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

Akademos
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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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A Threshold Year For eBooks; eTextbooks…not so much

The digital turn in publishing became more acute in 2011 as readers took to Kindles, iPads, and other tablets. According to Amazon, over the past year, the sale of digital books for Kindle surpassed those of print copies. This is astonishing growth for a device that itself is only four years old and confirms that the world of publishing is currently undergoing an extraordinary transformation—a transformation that is affecting not only how reading materials are delivered and used but also how they are produced and maintained (see, for example, this recent article in the Wall Street Journal on the future of the digital text as a perpetually unfinished work).

And yet one could be forgiven for thinking that this digital publishing transformation has somehow bypassed the textbook market. While general readers were clamoring for Kindles and iPads, sales of digital textbooks last year remained at less than five percent. Ninety-five percent of students purchasing or renting textbooks last year chose to use the old-fashioned technology of the codex despite the fact that the digital versions are usually cheaper. And as more students in 2011 purchased or rented from third party online alternatives, this also meant that they typically preferred to wait for these physical materials—often receiving them after classes had begun—rather than have immediate access to a digital version.

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Should OER Be Free?

This week I’ll be attending and speaking at an interesting conference on open education resources taking place in Park City, Utah: http://openedconference.org/2011/

Here’s the title and summary of my talk; after the conference, I’ll post the talk itself along with any comments from the discussion that follows.

Is Academic Recognition Sufficient Incentive to Create Open Source Courseware?

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Constructively Disruptive: Digital Distribution and the New Model for Educational Content

The growth of the digital distribution of course materials should be thought of as a development that’s quite distinct from the emergence of digital content as such. Physical textbooks, after all, begin as digital documents, just as, for instance, a faculty classroom handout might start off as a Word document. And, for the most part, the textbooks that traditional educational publishers offer as “eTextbooks” are really just PDFs of the original production files intended for print production. On the flip side, publishers of digital materials—that is, of materials that are produced initially with the intention that they be viewed on a screen—typically also have a print capability. Our newest partner, Flatworld Knowledge, for instance is an eTextbook publisher that also offers physical books.

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