Textbooks of the Near Future

by Larry MacPhee, Associate Director

Drawing of printed textbooksWhen I went to college, back in the 1980s, each of my new hardcover textbooks weighed over 5 pounds and cost over $100.00. Cheaper used and softcover texts weren’t yet readily available. Since that time, increasing numbers of students have been selling their textbooks back to the bookstore or other re-sellers in order to get a wad of cash to fund a keg-party or the next semester’s textbook purchases. The increased availability of used textbooks has driven publishers, they argue, to raise the prices of their new texts and, at least to my skeptical eye, to make numerous small changes to each edition and release these new editions at ever shorter intervals to try to reduce the usefulness of old editions. So, for decades, students and publishers have been locked in an “arms race” that hasn’t been particularly good for either side. That’s about to change.

Kindle logo (person sitting under a tree, reading)Enter Amazon.com, the model for a disruptive new relationship between students and textbook publishers. Amazon is the world’s largest bookseller and they now sell more eBooks than paper books. They deliver their eBooks via the Kindle, but also through the free Kindle reader app for Android phones, iPhones, and iPads because Amazon only cares that you buy their content; not what you read it on. I bet not too many college students own Kindles, but they sure like their smartphones! I recently asked a fairly typical group of over 100 university students how many of them owned “smartphones.” Almost every hand in the audience went up, so most students already have a mobile device capable of reading eTextbooks. I also asked them how many were currently using electronic textbooks. Not a single hand went up. In the business world, this is what people call an “opportunity.”

Student using a smartphoneThe big academic publishers in K-12 and higher-ed, including Wiley, Pearson, Cengage, Benjamin Cummings, Houghton Mifflin, MacMillan and all the rest, are ready to get into the game. They’ve been watching Amazon long enough now to see that it’s a winning strategy. According to the publishers, and I don’t doubt their numbers, about one third of textbooks purchased annually are used, not new. Each of those re-sales is lost profit for the publishers. But because of something called DRM, or “digital rights management,” students won’t be able to re-sell their eTexts. While there are plenty of ways in which eBooks might be superior to paper books, the big one for the publishers is DRM. With eBooks, the used textbook market is dead. It’s also possible that the publishers will profit from not having to print and distribute physical books, but at least some of those profits will be offset by the need to publish online editions, and maintain servers and a larger IT infrastructure. Publishers will tell you that students are going to love eTexts for the mobility, reduced weight, the ability to get corrections, updated content, and for the multimedia elements that make the eBook a richer learning experience. While both paper and electronic editions exist side by side, you can even expect the eText to be cheaper to drive customers into the new market. So students will like eContent, and publishers will profit from it. But convincing faculty, most of whom don’t particularly like technology or change, that eTextbooks are worth the effort will be a challenge.

Image showing ebook creation in Apple's iBooks Author toolFaculty control the textbook adoption process, and they remain somewhat skeptical that moving to eTexts is worth the effort. Publishers could try to pressure them by eliminating the paper edition, but that might drive an instructor to select a competitor’s product. They could use student demand, by making the eText cheaper than, and different from, the paper edition. They might even try to convince faculty with incentives like a free iPad, or by encouraging faculty to “build your own book” by assembling chapters of pre-built content. In the days of the printed text, especially in the K-12 market where California and Texas heavily influence content decisions, the publisher sometimes faced the challenge of trying to satisfy diverse customers with the same content. Now the “controversial” chapter on Evolution or Global Warming or the Big Bang or Birth Control Methods can be easily deleted or replaced, because the customer is always right! In higher ed, the ability to easily mix and match digital content may also appeal to instructors who want to customize their courses. Apple hopes faculty will start writing their own eBooks for iPad using their free tools. I don’t think the faculty will go willingly into this brave new world, but it’s probably going to happen whether they like it or not.