What makes digital textbooks a good bet?

For some time now we’ve known that the digital textbook market, or more broadly speaking the educational market as far as it pertains to digital publishing, is something of a case unto itself, with its own unique variables that make it, for many analysts, a more attractive long term proposition than other sectors.

So why is the digital textbook market different? Unsurprisingly, there are a number of reasons, most obviously the existence of a market that is essentially guaranteed to some degree (university students) but critically, the government support of initiatives behind the digitization of textbooks, which sets out clear timeframes for publishers, both print and digital, to get their content onto e-reading devices. This level of comprehensive support from the very top of government departments is something that no other vertical possesses, and the reasons for it have been aptly summarized by Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education:

”Do we want kids walking around with 50-pound backpacks and every book in those backpacks costing 50, 60, 70 dollars and many of them being out of date? Or, do we want students walking around with a mobile device that has much more content than was even imaginable a couple years ago and can be constantly updated? I think it’s a very simple choice.”

Digital textbooks are therefore naturally one of the areas that stand to benefit most from the migration to tablets /e-reading devices in general, both in terms of form factor and features. Alongside this, textbook publishers have benefited from creating new monetization models that fit the specific requirements of the market (something magazine publishers are still grappling with). In this sense, digital textbooks have a unique advantage over other sectors when it comes to implementing alternative pricing models because of the nature of educational print materials in the first place. Educational publishers can implement models that incorporate micro-transactions (for individual chapters) as well as textbook rental (e.g. owning a book for a single term). The jury is still out on whether the actual price-points associated with these almost entirely DRM driven models are competitive enough to push students away from traditional print editions to the extent digital will become the dominant platform, but the models themselves, of term-based ownership, of purchasing individual chapters and so on will remain (indeed, we’re seeing rental sales drive adoption moreso than outright purchases in some studies) and increasingly we’re seeing free initiatives, particularly amongst community colleges, that are helping to further cement digital textbook adoption rates.

Feature-wise, textbooks also stand as amongst the best examples of how tablet and e-reading technology can facilitate a better experience for all parties involved. Publishers can use multimedia content for a clear purpose (something many digital magazine publishers, in spite of the immense popularity of video content, have struggled with), particularly elucidating upon particular academic topics in such a way as to engage the student and visually clarify particularly complex processes in say, an electrical engineering textbook. Digital textbooks combine practical uses of multimedia integration with powerful methods of cloud synchronization, which allow for not only the ability to access a single textbook with notes and annotations the student has created on one device across multiple devices, but also as a tool for teachers and lecturers to gather data on how students are performing on various interactive parts of the textbook, how much of a particular chapter they’ve read and other useful metrics. This is highly important to educators across the board because it allows them to more clearly identify problem areas for particular students. In short, it’s a highly utilitarian and practical use of new technology, going beyond simple gimmicks.

But there are still issues that require work. Although good monetization methods are in place, publishers still need to address the concerns of students as they pertain to price-points for rented textbooks and individual chapters, which is currently an obstacle to adoption rates according to many surveys. Moreover, on the vendor side, the high cost both monetarily and in terms of time that rich text conversions entail can be problematic.

This ties into our own plans here at YUDU. What we aim to do with our cross-platform educational apps is essentially to bridge the gap between publisher, educator and student. The ability to bring all of these features (cloud synchronization, rich media and interactivity) under a single umbrella, whilst ensuring across-the-board platform agnosticity has been something that has generated some very positive feedback, interestingly, we’ve also found that allowing the publisher to use our self-publishing system alongside this is also very popular as it gives them full and direct control over pricing, publishing and enhancement of the books themselves. Moving forward, we feel this approach of combining feature-richness with a straightforward, user-friendly and well-supported platform for educational publishers to deliver these textbooks to the marketplace will continue to generate interest and appeal.

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