A colleague of mine just pointed me to the blog for the "disruptive library technology jester." It is an interesting blog for those who read this blog. (There I go again, pointing potentially loyal readers to other locations for information.)
The blog has a half-dozen postings related to digital textbooks. There are also several interesting posts related to innovation and disruptive technology, but my comments today are more interested in some of the textbook posts.
In a first posting, from July 8th, Peter (aka the Jester) comments on the complexity of the college textbook marketplace. I am generally in agreement. When I first came over to the college store side three years ago from having been a faculty member, I was fascinated by how many subtleties and complexities exist in this marketplace. Disintermediation of stores by digital seemed like a reasonable thing at some level. However, as Alison Pendergast points out in a response on her blog, there are some important differences in the textbook market that make digital substitutes not such an easy thing.
From the store perspective, Peter touches on several important points -- the role of the store handling financial aid and campus-based forms of financial support, for example. Another example is the collection and verification process of the "correct" course materials required by a faculty member, and standing behind that verification process. These and other "localization" services provided by stores are "at least for now, for better or worse," the most efficient and effective methods for students to obtain the correct course materials for their classes. That does not mean that stores cannot or should not be looking for ways to reduce the cost of course materials. Many, if not most, do. What profit many stores do make goes back to the institution, to fund student activities and/or services. So there is often a social value gained from buying the textbooks from college stores rather than other sources. However (before I receive more student hate-mail), I will admit stores do need to consider the role we play in the complex textbook economic cycle. As do faculty. As do publishers.
I do find the assumption that digital necessarily equates to cheaper course materials somewhat vexing at times. Looking at how the move to digital journals from print journals and the subsequent effect on typical library journal subscription cost over the past 5-6 years should lead one to expect that digital is not necessarily a panacea. We have heard from students in focus groups that they do not like "linear - .pdf versions of textbooks." They expect interactivity. That interactivity (at least currently) can be more costly to produce than the traditional textbook or its all-too frequent updates. When it does evolve, then publishers and faculty will have a convincing value proposition in digital format that students will more readily adopt than their linear print or digital textbooks.
That aside, the mere transaction costs (direct and indirect) for each provider of content to provide content, outreach, and localized transaction services for each faculty member and each student would be prohibitive. Thus a digital equivalent of the local campus bookstore becomes necessary in order to reduce costs for everyone. That is why local stores emerged to begin with and why we do not buy all products directly from all product creators -- whether the product is digital or more traditional.
There is also something to be said for the editing and peer-review process traditional textbooks go through. I think open access and open source content has potential, but not necessarily as a miracle-cure for high-textbook prices. Most open-source textbooks seem to lack something on the quality side that comes from editing and the multiple perspective (peer-review) that the publishing process brings to it. Interesting counter-examples are models like Flat World Knowledge, which if successful will combine high-quality, edited and reviewed textbooks in a digital format for free, with revenue coming from other more convenient formats and tools to assist students achieve learning outcomes.
Before I am accused of "drinking too much of the kool-aid" let us all remember, the end goal is to help students acquire the course materials they need to be successful in gaining an education. We do not say that enough, but it is one of the common and most fundamental goals for most of us in the channel (from faculty to stores to publishers). Beyond that, those who add value along the chain still need to generate revenue and profit, and I believe as long as they do generate value, revenue (and hopefully profits) will continue (this has something to do with that capitalism concept). For stores, that means generating value for students, faculty, academic institutions, and yes, even publishers. The economics here are very complex, and every mouth at the trough increases costs. So if a mouth wants a place at the trough, it should be adding value to the pre-stated end goal.
Finally, Peter has a more recent post on the Colorado Community College agreement. It is an interesting post (with a good tracking down across other posts and leads). The responses he received to his inquires are among the most interesting. In particular -- the current digital options being provided are all "custom published," making them unique to the institution. such models can enable publishers and faculty (and stores) to reduce costs, particularly if the adoption will carry over multiple semesters. They have a more centralized or standardized approach to text selection for classes than other types of institutions might have. The textbooks are currently only being used for online classes -- suggesting students who are already comfortable and expecting an online experience. In other words, the value proposition and the unique nature of this deal are not yet fully transferrable to the typical textbook adoption at the typical classroom. That does not mean the model does not have adaptations that could be transferrable, just that the transferrability is likely somewhat limited at this point. Many other campuses gain similar benefits through custom course materials and arrangements with publishers for print editions. The question is one of scalability, I think.
I have gone on far longer than I intended here -- this might be my longest post yet. I am sure some of the points are controversial. Others probably could use some more thought and editing (where is a publisher when you need one?) Peter's blog is interesting and well researched -- what I would expect from a librarian (I mean that as a true compliment). If anything, it helps demonstrate how complex the course materials space is, and additional things we all (myself included) have to learn about the economics of course materials --both before, during, and after the transition to digital.