What Apple's textbook vision means for publishers

In New York yesterday Apple announced their big play for the textbook market. It consists of three elements: a new iBooks Author tool, an update to the iBooks app, and an update to the iTunes University app.

iBooks Author

This is a completely new app for Mac OS, with a fair number of similarities with Apple’s KeyNote app for building presentations. It’s clearly designed with simplicity of use in mind, and allows users to build well presented books in a simple way. The focus of the announcement was on textbooks but the app can clearly be used for other types of content as well.

Content created with this tool can only be consumed through the iBooks app on an iPad or other iOS device, although it also provides the option to export to PDF (losing any interactive features) or to plain text (losing everything but the unformatted text).

iBooks

The existing iBooks app is updated to support books produced by the iBooks Author tool, which can include interactive diagrams and custom HTML widgets; also user-generated notes and highlights which can be synced through iCloud and exported as flashcards. There’s also a new section of the store dedicated to textbooks.

iTunes U

Another update to an existing app, the updated iTunes U expands the media types that can be bundled as a course, supports progress tracking, and allows the course creator to send notifications to students using the course.

Currently all content is free, although Apple haven’t given any guarantees that it’ll remain that way.

Apple’s vision

It’s easy to see how Apple intends this set of apps to be used. The Author tool will make it easier for a much wider group of people to create textbook content, making iBooks a key resource for students. Educators can assemble their course materials through iTunes U, including links to required textbooks in iBooks. A generation of students – and the institutions educating them – suddenly find that an iPad is an essential study tool. And anyone who wants to create that content will need a desktop or laptop Mac to run the Author tool as well as an iPad or other Apple mobile device to test it on.

The huge potential upside for Apple here is the boost this could give to hardware sales; if their strategy takes off, that will be vastly greater than the 30% revenue cut on textbook sales through iBooks.

It’s far from certain that it will play out this way though. School administrators will baulk at providing students with iPads as standard school equipment; even at university level, few educators will want to provide course materials in a form that’s only accessible to those of their students who own Apple equipment. Factor in possible IP complications and piracy concerns and Apple have their work cut out for them.

What does this mean for publishers?

iBooks Author is not designed as a specialist tool for publishing professionals – it’s for the everyman. It’s easy to get going with it and straightforward to use. People no longer need training in specialist software tools to be able to produce great looking content; nor do they need to pay expensive licence fees. For all those reasons, Author will no doubt be a huge boon to a great many people.

However, professionals will find it frustratingly feature-light compared to existing creation tools. It’s also much more suitable for creating content from scratch than for re-purposing existing content. In any case, publishing houses are (and should be!) very reluctant to tie themselves in to a tool that restricts their content to a single distribution channel, on a single OS – particularly when that leaves them paying Apple 30% on all sales.

Textbook publishers will doubtless experiment with putting their content on iBooks, but will be wary of lock-in; even Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, one of Apple’s launch partners for the new apps, was quoted in the press emphasising the need to not restrict their content just to the iPad. As with magazines and other print content, the suspicion is that Apple’s game plan leaves them as the sole point of contact between authors and consumers, gradually marginalising publishers.

And with the Author tool, Apple don’t need to rely on the big publishers to fill iBooks and iTunes U with content; they’re hoping that individuals and small-scale content creators will swarm to the new tools. Many of those creators have previously been barred from publishing by the cost, and will be delighted to get their content out to the public at all; they’ll care much less that it’s only available through Apple’s ecosystem.

So where does that leave publishers? While these tools are focused on the textbook market, the same question applies more widely, to any publishers of books with richly formatted content: childrens’ books, cookery books, coffee-table picture books, and many more. They need to be able to deliver cross-platform; they need to be able to stand out from what may be a sudden influx of self-published content; they need their content to be easily discoverable by users who may not be searching for their brand specifically. They need to be able to charge for their content. They want a workflow that fits well with existing print workflows. And they need to not end up producing each publication repeatedly, once for each of the many formats and distribution channels now available.

For the serious players, this makes apps a still more appealing option, particularly if the app can be rolled out across multiple platforms. In the absence of any clearly dominant textbook platform on Android, the app route can provide consistency of experience across platforms and a lasting channel of communication with users. There are ways to publish to apps that avoid Apple’s 30% revenue cut (such as Yudu’s dual subscription system :-)). The app needs to be easily discoverable, but publishers have the marketing clout to achieve that, through tie-ins to print products or direct targeting of relevant educators. Since iTunes U courses can link to iOS apps, publishers can even get users through Apple’s eco-system without getting locked into it.

Apple’s announcement is great news for students and consumers, and will allow many more people to produce and consume digital content. It will further boost tablet ownership (already in rude health!) and ups the standards for what a digital book should be able to do. However, it should be a danger sign to publishers – if they stay still they’ll find they get increasingly squeezed out. The big winners will be those who can rise to Apple’s challenge and succeed in innovating aggressively with their digital strategy – while managing to achieve a good return on that investment.

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