on this.

The development of the ebook sector offers the Department an opportunity to reshape the field, so that it works for the student, parent and school instead of for the publishing industry. I believe that we should demand clarity now from ebook publishers around how they plan to handle edits and reissues, and the pricing of ebooks generally.

The digital format offers considerable scope for very low cost or even free updates to ebooks. We need to make sure from the outset that the process is not a continuation of the current scenario which sees parents saddled with massive book bills each year and constant requirements to jettison perfectly good material for new versions with minimal changes.

I appreciate that book publishers need to make money. However, somebody has to protect families from the raw expedience of the market, especially when it comes to an area of expenditure where they have no option to shop around or opt out.

The State is shouldering much of this cost through social-welfare payments to low- income families. We also have the absurd scenario of charities like the St Vincent de Paul handing out large sums of money to cash-strapped families to pay for school books. I am a Vincent de Paul supporter and I would prefer that the organisation would not be forced to use its funds to prop up what I regard as an uncompetitive publishing sector.

Now is the time for the Department of Education to rethink the way classroom material is compiled, published, updated, priced and paid for. The sector is changing. We have to power now to change it for the better. Let’s not just drift into the next chapter and spend another generation complaining about it.

This column is designed to give a voice to those within the education system who wish to speak out anonymously. Contributions are welcome; email

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