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Textbooks Try To Scale the E-Book Everest

Will Apple’s new textbook finally make it a done deal that textbooks can be easily read, used, studied (even notated) on tablets?

Maybe not. But things are changing quickly.

Textbooks are a kind of Everest for publishers: they represent an area of publishing that can be difficult to scale. But if textbooks become a hit with teachers, they can then become assigned as part of a curriculum. A textbook can cost about $100. That means they can be extremely profitable for publishers.

So publishers of textbooks are understandably reluctant to cede ground to e-versions of textbooks that might be less pricey though less costly to produce (though, happily for students, at the same time also less bulky).

The e-textbook revolution hasn’t yet been won. Although Amazon predicted a few years ago that textbooks might be replaced by versions available on lighter e-readers, e-textbooks didn’t take off. A problem remains: it’s hard to navigate an e-book. Often links to footnotes leave you stranded in the virtual “back” of the book, and the organization and tracking of illustrations and designs are similarly scattershot.

Refining Software

But Apple, Amazon and other manufacturers and software designers are constantly refining the software for e-books, so who knows? Early comments about Apple’s application for creating electronic textbooks — iBooks Author — have noted that you can’t create endnotes and references with it (unheard-of for most textbooks). They have mentioned that iBooks Author doesn’t have an automatic generator for tables of contents (something anyone can do easily in a Word document, for example). Nor does iBooks Aithor support mathematical symbols for equations (so there go the possibility of science or mathematics textbooks for tablets). These flaws are likely to be corrected, but the software limitations remain problematic. Textbooks are more difficult than novels to digitize, and there are still problems with nonfiction books that feature photographs or maps, well after the introduction of e-books

Yet these glitches are likely to be temporary. More and more people now buy and use e-readers and tablets, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project: “Between mid-December and early January, the number of owners of each device rose from 10% to 19%. Overall, 29% of adults own at least one of them.”  So almost a third of the population can read an e-book on some sort of device. So refinements to e-books will continue.

These refinements may not come along as quickly as tablets and e-readers are adopted. But in the meantime, something else is occurring. College professors themselves may be bypassing the whole textbook question by assigning their own digitized material to students in their classes. Now college professors have a lot more leeway about their choice of reading and studying content than do high-school teachers, who must use school district-approved materials.

But college professors, many of whom need to “publish or perish” in their fields, are a perhaps unanticipated rival for textbook publishers. The latest Apple innovation may not have all the bells and whistles that a real textbook requires if it’s to be used on an e-reader or tablet.  But suppose a professor simply assigns one of his or her essays, without ever assigning a textbook. The power of the e-reader and tablet, and the rise of the e-book itself (albeit in non-textbook format) means that professors become their own publishers.

That might be scarier for publishers than the development of e-textbooks themselves.

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One Response to “Textbooks Try To Scale the E-Book Everest”

  1. Anonymous January 23, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    Ack! Flashbacks to traipsing around college campus with a backpack chock full of 5 pound books. Good workout? Yes. Especially my last semester when I was pregnant and had a belly full of baby in front and a backpack full of books on back. 

    I’m confident e-texts will prevail on campuses. The transition is inevitable in our technological age.  

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