The CITE, a blog published by the National Association of College Stores, takes a look at the intersection of education and technology, highlighting issues that range from course materials to learning delivery to the student experience. Comments, discussion, feedback, and ideas are welcome.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

e-textbook sales

This week's Inside Higher Ed had an article on e-textbooks. The piece starts with more speculation about an Amazon Kindle into the higher ed textbook market, then moves onto some new developments, and then turns to remaining obstacles. The thrust of the article appears to be that some change is beginning to occur, but we are not quite there yet.

A couple quotes of interest (with commentary):

Quote 1: Last year, according to the Association of American Publishers, e-textbooks sold by major publishers in the United States added up to $241 million out of about $3.5 billion in sales by major publishers.

Let's see, some simple division would say then that e-texbooks made up about 6.89% of sales by major publishers last year. That is still a good-sized number for a market that is new or "non-existant." Of course, I think those numbers are not "real e-textbooks" but sales and revenue from any digital course materials. Anyone from AAP reading who can clarify the accounting behind the numbers?
Quote 2: University System of Ohio is planning to offer incentives to professors who significantly reduce textbook costs for their students, including grants — five, to the tune of $50,000 each — to instructors who help create free materials for the state’s most commonly taught courses.

An interesting proposal. I think to work though there must be quality control mechanisms in place to ensure that the resulting textbooks are of comparable quality to other options. That means editing and peer-reviewing should be part of the process. I believe open source textbooks are not a bad idea, but we must be mindful of the old adage, "you get what you pay for." In the quest to reduce costs we do not want to sacrifice educational quality. $50k to develop the content for a course is really not a great amount of money when you consider all of the work and research that has go into it beyond just the writing. I know I sound like a spokesperson for the AAP on that point, but having been a faculty member, and having reviewed multiple textbooks under development during that time, I have some appreciation for what is available. If the resulting product is not good, faculty will not adopt the content -- even if it is free. The intention is well-placed, but effective execution could be difficult.
Quote 3: Esposito said publishers have been eager to jump into the e-textbook market in hopes of shutting out the used-book market — which some estimate makes up to a third of textbook sales — once and for all.

Digital is just another option, like paperbacks were once another option. Paperbacks did not eliminate the hardback business as some people originally anticipated. Digital may not eliminate used either. Right now, based on the limited data I have seen or heard on this point, students still go for the used book option first, and then digital becomes the second choice, with new falling to third. I do not have enough hard data to suggest that is fact, but the anecdotal explanations I have heard for this make sense. This only seems to be true though when the students understand what they are getting with the digital option.
Quote 4: Meanwhile, start-ups are jumping in to test competing business models.

Guilty as charged. The piece references open source, but there are other examples. The new NACS initiative in this area proposes yet another model. Business models are holding us back as much as other barriers pointed to in the last section of the article. Some of the comments to the article point to frustration with the "convenience" argument. The same comments might be made of the "cost" argument. We are still at the fluid stage of innovation, where business models proliferate. There are signs that a smaller set of dominant designs are beginning to emerge, around which we will see greater progress and adoption as the market becomes more streamlined and simplified for consumers. The technically best solution may or may not be the winning solution in the marketplace. College stores still have a value proposition to offer in this environment -- to both consumers (faculty/students/staff) and suppliers (publishers and other content generators).
Quote 5: We believe firmly that the most significant gating factor in prior eras of this has been that there hasn’t been a critical mass of inventory available on a single platform. So that student that wanted to try it had to wonder ... ‘Is it going to be on a platform that’s compatible? Do I have to have multiple books on [different] platforms?’” Devine said.

I would have to agree that this has been a significant barrier. There may be a greater barrier though -- the role of the faculty and their influence over what students adopt. I had somemone share a piece of data they collected recently with me that suggested that students who preferred one format (e.g., digital or print) would buy the format they preferred less if their faculty member was using the less-preferred format. They noted that if the faculty member even joked positively about students selecting the alternative format, the students willingness to acquire the alternative format dropped substantively and significantly. The conclusion one might draw from this is that students will buy content in the format their faculty member uses because they believe it will affect their grade. Cost and convenience are not the only factors in textbook adoption, just like the technology is not the only barrier in moving to digital.

And finally,
Quote 6: And even if e-textbooks catch on, he warned that there is no reason to suppose that they would completely take over the higher education market. “People don’t get into foolish false dichotomies. It’s not either-or, it’s supplemental,” he said.

This ties back to the earlier point about paperback books. The content is digital. It is new and will initially be resisted. It will not replace the old, just be another choice. Like taking a car, or a train, or an airplane to travel. (I would throw in horse-and-buggy, but perhaps some technologies do not quite survive a transition after a period of time).

All-in-all, an interesting article. Worth a read.

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