• August 28, 2015

Format War Heats Up Among Publishers of Electronic Textbooks

Major textbook publishers are firing the first shots in a format war over their electronic editions, with several players hoping to control distribution to students and to make used textbooks extinct in a future they see as increasingly digital.

Macmillan Publishers plans to announce on Monday its entry in the battle: an unusual publishing platform for electronic textbooks that it hopes to lure other publishers to use as well (in exchange for a cut of their sales). And to entice faculty members to assign the books, the company will even pay some of them (if the professors enhance the volumes).

The system, called DynamicBooks, lets any professor make a customized version of one of the company's existing titles. That means that chemistry professors can take one of the company's chemistry textbooks, rewrite some parts, add their own papers or chapters, or embed videos or homework questions they've created. Any passage added or changed is clearly labeled as not part of the original book, so students know what is original and what is customized—a concession that was made to textbook authors.

Professors who customize a textbook have a chance to make some extra money. For each customized copy that a student buys, the professor who contributed the material gets a dollar. That could add up if a professor's retooled book becomes popular and is assigned by professors at other colleges.

The titles will underprice some competitors, and most of the 20 textbooks in the pilot version of DynamicBooks will be sold at less than half the price of the printed versions.

The effort joins a quickly growing list of souped-up textbook systems aimed at upending the traditional business model in the textbook industry. Last year, McGraw-Hill unveiled its own format for enhanced e-textbooks, called Connect. John Wiley & Sons recently started a similar line of books called WileyPlus.

The publishers argue that their new platform strategy makes textbooks better educational tools because of all the new interactive features. As Rik Kranenburg, McGraw-Hill's president for higher education, professional, and international publishing, put it recently: "Software and content meld together to provide instructional experience, and that is where we find we will add value."

A Kind of Kickback?

All of the new systems offer advanced features and services that go beyond simply displaying the pages of existing textbooks on a screen. They mix multimedia, online testing tools, and social-media features that publishers hope will persuade professors to assign them and students to choose them over printed versions.

One consequence is that they make it difficult or impossible for a student to resell the book to someone else. Most of the new e-books self-destruct after a set period of time, say a semester or a year, to prevent resales.

Another feature, likely to frustrate some users, is that these platforms have their own interfaces and formats that the companies control. Advanced e-textbooks from one company are not compatible with other companies' platforms, and each system has its own quirks and a learning curve for students and professors.

Professors are telling the companies they want a standard, so they have to learn just one tool that will work for all the courses they teach. That's why Macmillan says it plans to invite its competitors to place their books in the DynamicBooks system for professors who want to use only that interface.

"It's not just Macmillan books that will go in this," said Clancy Marshall, general manager of DynamicBooks, a subsidiary of the publishing company. Other publishers can upload a digital copy of one of their books, and the company will place it in the system, in exchange for an 18-percent markup that will go to Macmillan, she said. No competitor has yet agreed to participate, but they have not yet been briefed on the specifics because details of the project have been kept a secret until now, says Ms. Marshall.

Macmillan is not the first publisher to allow professors to customize its textbooks. Flat World Knowledge Inc., an upstart publisher that gives textbooks away online but charges for printed versions and study guides, has the feature as well, but it does not offer a financial incentive to professors to make improvements to the books.

Paying professors a dollar per book could be seen as a kind of kickback. But Ms. Marshall defends the practice, saying that only professors who make significant changes in a book will qualify for payment. The company has devised a list of 10 types of changes that qualify, and professors must do at least six of them for their changes to be considered significant. "We don't want to just be bribing instructors to use this," she said.

But the creative plan shows how competitive the e-textbook market is becoming, and suggests that, in the short term, professors and students will have a confusing abundance of options.


1. g8briel - February 22, 2010 at 01:08 pm

I see a lot of promise is digital books and their ability to integrate multimedia, however, the self destruction component is a huge problem. Why should students be required to buy textbooks they won't be able to refer back to later because it has dissolved into the digital mists? Consumers of ebooks should be concerned about this, especially since it puts a lot of power over the delivery of content into the hands of publishers, whose interests are not necessarily the same as those in academia.

I think it would be better for professors to use existing course management software and existing scholarly articles or online modules to build their own "textbooks." Many already do. Unfortunately, it seems to only happen in higher level courses. We would do well to introduce students to real scholarly communication throughout their college careers.

2. srvanhook - February 22, 2010 at 01:34 pm

A few telling phrases: "control distribution to students and to make used textbooks extinct"; "Paying professors a dollar per book could be seen as a kind of kickback"; "We don't want to just be bribing instructors to use this" -- on top of self-destructing texts.

Of course, this will sound great to the publishers who won't have to make a pretense of revising textbooks to squash the secondary market. But count on clever students to sniff out an unfairness and hack it.

3. dwlewis - February 22, 2010 at 04:56 pm

It is of course the case that Macmillan is trying to capture both studnets and faculty inside their textbook engine. Wiley, Pearson, Elsevier, and all other large textbook publishers are after the market as well and this is the path they all see. And they need to do in the used market to make this work.

The much better solution from the university and studnet prespective is to have the university run the textbook engine and purchase the content from publishers, or acquire it from open sources, like Connexions, or create it themselves. The university engine could have all of the same functionality of the Macmillan product, but it would be one system for students and faculty to use and one system for the university to support, and it would be integreted into the course management system.

The goal from the university perspective should be "fictionless remix" of textbook content. The Macmillan product moves toward this goal, but not very far.

4. opus57 - February 23, 2010 at 11:24 am

Aside from the faculty/publisher/kickback/bribe/desperate grasp to stay relevant perspectives, I'll add my growing concern that etexts/books as they are now emerging couldn't be less accessible if the publishers actually tried. How do I now "rip" an ebook, and now at what cost when there is video, interactive elements etc all designed without regard for accessibility.

I have calls into Pearson and McGraw Hill, and I'm working my way through our entire bookstore talking with publishers on how they intend to make their content - especially the customized on the fly content - accessible.

5. greentextbooks - February 25, 2010 at 06:56 pm

Great info I would also suggest buying used textbooks at GreenTextbooks.org
Save Money, Save The Planet

GreenTextbooks.org specializes in the recycling of textbooks, DVDs, CDs. Buying used textbooks not only saves you money, but cuts down on greenhouse gases caused by the manufacturing of new textbooks.
With GreenTextbooks.org you're not only saving trees, you are saving some green. http://www.GreenTextbooks.org

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