Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Another peak at the future? CourseSmart shows off its vision of tablet publishing for the textbook industry

This story is an interesting variation on the Skiff launch story from yesterday.

The WSJ story, honestly not much more than a press release for CourseSmart, contains a video that envisions its e-book products as they might appear on the soon-to-launched, much-rumored-about-but-never-seen, Apple tablet.

Take a look:
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CourseSmart is not a book publisher, instead they are rushing to be the mobile source for textbooks. Anybody currently in college, or with kids in college, knows that the price of textbooks is . . . well, out of control. What used to be a rather minor expense issue is quickly becoming yet another reason for students to go into debt.

There is a quote on the CourseSmart site that gets right to the point:

At about half the price of a print textbook, obviously the value was there, plus I don't have to worry about what to do with the book once I'm done with 
-- Kelly Hulyk, Smith College.

OK, it sounds like it was written by a marketing person, but the message is pretty clear: you don't keep your textbooks for your Kierkegaard class  so why spend so much money for what is essentially a book rental? (Actually, I did, but get the point.)

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CourseSmart is already on the iPhone as a free app (iTunes link) where users can search, access and purchase (rent) textbooks. The app itself has gotten mixed reviews as consumers say such things as This is a game changer and Not as handy as it seems and Needs work (a not uncommon review of an iPhone app).

I don't know about you, but reading a textbook on my phone seems like a chore. A college student may have eyes that are definitely functioning better than mine, but a few chapters of Either/Or on an iPhone and they may end up crying uncle.

But what about on a tablet -- either the one soon to be demoed by Skiff, or the one envisioned by the CourseSmart video? That may truly be a "game changer" -- especially when married with lower prices.
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CourseSmart already has a good list of major textbook publishers working with them including McGraw-Hill, Pearson, Elsevier and John Wiley. I would imagine that their publishing partners are sharing more than just book sales revenue with CourseSmart. Otherwise, these very well run companies may be creating the same market for textbooks that the iTunes store created for music -- and you can ask the titans of the music industry how they feel about that!

Update -- I guess I should add something about CourseSmart prices so people don't get the wrong impression: they really aren't that low. In fact, they are not low at all when you consider that you are merely renting the book versus buying it. Part of the reason for this, of course, is the near monopoly textbook publishers have over their markets. If you need a certain physics book for a class you need THAT book, not a substitute, so you are at the mercy of the book publisher . . . and their partners.  The CourseSmart site says "save up to 50%" but as some of the reviews on iTunes point out that might not be the case.

My favorite: 
eTextbooks cost way to (sic) much money!!!!! I can go to any book story (sic) and buy a book (Chemistry Demystified maybe?) to help me learn Chemistry for only $19.95. A real book I can hold in my hands, take notes and highlight in. Why is the electronic version of books so high? . . .
 That day is coming.