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

Akademos

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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Backlists, Bestsellers, and eCommerce: How the Recent History of Publishing Has Set the Conditions for Digital Distribution

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.

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