To contemplate where the market for digital classroom materials may be heading, it’s helpful to consider the recent history of trade books. As Jason Epstein has recently recounted, the main revenue and profitability for traditional trade publishing—general consumer and professional titles—had long been centered on backlists: for while these older titles individually may not have sold many copies at any given time, the vastness of the backlist titles assured publishers of a steady stream of revenue from the collection in aggregate.
Trade publishing, then, to use a more fashionable term, was largely a “long tail” business. As Epstein points out, this changed rapidly beginning in the 1980s as bookstore chains pushed out small bookshops. The bookstore chains are discounters and often occupy expensive suburban real estate (such as shopping malls). Unlike the small bookshops that they replaced, the chains’ business depends on moving books in high volume. And so while publishers were preoccupied with the tail, the dominant booksellers focused on the head, that is, the bestsellers. Publishers have likewise adjusted their business to accommodate this new reality and now we find that a very large portion of revenue from the major publishers comes from a relatively small group of hit titles.