The Evolving World of E-Textbooks

The library has an e-book committee actively exploring trends electronic textbook publishing.

The landscape of e-textbook publishing, like e-books generally, is unsettled. The market for e-textbooks is definitely heating up, if a report produced by Simba is an indicator: “e-textbooks are finding their legs in the college market, growing at an estimated compound annual growth rate of nearly 49% through 2013, when they will account for more than 11% of textbook sales. . . .” By comparison, “new print textbooks continue to dominate the college instructional materials market at a projected $4.46 billion in 2010.”  A graph in another report also suggests that the e-textbook market will burgeon in coming years.

Who knows? For many persons, paper is still a superior format to the electronic book format, at least for focused reading of large swaths of material. Will electronic formats address  concerns about print textbook pricing, or will the economics of electronic textbooks replicate the economics of the print format? And many people will not like licensing terms that shut off access. A study done at Cal State U.  gives some data about preferences relating to the e-textbook format.

On a more propitious note: might mobile, handheld devices facilitate use of the e-textbook format and make it popular? And an intriguing question is whether electronic and print formats are complements and not substitutes, in the sense that students may want to enjoy the benefits of both formats. For example, a student sitting in a cafe and doing a textbook exercise or doing last minute studying for an exam may find an electronic format sufficient, obviating the need to lug around a heavy textbook for those specific purposes, even if they otherwise use the print version a lot more often.

In an effort to impose some conceptual order on the evolving world of e-textbook publishing, I created the following catalog of models in this arena. This typology does not pretend to be exhaustive but should help you think about the emerging range of possibilities:

  • Print textbooks with accompanying websites. If you bought a print version of a textbook, you may notice that it has an accompanying website with supplementary material such as quizzes or  tutorials. Example. (This textbook is also available electronically, exemplifying the next model. . . .)
  • Toll-access. The user pays to access an electronic version of a textbook, which might include add-ons such: as online annotation ability (ease of use probably being quite crucial; more generally, see this earlier posting);  multimedia animations, test banks, or other features. This model builds naturally on the already existing markets for print textbook. Examples of toll-access e-textbooks from Pearson and  CourseSmart, both of which are available in print.
  • Open-access: non-profit flavor. An example is Wikibooks, which touts itself as “the open-content textbooks collection that anyone can edit.” Another model is provided by Connexions,  “a place to view and share educational material made of small knowledge chunks called modules that can be organized as courses, books, reports, etc.”
  • Commercial open access model. Flat World Knowledge  is a player that gives free access to a textbook but charges for print versions and the right to download content in a specific format. This model follows the trail of Internet businesses that offer a product such as a browser for free with the idea that this will promote purchase of other services.
  • The bulk discount model. This is a model in which a university brokers a bulk discount on access to e-textbooks. An example of such a scheme, discussed in this Chronicle article, is CourseLoad. Flat World Knowledge participates in this model by providing a licensing fee option.
  • Authoring software. Another model does not rely on selling textbook content but on providing a mechanism to create interactive textbook-like material. According to its website, “SoftChalk is the leading provider of content authoring software for educators in K-12, colleges, universities and medical programs. With SoftChalk, educators can create professional, engaging, learning content quickly and easily, which enhances their teaching and improves the learning experience for their students.”

Aside from the sorts of products mentioned above, it is important to remember that Lehigh library’s collection of e-books, and items at Hathi Trust, Google Books and similar repositories or indexes of e-books (e.g., this cache of astrophysics book ), may provide useful supplemental  readings in courses.

Despite the uncertainties, new entrepreneurial ventures, both profit and non-profit, will continue to emerge. One recalls the froth and ebullience of the Internet bubble, with market players trying to anticipate and then occupy every conceivable niche.

Brian Simboli, Science Librarian

(Hat tip to my colleague Jean Johnson for many helpful comments.)


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