New publishing model?

The promise of low price ($15) multimedia textbooks may seem right around the corner, but I wonder. My wife and I have been participants in the industry for 5 editions (Integrating Technology for Meaningful Learning). We have split from Cengage over what the book of the future might look like. We have been working for a couple of years on a concept that would drastically downsize the “book” book into a Primer and move content best provided on the web to the web. Seemed like a great idea to us – what sense does it make to argue that teachers should engage their students with technology from a book?

Here was a major concern. A good proportion of the online content was intended to be tutorials, project examples, etc. With so many great online tools available, why not generate tutorials for the tools and then encourage the future teachers to work with these tools. Locating such examples and tutorials online already is pretty easy. Why not offer something more and organize similar content and tie it together with a rationale and related issues teachers need to consider? It appears that one of the major issues is permissions. We expected the publisher to take care of this. How could we? It is not that companies producing the tools we describe would be concerned. You write about and explain how to use the products you want to convince teachers to use. Free promotion. You complain about things in blog posts. The issue is really the time to access the necessary parties. Lawyer time is expensive and the margin on what has long been a successful book in a small market is not enough.

We may still do the Primer – we wrote that material so we know the text is ours. We may offer the online material to any interested educator as a non-commercial resource like all of the other free online stuff. However, a “text” book full of text and a few images is certainly not what the Apple folks offered as a demo. For that, you need a large and expensive group generating the content or you have the lawyers to worry about the permissions.

Many who assume the Apple announcement is a dream for self-publishers and small publishing companies may think my reaction, while based on experience with a major publishing company, is unique or extreme. I quote a very similar description from another experienced writer below.

 But it is important to realise one thing: if you are going to make a textbook look pretty you need pictures and where are they going to come from? Take it from me, using a picture in a textbook is a big copyright deal and a big pain in the neck. How would a self-publisher organise the permissions? It really takes a big chunk out of the transaction efficiency Apple is providing. The publishers know that this alone will protect them from that competition unless, of course, an easy to access repository becomes available (and it may already be except I don’t know about it).

My concern is the bar for embedded video, interactive multimedia games and tasks, music, etc. will actually be too costly for most companies at the $15 price point. Note that Apple is not taking the risk here – they fund a couple of demo projects, but the publishing companies must meet this price point, pay for the embedded media, and give Apple a generous cut. Apple was able to position the music industry in a similar situation and they participated. I do see the price is creeping up to $1.29 now. Amazon provides a worthy counter weight, but new tunes are no longer 99 cents.

I think the $15 price point is great. It makes some sense that the cost should go down because the closed environment of the iPad means you cannot pass your $15 book on. Still I would think this would translate to about  $45 if I understand the resale frequency of college textbooks. There are few $45 textbooks now on the market and these books are the target because of lack of “informative” multimedia. If the $15 book of the type displayed works, it will have to be on volume and this will mean few publishers will remain. Companies such as Pearson are betting big and getting in early just like they did with standardized tests. Perhaps this is a stock recommendation – your call.

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