The morning news seemed to sound the knell for the paper book. Borders was closing 200 of its bookstores and declaring bankruptcy. Amazon again sold more electronic books than hardbacks. Students in Ohio cobbled together a free online psychology text that garnered better reviews than their $150 professional print version. And McGraw-Hill announced the availability of purely digital texts for college students, delivered through the online Blackboard system. Is the book dead?
Let's look more closely into what's going on. The price of school and college paper textbooks increases each semester, with some costing over $150 a copy. A student taking five courses might spend $750 per semester on such books, enough to buy both an Amazon Kindle and an Apple iPad. Wouldn't the money be better spent on a well-designed reading device that could contain all of the student's textbooks, for his or her entire school career? When will professors, students and publishers realize that the same digital revolution that has turned the world of trade books upside down will do the same for the world of textbooks?
The current offers of the publishers in this regard simply don't satisfy. They are willing to rent students a static PDF copy of a $100 textbook for a semester for $50. This ephemeral book is not downloadable -- they must have a live online connection to read it; it doesn't work on the iPad or Kindle, the two most popular eBook readers; students can't annotate the paragraphs or mark up the pages or copy quotations or pictures. And it offers nothing more than the paper book -- it can't take advantage of the capabilities of modern eReaders, such as animation, video, re-formatting, definitions, highlighting, text-to-speech, cross-referencing, and note-taking.* (Every book I read with the iPad's iBooks app can do all these things, and none cost more than $10, with most costing nothing.)
Why do high school and college textbooks cost so much? Many people are involved in developing the book and getting it into the hands of students, and all of them must be paid. Of a $100 textbook, the authors of the text and the owners of the pictures get about $15. The editors, designer, and layout artist share about $25. The printer gets $20, the shipper $5, the salesperson $5, and the bookstore $30.
Of these folks, the only ones left out when we move to eTexts are the printer and shipper and the bookstore. So the digital version of the same text should cost about $45. Textbooks cost much more to author and produce than novels, so I doubt we will ever see the price of a quality eText fall to $10.
What would this quality eText look like? What do students and teachers want from the ideal eTextbook? A study conducted recently at Hunter College in New York by Charles Tien and his colleagues in the department of Political Science provides some clues. They tested carefully an electronic text with several groups of students, and collected their reactions. While they found it easy to buy the eText online, they were not satisfied with its limitations. Until the eText fully met their needs, they tended to prefer the old-fashioned paper textbook. The eText they wanted was**:
- Downloadable, so they could keep it, read it wherever and whenever, even on the subway;
- Annotatable, so they could highlight the text, and add notes as they wished;
- Copy and paste capable, so they could grab quotations and use them in their written work;
- Full of appropriate multimedia, such as diagrams, animations, and video;
- Playable on a variety of mobile devices, especially the iPad;
- Capable of taking advantage of the standard features of eReaders, such as dictionary, thesaurus, speech-to-text, and cross-reference.
For this, they might be willing to pay $50, and they might find it more convenient than the paper textbook. But until the eTexts meet these criteria, the students are not interested.
Perhaps educational publishers could agree to use the industry-standard ePub format for their works, which meets all of these criteria, allows digital rights management, and plays on most devices. That would go a long way toward satisfying our professors and our students. And take full advantage of current technologies. For more on the ePub format, and how to publish your own works with it, see Publishing an eBook in this series.
*Editor's Note - If books come in PDF form, depending on the restrictions and if not strictly online versions, they can be downloaded to the iPad using an app like GoodReader or to a Kindle. Students can also use PDF versions to take notes using cut, copy and paste features on their computer.
**Editor's Note -Another useful feature could be the sharing of highlighted text. Currently, using eBook apps such as iBooks and the Kindle app, readers can not only highlight text for themselves and save those highlights, but they can also turn on a feature that allows them to see what others reading the same book have highlighted. If this shared highlighting could be captured by a teacher, it could change the way a book is read, reviewed and discussed in class giving students a new voice in the discussion. Students could be asked to highlight quotes in texts and works of fiction that they found compelling, confusing, important or some other criteria could be used.