Friday, April 03, 2009

Electronic Textbooks

There's an article in this week's issue of Nature on The textbook of the future.

Most of the article is about a Kindle version of science textbooks.
Another drawback of current e-readers is that they have small black-and-white displays, just a little larger than 9 by 12 centimetres. This makes them unsuited to most science textbooks, which typically have large pages and colourful graphics. "The market is not likely to expand until the e-readers improve," says Hegarty.
Publishers are experimenting with ways of delivering their textbooks electronically (e.g. CourseSmart) but there are still problems to be solved.

Competing ideas, such as Wiki's that replace textbooks, have a long way to go before they become a threat to the textbook market [Wikibooks: Biochemistry]. Besides, there are other problems that need to be solved.
For now these free textbooks remain a cottage industry, says Esposito. Wikipedia-like volunteer efforts are much better suited to self-contained modules that are small enough for an individual to see through from A to Z. But a textbook demands a coherent overall structure and coordination between sections. That is why creating one has always been a major undertaking, demanding long-term commitments by publishers — who need to make a profit — and by authors who usually want to be paid for their effort.

Still, perhaps 'free' and 'profitable' need not be a contradiction in terms. One group of veteran textbook publishing executives is trying to put open textbooks on a solid commercial footing. In 2007 they created Flat World Knowledge, based in Nyack, New York, and in January 2009 rolled out the first of the 21 textbooks they have in development so far. The texts are written by some 40 domain experts who will be paid 20% of royalties. The company also plans to make its content available via Kindle and other e-readers. All its content will be free to reuse for non-commercial purposes under a creative commons licence.

Eric Frank, Flat World's co-founder, says that the strategy is to attract greater use by giving the e-textbooks away — the initial targets are the high-volume texts for first-year students — and then look for profit from students' purchase of print-on-demand versions at $29.95 for black and white, and $59.95 for colour. Students can copy and use the electronic content in any way they wish, says Frank. "Cheap prices are the most effective digital-rights management," he says. "We want to avoid a digital-rights war with students." The company also hopes to make money by licensing its content to commercial companies, such as distance-learning outfits and course-management software firms.
I think there's going to be a way to make cheaper electronic versions of textbooks and still compensate the people who do all the work. I'm not sure how it's going to work but I'd love to put my book on a website where I can make changes quickly and get instant feedback from the users.


  1. I use a Sony Ebook reader for reading 4-5 hours a day and after getting accustomed to its limitations it does not do too bad as a mathematics, physics and engineering resource. For philosophy, anthropology and other sciences where there is not such a premium put on graphics it has completely replaced me carrying dead tree books.

    In 2 hours you can easily download 1000's of textbooks in full color in PDF format from the same places you can steal mp3's.

    In other words dead tree textbooks have maybe 10 years before they start a permanent decline.

  2. I think there's going to be a way to make cheaper electronic versions of textbooks and still compensate the people who do all the work. I'm not sure how it's going to work but I'd love to put my book on a website where I can make changes quickly and get instant feedback from the users.

    People have put textbooks, chapters of same, lecture notes, etc., on the Web, of course, and have received more and less valuable feedback from readers. The problem, as I'm sure you already suppose, is the compensation part.

    I bought the Kindle 2 not long ago and love it - it does the magic trick just like the printed version where it disappears and you are part of the author's world.

    While there are many textbooks for which it won't be suitable until it is available with a color display, some of its current capabilities could be very helpful to scholars, beginning with the fact that it can hold a thousand books of hundreds of pages each. It can also quickly perform word searches, and multiple bookmarks are easily set.

    On the contractual front, there is an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that Amazon, which sells the Kindle, can contract with you for your content, taking care of that little matter of compensation. The disadvantage is that there are far fewer authors of scholarly works at this point who have authorized electronic versions of their works than have arranged to make them available in printed form.

  3. I got the Kindle 2 with my tax money, and have not regretted it. I've read more fiction now than I have in a long time (For the last 3-4 years, I've almost exclusively devoured non-fiction), and the Kindle Store is too easy to use. I have Coyne WEIT and another book on Time (heard on the SciAm podcast) in my queue to buy, along with an electronic version of "The Physics of Superheroes" to add to my paper copy. Having some reference books in such a portable form has been a bit useful at school (easy to look up something when a student asks), although I haven't used it too much lately.

    If they can solve the problem of portable color screens that last (in display life and battery life), then I'd gladly try the hassle of making sure the books called up are the correct ones over the classroom sets we have now. Eventually, I think that electronic forms like this will be the majority, and maybe then idiots like the Texas SBOE won't be able to damage the country as they are trying to do.

  4. Does the energy and money to run a Kindle [in the certain amount of time the average kindle user uses the kindle in its life time] outweigh the energy and money spent on making the amount of books the average user stores on the kindle?