Taking the text out of textbooks

I’ve been on both sides of the textbook market. I’ve read them and I’ve written them. And at each point I have had to struggle to see where they come in the learning experience. And by stuggle I mean it was not obvious that one textbook fit all. They have worked well for students who have time to read them carefully and think about their content. They work far less well when students have to find something quickly. It is rare that textbooks are modular. You need to start at the beginning before you can understand stuff at the middle or end. But sadly, so often, they are dull although that is a two way street. That said, whatever is that textbooks were doing, they were way too heavy and consequently too expensive in how they were doing it.

Apparently, this whole issue vexed Steve Jobs and, part of the iPad strategy, was to find a way to improve the textbook situation. He wasn’t the first. A decade ago, Paul Romer, frustrated by the same set of issues set out to change the textbook industry for higher education. His idea was to use web-based tools and testing alongside more interesting modules to teach economics amongst other things. Romer dropped out of academia and founded Aplia for the purpose. I was actually involved with Aplia at that initial stage and wrote some of its first modules including demand, supply and ‘demand & supply.’ I think they still exist today. The Aplia idea was to substitute for traditional textbooks but that proved not to be and they were more clearly complements. Their graphing tools were excellent — you could just move the supply or demand curve and see what happened to price. Aplia was acquired a few years ago by Cengage.

Today, Apple released its proposed solution. But unlike Aplia their target is K-12 education. The interesting thing about its solution is not the textbooks themselves. What they do is exactly what you would expect. They augment the text in the textbooks and include more interactive elements. Basically, it is Encarta with testing. The interesting part is the economics.

Apple treat textbooks as a multi-sided platform. They need authors to develop content and they need students/schools to buy books (and iPads). For the student-side, they go for the iTunes music model. Textbooks cannot sell for more than $14.99. Basically, the expensive pricing is not an option. That said, iPads aren’t cheap but if we forecast the trajectory here, they will be. Apple could realise an ePad in the future that makes it even more so.

For the author-side, Apple, in typical style, go for ease. They released — for free — a Mac app (iBooks Author) that makes it really easy to write these books and make them look pretty. As an author this gives you much more control. Previously, you would just submit text and publishers would invest a ton of resources making it all pretty. That’s not necessary. In one world, that means authors can go straight to market themselves, something really not available for textbooks before. This is an interesting development.

But there are conditions. If you want to distribute a book for free, you can distribute it however you like. If you want to earn something, then you give Apple a 30% cut (as per usual) and also agree not to distribute the iBooks (interactive version) through anyone else. That seems reasonable too. If you could just post it on the web and sell it that way, Apple doesn’t get the 30%. That said, you can take the content, assemble it in another program and then distribute the book in print or some other version. (At least that was my reading of the iBooks Author 1.0 License conditions). But it is important to realise one thing: if you are going to make a textbook look pretty you need pictures and where are they going to come from? Take it from me, using a picture in a textbook is a big copyright deal and a big pain in the neck. How would a self-publisher organise the permissions? It really takes a big chunk out of the transaction efficiency Apple is providing. The publishers know that this alone will protect them from that competition unless, of course, an easy to access repository becomes available (and it may already be except I don’t know about it).

What Apple is trying to do, of course, is lure publishers onto their platform. For ones with existing books, developing an iBook version will not be very expensive at all. And Apple’s authoring tools are such that they are hoping some of them will so the market will turn in their direction. Apple have secured interest from some big publishers but the question is: will they really invest?

It’s all about getting a virtuous cycle of expectations. People buying books causing authors to develop them. The problem is that the iTunes model was consumer driven. Music publishers came on board because of piracy and because consumers with iPods could move content from CDs onto them anyway. But it was the iPod success that was key. In the textbook case, at least for school children, it is far from clear that the iPad will do the same thing. To be sure, it probably should. Schools have banks of expensive to maintain computers that could probably be economically replaced with an affordable iPad. But unless that actually happens, how will the virtuous cycle really take off?

One silver lining is the price point. At $14.99, education-conscious parents with iPads in the house may be more willing to buy books that work for their children beyond what is merely prescribed in class. That may provide a way by which alternative textbooks could enter without committee-led gate-keepers in the way. That promise may spur authors/publishers to experiment with different forms that may appeal directly to parents.

Actually, on this is a minor digression, I recently discussed with a publisher why electronic textbooks had not really started. After all, we know it is coming, right? The publisher claimed they knew it and they had invested to make sure they could produce them. But they argued that it was the students who didn’t want them — at least for University. I was puzzled but here was the story: students get $$ from parents to buy textbooks. They do so and then sell them back second-hand. They pocket the proceedings and get more $$ from parents next semester. So the high textbook price is a siphon from parents to student’s entertainment money and you can’t do that with cheap electronic versions. This is possible but is it really sustainable. A parent could just purchase the book on Amazon with an auto-buy back or rent it for their children and block the siphon. I would imagine the twice yearly, “this is gonna cost what?” shock would stimulate some search for a better outcome.

As with all digitization movements, these changes make stark what is problematic about the existing state of affairs. What is problematic is partly cost and weight. But it also focusses in on how students use textbooks. Is a cover-to-cover learning model right or should students have self-contained modules like the Kahn Academy provides? I am pretty sure that the answer for higher education is modules. I don’t know what the answer is for K-12 but I suspect that the digitized textbook there is still missing an important ingredient; a teacher standing over a shoulder and making sure learning is getting done.

