Article: How Publishers Can Make Electronic Textbooks Successful


As it currently stands, electronic textbooks will never take off. Last month I wrote an article about this, discussing the pros and cons of using e-book readers such as the Amazon Kindle DX for college textbooks. There are many advantages to e-textbooks – read the article for a list – but there is one big, overwhelming con that will prevent widespread adoption – price.

Electronic textbooks might be cheaper than their traditional counterparts, but as long as they are more expensive than a used physical textbook less its resell value, which is what most students actually pay for textbooks, they can never become mainstream.

However, all this assumes that electronic textbooks will be a replacement for bound textbooks – but what if they actually become a supplement to them? As I pointed out in the article:

“With the drawbacks of Kindle textbooks, at this point they seem to be better suited as companions for regular textbooks than as replacements. The Kindle can go in the backpack to be carried around for quick reading and reference, but the regular hard-bound textbook can be still be used for serious studying and note taking.”

I believe that if publishers want electronic textbooks to take off, they need to start viewing them as a supplement to the paper version. More then that, they need to include them with the electronic version. What I’m suggesting is that publishers give away the electronic version of a textbook when a student buys the hard copy – for free.

Maybe this seems radical, but let me explain.

Having both types of textbook adds value and utility to each type. Not only do you have a ‘best of both worlds’ scenario where you can have both the portability and search ability of one with the color and ease of note-taking of the other, but they also directly compliment one another. For example, a student could use an e-book reader’s ability to search text to help them find something in the physical copy.

This extra value provides an incentive for students to buy new textbooks. Textbook publishers have always had to battle the used textbook market. The publisher is a monopolist – if you require a specific textbook you must get it from him – and so a markup is applied to textbook prices. The used textbook market helps subvert this markup, and in so doing cuts into the publisher’s profits.

In the past, publishers have attempted to stay ahead of the used textbook market by making periodic changes to the book and releasing new editions. However, including electronic textbooks would give them a new and permanent differentiator – if a student wants the extra utility that the electronic textbooks provide, they have to buy new.

Once a textbook is in electronic format, it costs the publisher practically nothing to distribute. There is a huge discrepancy between the cost to the publisher and the value for the consumer. For the price of a few cents of bandwidth, a publisher can entice a several hundred dollar textbook purchase.

Now, there are a few potential snags. The main one involves publishing rights – authors and institutions will likely demand an additional premium for their work to be published electronically.

This is a bullet that publishers are just going to have to bite. They should be able to work out a pretty good deal for themselves though, just like they do for traditional textbook publishing. After all, most Professors must publish with a certain frequency in order to keep their jobs, and usually the only way to get published is to go through these textbook companies. This gives the publishers all the power in the negotiation.

The second snag has to do with the maturity of e-books themselves. While the Kindle is the most successful e-book reader, it is far from ubiquitous and there are many competing formats.

Textbook publishers are going to have to decide which e-book platforms they want to publish on to reach the most students. If an electronic textbook is in a format that a student can’t access, then it is of no value to them. Eventually the market should start to converge around a few preferred formats, but until then the best strategy is to offer a version of an electronic textbook in as many formats as possible.

Electronic textbooks have the promise to be a huge boon to the profits of the textbook industry. They just need to pick up the pace and embrace this new publishing technology. And, they need to realize that the best price for these textbooks in this new medium is free.

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