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May 10, 2009

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Kindle Up Your Textbooks, Children

The Chronicle of Higher Education on the Kindle DX and the market for electronic textbooks:

Most college students—more than 80 percent, according to a survey by Educause—already own portable machines that can display electronic textbooks: They’re called laptops. And more than half of all major textbooks are already offered in electronic form for download to those laptops.

Yet so far sales of electronic textbooks are tiny, despite efforts by college bookstores to make the option to buy digital versions clearer by advertising e-books next to printed ones on their shelves. “It’s a very small percentage of our sales at this point,” said Bill Dampier, general manager of MBS Direct, a major textbook reseller.

What the textbook industry needs is the equivalent of an iTunes store for e-books, say some experts, who note that sales of digital music never took off until Apple created the iPod and an easy-to-use online music marketplace. That’s why Amazon seems like a promising entrant.

Except for one thing: Publishers have already set up a digital store meant to serve as the iTunes of e-textbooks, and it has been slow to catch on. The online store, called CourseSmart, was started two years ago by the five largest textbook publishers. Now 12 publishers contribute content to the service, which offers more than 6,300 titles. The e-books are all designed to be read on laptops or desktops, rather than Kindles or other dedicated e-book reading devices.

One problem for CourseSmart has been a lack of awareness by both students and professors that the service even exists.

Yep — sounds about right. You think we’d be easy to target, but we’re actually not. In fact, probably the ONLY two media/publishing companies with significant overlapping penetration among both students and professors would be Amazon and Apple.

Also of note: the only reason why publishers are really interested in electronic books is that they can use DRM to crush sales of used books beneath their foot forever. (I remember the first book I ever used that required you to register a CD w/ a unique ID number in order to use it; SBS sold it to me at about 75% of cover used and then refused to take it back. I had to buy the new copy again.)

Also also of note: one of the lines Bezos used again and again in his Kindle presentation (from the transcripts I’ve seen — anybody know where I could find video) with respect to textbooks is “structured content.” I actually think this is a hugely important idea. A book gives a text physical form, sure, but that physicality works together with paratextual devices to structure its content. Page numbers, title pages, tables of content, indices, volume and chapter devisions, footnotes/endnotes, captions, commentary, usw.

This is why Project Gutenberg or any other kind of throw-it-up-there text file service will always suck. It’s also why a lot of digital archives don’t work. We need ways to give content structure, and to make that structure easily and productively navigable to users. Ebooks have suffered from a lack of legitimate and visible marketplaces, but to borrow a metaphor, they’ve also suffered from really crappy gameplay. Whoever figures out how to solve these problems will solve long-form electronic reading.



The chemistry book for the course I teach comes with an electronic text book, and I've toyed with the idea of asking students to consider buying it. But in truth I don't even use my complimentary copy. The internet connectivity is annoying rather than useful--it's like a lost sheep when the internet is down, which is exactly when you might be inspired to read quietly.It's a 10th edition with a carefully refined layout, and the electronic copy just doesn't have the same visual flow or pizazz. "designed to be readon on laptops" may be an overstatement, depending on what you mean by "design." I'm sure there exist books that have been deliberately and carefully laid out in electronic form, but I doubt they're cheap. If I get frustrated with how non-interactive and visually unsophisticated such textbooks are, kids raised on video-games probably get turned off even more, and it just seems easier to keep buying traditional textbooks. Straight PDFS (which I use for the Teacher's Edition when I'm home) dont' read easily on a landscape screen (though I haven't tried a tablet).

Kindle's page-turning would be a big plus on a laptop, as would the ability ot "highlight" and write in the margins, but it wouldn't have color--death for a lot of science ebooks. When Kindle gets color, it will be a big strike against paper textbooks. But it won't be a big step in favor of actually reinventing etextbooks as a new and powerful medium---from a extracting-learning-from-technology perspective, I think it will be a step back.

The thing about used books gets to one of the key reasons I've avoided jumping into kindle--it's not clear to me how I could offload titles I no longer want. That was fine with $1 songs, but not so fine with expensive books.

Structured text? Aren't there markup languages for that? I suppose Project Gutenberg could add formatting to its texts, but that's a lot of work and may add incompatible layers. I've seen some sites that do turn Gutenberg books into nicely-formatted PDFs though, and someone has probably done the same with HTML.

It seems like Coursesmart started about when I graduated, but still I'm surprised I hadn't heard of it before. I'm amazed that it has an online option that doesn't require some shitty windows-only bespoke DRM, and at how permissive its DRM is. Of course, not being in the market for textbooks, I can't tell how useable the books actually are.

