Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Textbook Case of Digital Disruption

In the era of tablets, smartphones, and general integration of electronics into everyday life, it should come as no surprise that textbooks are going digital. However, the transition from paper to screen is in its infancy, and the field is wide open to produce stock market winners and losers. Let's look at the current state of play.

Killing trees

Old-fashioned, paper-based textbooks present a variety of problems and benefits, depending on your point of view.
  • They're expensive. Really expensive. And they are aimed at a customer base that subsists upon ramen noodles.
  • They're big and heavy, and take up lots of space.
  • They cannot be updated or modified without issuing a whole new edition. (Problem for students, windfall for publishers.)
  • They are the perfect product for secondary markets, where students can buy used books for far less than list price, and resell them at the end of the semester. (Problem for publishers, big savings for students.)
So go digital. Simple, right?

While a switch to digital might seem obvious and straightforward, it's not. Thus far, there is significant variety in platforms, business and pricing models, and delivery mechanisms. There is also the question of whether e-textbook providers generate their own content or act as distributors for existing content. In a field that will require collaboration with major universities, standardization is probably an inevitable outcome.

Let's look at some of the current e-textbook providers and how they compare on key points.

Own Content?
KnoWeb, iPad30% to 50% off print pricingNoEmbeds interactive tools into existing e-books in more intuitive way.
InklingiPad (plans for Web, Android)Chapter-based pricing, full books from $60Sort ofWorks with authors to recreate existing print book in app environment with added features.
CheggPC, Mac, iPad; Internet$20 to $120NoEmphasizes portability, adds some interactive features, significant rental component.
Flat World KnowledgeAll major devices$20 per e-book + digital learning supplementsYesAllows user customization, publishes own, peer-reviewed texts, open licensing.
CourseSmartAll major devices, InternetUp to 60% discount to print versionsNoFocuses on the platform, seamlessly integrating publishers and institutional users.
CourseLoadAll major devices, InternetEnrollment fee; e-books 60% to 70% cheaper than printNoAggregates and distributes all types of digital course materials from multiple sources.
Nature Publishing GroupOnline (device- and platform- independent)$49 (single book roll-out so far)YesProvides dynamic content, constantly updated with latest info.
Apple Apple devices$15 per bookSome of itOffers visual, interactive learning tools through well-established channels.
Barnes & NobleNook, some on Android, iPhoneUp to 50% off print booksNoMostly offering content tied to Nook, but also developing some for broader platforms.  Kindle, any device capable of running Kindle softwareRentals up to 80% off list price of printNoMostly offering content tied to Kindle, but developing for other platforms as well.

Sources: Individual company websites; USA Today; Washington Post;;; CNN; New York Times;; Forbes;


As you can see from this snapshot, companies are trying a variety of approaches, and it is not clear which model(s) will win.



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