News and Insights on College Textbooks, Course Materials & Bookstore Services

Akademos

Brian Jacobs

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The eTextbook Bust

The final report on a major digital textbook pilot appeared recently and, because I wanted to study the document closely, mark it up with scribble unintelligible to anyone but its author, I immediately printed it out. And as I did that, I felt strangely self-conscious of the act, as if I were prejudicing the report's conclusions before turning a page.

The pilot, which took place in the spring of this year and included Cornell, Indiana University at Bloomington, and the Universities of Minnesota, Virginia, and Wisconsin at Madison, was pretty close to a complete failure. Certainly there are nuggets of encouragement but these were far outnumbered by student criticisms. One could almost sense the report’s authors straining to put the best face on the results. It’s admirable that they did not flinch from conveying students’ frustrations and disappointments with the reading materials, but the results really were worse than their concluding comments suggest.

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How Do College Bookstores Survive?

How is it that consumer-oriented physical bookstores—be they national chains or small independents—are consolidating, closing up in vast numbers while many college bookstores continue to enjoy remarkable resilience?   If you have wondered not only how they’ve managed this but also whether such success is likely to continue, you might be interested in an article that I just published with University Business, entitled “The Curious Longevity of the College Bookstore.” Take a look and let me know what you think.

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Is the word "Textbook" obsolete?

Matt Greenfield posted a blog entry yesterday on the Huff Post on whether it’s appropriate to continue using the word “textbook,” now that the digital transition is upon us.

It’s interesting that the word in English is the only one (that I’m aware of, at least) that doesn’t designate the book specifically as an educational object. In French, for example, “textbook” would be translated as “manuel scolaire,” scholarly manual; in German, it’s “Lehrbuch,” teaching/instruction book (the Spanish “libro de texto” is likely a neologism derived from the contemporary English word). Perhaps the origin of the word “text” stems from the use of primary source materials (that makes sense to me) but the openness of the word may actually be helpful as we make the digital transition. Precisely because it has an etymological relation to weaving, blending together, it could be flexible enough for repurposing (as it has done so already in the digital realm, as, for example, “hypertext.”) There’s also a minimalist and direct sense of the word “text”: It’s clean and dry and unencumbered.  And regardless of the many ways in which the digital transition will play out, and despite the use of video, audio, 3D simulations, and other “learning objects,” who would deny that “text,” as the written word, is still the foundation of learning and will continue to be? “Visual learning” can be a great complement that helps reinforce concepts but there’s no substitute for grasping them at a textual level.

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Amazon, Apple, and the Priority of the Platform

The federal antitrust lawsuit initiated late last month against Apple and major publishers is indeed the boon to Amazon that most view it as. As a book publishing analyst put it in a NY Times article on the story, “Amazon must be unbelievably happy…Had they been puppeteering this whole play, it could not have worked out better for them.” He and others from the publishing industry see this, however, as not just a boost for Amazon but a development that portends darker days for publishers and ultimately for the reading public: “Publishers and booksellers argue that any victory for consumers will be short-lived, and that the ultimate effect of the antitrust suit will be to exchange a perceived monopoly for a real one. Amazon, already the dominant force in the industry, will hold all the cards.”

Such a suggestion, I think, is misplaced because it underestimates the depth of the changes now afoot in the publishing industry. Lower eBook prices may be one effect of Amazon’s successful drive to dominate the market for eReader devices, but the company’s comprehensive distribution platform (which includes the capacity to create and manage content) helps to raise the very question of what it means to be a publisher. “Content is king” is the cliché so often used by owners of content, and new media businesses have turned that on its head. Distribution, the “platform,” now takes priority—for a sufficiently developed and mature one will attract the highest quality content available. We’re already at the point where authors, collaborators, editors—people who create content generally—no longer require the independent services of a publisher to achieve their goals. These needs—editing, distribution, marketing—can now be handled by the distribution companies themselves, as Amazon has already demonstrated with the launch of CreateSpace and its related Kindle Publishing arm. And as supportive as Apple has been of traditional publishers, it also now operates its own self-publishing unit, ibooks Author, designed especially with the educational textbook market in mind. Publishers and their analysts may one day look at this period, in which they’re worried about pricing controls within the context of traditional publisher and bookseller relations, as the last of their halcyon days.

The Textbook is not the Holy Grail

The move to digital does not necessarily lower the cost of textbooks. That much has been clear in these early days of the transition. Commercial textbook publishers offer their PDF “eTextbook” versions typically at about fifty percent of the cost of the new physical book. But once the astute student considers that these digital versions usually expire—vanish—after 180 days, and once she considers that the physical copy is often available for purchase or rent through online third parties at or below the digital price, then the appeal often wanes.

Caroline Vanderlip, in her article published yesterday in Inside Higher Ed, makes this point too and believes that there’s another, better way forward. She calls it the “disaggregation model,” and it’s worth considering.

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Why Apple’s Textbook Initiative Still hasn’t Solved the Problem of Cost

Is Apple now set to “disrupt” textbook publishing in the same way that they have the music industry? Will the combination of iBooks 2, iBooks Author, and the iPad have a similar effect that iTunes and iPods had a decade earlier? The features of these new applications, as demonstrated last Thursday at the Guggenheim in NY, are impressive. While some of these features already exist on the platforms of other companies, Apple’s slick single package and extensive market reach may be the catalysts that finally transform the way educational materials are produced and distributed. It’s possible, at least.

But the textbook business is not the music industry and that much was already evident at Thursday’s announcement. A decade ago, record labels were falling apart as illegal music downloading went mainstream. The 99 cent/song cost was forged under severe market conditions for the content owners. Apple helped the traditional media companies stabilize, but at the cost of cannibalizing their own CD sales.

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