For comparison, see NCBI's Bookshelf. It's not as useful as it could be, though. From the FAQ: "Why are parts of some Table of Contents not hyperlinked? ...Some of the publishers prefer that we do not provide access to the books via the Table of Contents. All of the book content is available by searching, however." *headdesk*

Posted by: Jake on May 10, 2009 at 11:55 AM

1) Exactly on both counts, Jake. Digital word search is a great feature, but it's actually one of the dumbest forms of structure around. XML or whatever are actually IDEAL for introducing all sorts of structure into digital texts. Heck, even HTML could do better. And disabling the bits of carry-over structure from print that actually are extraordinarily useful is just plain dumb.

Also note that the dig against PG's lack of structure is part of my long-standing attempt to figure out what I don't like about it. It's very good for some purposes, but for mine, it's a waste of time.

2) Saheli - resale/sharing are a big issue here, particularly as they relate to price. $5 for an ebook I can't sell? Yeah, I'll pay that, even if I end up deleting the file later on. $80? Even if it's a break on the $100 I'd pay otherwise, there's no f---ing way.

My worry is that the textbook manufacturers won't pull down prices at all, but will just replaced used books with pirated ones to justify exorbitant fees.

Also, note that some kind of DRM that terminates a user's access to a file after the semester's up (as opposed to a permanent purchase) would probably actually be a pretty good idea. But again, I don't think you'll see it -- or at least, it won't affect price -- and if users don't have the option to keep books permanently, that's a drag, too.

I'm trying to recall how I actually used textbooks in school. Seems to me there was a lot of flipping, scanning, hunting, highlighting, post-it-noting. There was very little linear graf-by-graf reading. And, at least based on my experience so far, that makes textbooks terrible candidates for Kindle-ization.

The DX's bigger screen improves things, but even so: The properties of E-Ink displays -- I'm mostly thinking of their refresh speed -- mean that they work best for linear reading. "Flip the page," read, "flip the page," read, etc. For faster, more dynamic, more random access, I think E-Ink sucks, bad (at this point -- I'm sure it will get better).

Now, I can imagine a *whole new kind of textbook* -- an econ 101 book with interactive draggable graphs and little simulations embedded between grafs! -- but those feel native to the laptop screen, not to the Kindle.

So is there a particular kind of textbook I'm not thinking of here? One that's mostly about the linear consumption of tons of mostly plain-text information? I just don't see it. If I was a student today and MSU gave me a Kindle DX for my textbooks, I think I'd find it incredibly frustrating.

We keep coming back to the same idea. Amazon selling ebooks? Awesome. Perfect. Couldn't ask for better. Amazon making and selling the device? They almost can't help but get it wrong.

Posted by: Tim on May 10, 2009 at 03:35 PM

I am a student today - a 42 year old who is finishing up a first BA and embarking on a second BA in the fall of '09.

I've been doing a lot of research on etextbooks over the summer, in preparation for making the switch when my fall classes start.

The main issue I (and my husband, who is also a student) have with CourseSmart is that you aren't actually BUYING the book, or even access TO the book - what you are paying is essentially a rental fee. Not such a good deal for those of us who like to keep their textbooks for reference. Also, reading for the long periods required for studying is not an attractive proposition on a backlit screen. You can't get in a really comfortable position for reading when you're dealing with a laptop or computer screen, and the backlighting makes it really uncomfortable after a while.

I've been interested in the Kindle DX as well. The textbooks formatted for it CAN be highlighted (well, underlined, really) and notes can be attached to replace writing in the margins. If you want to mark up a PDF similarly, you MIGHT need to use third-party software to change it to a compatible form, but that's reportedly quite easy. Class notes taken on the computer can be transferred to it, making them available for easy study - and one enterprising student even figured out how to make up a sort of flashcard quiz on it using the notes feature. I've seen some comments that students wouldn't want to take notes on it in class - duh! It's not designed to replace a laptop for taking notes; it's designed to replace the textbook (although an additional keyboard to allow taking notes might be a nice accessory). Another feature people assume it lacks (because the K1 and K2 lack it) is pagination. The DX does have page numbers, making skipping around and finding one's reading assignment much simpler.

If the publishers would just get on board, and get realistic about how much they can charge (most student buy used and then resell them!) etexts could really take off!

Posted by: Phoenix on June 20, 2009 at 01:28 PM
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