14 Replies to “Taking the text out of textbooks”

  1. I attempted to purchase electronic versions of textbooks during my studies, but after you do the math:

    Price for textbook vs. E-copy

    The e-copies tend to be more expensive because you can’t get a refund for the book at the end of the year.

    Now you can get cheaper e-copies, but they are usually only for a semester and they are still expensive because you are essentially renting the book and are left with nothing at the end of the rental period.

    I realize there are a lot of costs that go into a textbook, which is why the e-copies are still expensive, but Amazon and Apple are moving to the next battle ground. They are racing to become the next big publishers.

    Publishers of hard copies will be subjected to a slow death, much like newspapers are experiencing now.

    I am excited for the new E-Publishers.

  2. I think focussing on the textbooks in isolation risks missing the potential of the revolution in education that Apple may be about to ride. I am studying my postgrad economics by distance, and moved from a NetBook to iPad last year (as a result of strategic generosity by my wife). The ecosystem made studying exponentially easier, with well designed apps that windows counterparts couldn’t compete with. All that was really missing was a way to bring them all together (video casts, Papers, message boards, PDFs of the textbook). If iTunes U can eventually do that and take over from blackboard, then Apple is extending its ecosystem dramatically, and graduates will be buying iMacs not windows machines. And the other threads about the future of refereed journals vs blogging suggest that it might not be long before that end of academic publishing is facing a serious challenge.

  3. My kid (16) has about 50 – 60 lbs of textbooks. By admission, they are hardly ever used, and the teachers seldom if ever assign reading in them. They are nothing but dead weight. I think that answers the question for the usefulness of cover-to-cover for K-12.

  4. Textbooks are much more complicated for university students. Most of our classes don’t actually use textbooks and we could already get e-versions of the books we read….but we don’t. We need to be able to write In our books and highlight etc. and even though we are of the digital age, every single student I know feels that they get 10x the experience an understanding when they actually touch the pages. For those classes that do have textbooks, they honestly aren’t that essential to the learning process. They may contain our problem set questions (or not), but pretty much all remotely good professors don’t really use them to teach. For that it would be better to find a different solution, but digital is not the way to go.

    Hannah m
    University of Chicago

  5. As a student I’ve been waiting for quality e-textbooks to be released for years. The ipad has introduced the possibility of having an e-textbook that you can write in and interact with in new and innovative ways, and yet it hasn’t happened. I would happily go an purchase an ipad and pay far more than $14.99 for a textbook that fulfilled the above requirements. While textbooks are rarely taught from, they’re still integral to the learning experience as they give you a more exhaustive source of information to study from than whatever notes you’ve scribbled down during a lecture. If I could get all my textbooks on the ipad, I would be able to carry around all my textbooks and my computer with less than five pounds in my pack, that would be wonderful. The annual market for text-books is enourmous, and I’m really not sure why I’m still unable to get my hands on a quality e-version of every single textbook sold in my Universities book store.

  6. As another uchicago student, I find textbooks convenient for 1 purpose: to look up concepts that you didn’t take good notes for. Despite being in the digital age, when I google a stat or economics theorem, I still can’t find a good proof or definition for it most of the time, thankfully most of them are in the textbooks. Most of our professors only assign textbooks for a few ready made problem sets and encourage them as a tool for self learning outside of class. My math/econ friends at other universities like Yale have the same experience. Not sure about textbook use in state school though.

  7. I only had to purchase two textbooks throughout my 4 years of uni. – for my mandatory math and science courses. When I saw the insane price tag, I checked out e-options. Turned out that it was pretty simple to buy the e-book with three classmates and split the cost, making it really reasonable. Of course, after the subscription was up, at the end of the semester, we no longer have access to the book, but it didn’t matter, because we weren’t exactly planning to read about Algebra for fun.

  8. Interesting that they are doing K-12 first. For one thing, those textbooks don’t change so frequently. So you incur the fixed cost of converting a book but you recoup over a longer period. And of course the scale is bigger. Get an approved calculus text for Texas schools and that’s a huge market right there.

  9. Gans writes: “To be sure, it probably should. Schools have banks of expensive to maintain computers that could probably be economically replaced with an affordable iPad. But unless that actually happens, how will the virtuous cycle really take off?”

    At the university level, we see numerous “upgrades” to textbooks, revisions editions, in order to compete with the used text book market. Course A requires text book B, revision n, so that last year’s expensive book cannot be used. None of the revisions are worth paying for, and wouldn’t be required if the text book wasn’t so expensive, spawning a used textbook market.

    What Apple is doing is twofold. First, it is unraveling the current new/used text book market by pricing the cost of renting -$14.95. A student might find that a $14.95 rental makes perfect sense for them, especially the way most Universities emphasis short term retrieval as a proxy for learning. (Think of textbooks like software – you don’t have to upgrade if you stay with the same hardware.) Second, Apple is making it straightforward to be an author.

    There is probably at least one other player in this platform – the apps makers. In this case, it will probably be people who can write good programs for creating pictures.

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