Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Has the textbook industry set itself up to be punked: Apple set to unveil education publishing plans Thursday

Imagine a scenario where you own a business and are wildly successful and profitable, but where the vast majority of your customers dislike you intensely and wish for your demise. That is the situation that textbook publishers find themselves in.

If you have a child in college, you know that each semester the buying of textbooks is a difficult and sometimes financially draining experience. With the textbook industry more consolidated than any other media area, prices for books appear to many to be artificially high – something ripe for innovation and competition.

On Thursday, Apple is holding an event at the Guggenheim to announce something that may turn this industry inside out... or may make matters worse, depending on exactly what is announced.

Ars Technica is saying this morning that Apple is planning to unveil a “GarageBand for e-books” and will announce support for the ePub 3 standard.

“When you think about what Apple is doing… they are selling tens of thousands of iPads into K-12 institutions,” Inkling CEO Matt MacInnis told Ars. “What are they doing with those iPads? They don’t really replace textbooks, because there’s not very much content on offer,” he said.

ZDNet is reporting that publishers such as McGraw-Hill are working with Apple, knowing that the digital wave is upon them, and hoping, as the ZDNet angle has it, that such a move will further benefit textbook publishers by killing off the used book market that has grown (this has been a big area of growth for companies such as Amazon.com).

This sounds like a typical strategy for Apple. Despite the claims of many tech writers about the way Apple does business, the fact is that Apple typically lines up industry support for its moves. Before launching its iTunes store, for instance, it lined up the record labels; before launching the iPad it lined up some important publishers.

The question, though, will be whether what Apple unveils on Thursday will assist authors and small publishers. If so, a move into education publishing could break the stranglehold big publishers have on the market.

eBooks / app books

That books are going digital is a given. But most digital books today are simply digital conversions of print – Kindle Editions, if you will. These eBooks can be found inside iBooks, as well as through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. In their present form the only threat they are to publishers is if the file sharing bug hits this industry as badly as it has music (and there is some evidence that it is).

But app books are another thing altogether. Few app publishers are being produced, compared to simple eBooks. Take Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, for instance. This book was a classic example of a publisher missing a golden opportunity to show off what an eBook can be. The book was available in eBook form at launch – I bought mine from iBooks – but the book was simple digital text and a few pictures. Isaacson's book failed to include any of Jobs's famous keynote addresses, for instance. Such a simple addition to the book was, in my view, unforgivable.

Imagine what can be added to a digital textbook: slideshows, videos of demonstrations and lectures, audio, etc. Textbook publishers will only move in this direction if forced to – and if they retain near monopoly hold on the industry, these kinds of books will only prove to be even more expensive for students.

An easy and inexpensive way to produce eBooks would not only transform textbooks themselves, but the also the way textbooks are used in higher education. A professor could produce their own supplemental eBook to accompany a main textbook from a commercial publisher, for instance. Textbooks could also be reproduced on the fly with updates, as necessary.

Notice, however, that we are talking about higher education here. The industry and the way books get published and approved is very different when one talks about high schools and below. But here, too, a new way produce digital books could have an enormous impact - and not always a positive one. Imagine, for instance, what education looks like in a scenario where each school district could have customized textbooks for its classes – how many districts in the South would want biology books that teach creationism, for instance? There are, of course, still state and federal requirements, but an environment where books are more customized could have an impact on where education goes in the future.

Dr. William Rankin, Director of Educational Innovation at Abilene Christian University, is quoted by Ars Technica as saying that the time is right for a dramatic change in the format and use of textbooks. “We’re headed toward a completely digital future at ACU,” Rankin told Ars Technica. “A recent study showed that 82 percent of all higher education students nationwide will come to campus with a smartphone. We need to have resources and tools ready for these mobile, connected students.”

Five years ago even the Association of American Publishers saw this. In its report submitted to the Congressional Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, the association said:
Today’s textbooks are no longer just paper, ink and cardboard. They are integrated teaching and learning systems – employing CDs, online graded homework, online quizzes, online self-testing and tutoring, and other support materials. A history textbook of 20 years ago might reference Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, but today’s textbook has a CD or an online Web site that enables the student to watch and hear the actual speech."
The next logical move is to have this material integrated directly into the textbooks themselves, rather than as supplemental CDs or links out to websites.

For Apple, which has been moving iPads into the classroom as a very quick pace (my high school daughter has a class where iPads are integrated into the classroom experience), the key to further growth is the make sure those iPads have lots of content.