Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Macmillan Makes a Play in Electronic Textbooks

The blogosphere is beginning to buzz about Macmillan's announcement of its Dynamic Books publishing platform for electronic, digital textbooks, to launch in August.

It came to my attention Monday (22 Feb 2010) via the Chronicle of Higher Education. The news was reported in Publisher's Weekly the same day; the New York Times story is datelined the day before, but the URL suggests the Grey Lady might have fiddled with her timecard.

The launch, timed to coincide with the rampup to Fall term 2010 on campuses everywhere, will be modest: 100 titles. This is a small dent, but in a non-trivial market: there were 17.7 million college students in the Fall of 2006, according to the National Association of College Stores ... and the average student spends $700-1000 annually on course materials, according to Turn The Page: Making College Textbooks More Affordable (a May 2007 report of the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance). Multiplying the apples times the oranges, that's more than $12 billion any way you slice or section, in a U.S. book market pegged at "between $23.7 billion and $28.5 billion" according to statistics from the Book Industry Study Group,, and others cited on "Non-trivial" is something of an understatement here.

The Turn The Page... report suggests that "many of today’s instructors envision an environment in which they can assemble instructional materials from a variety of print, electronic, and video sources for their students, rather than choose all materials from any one publisher." Anybody who has purchased a professor-assembled, photocopied "reader" is familiar with this concept ... it was in vogue when I was an undergraduate, and that was decades ago.

But Dynamic Books goes some distance further along the social media path. The big news here is that professors will have the ability and incentive to customize published textbooks to their particular classes, including the option to add their own material, edits, and illustrations. That is to say, the published textbook will be a framework on which a professor can stamp her own pedagogical mark. How cool is that? The books will be readable on laptops, iPhones and the soon-to-launch Apple iPad. They'll be cheaper than printed books, as e-book editions tend to be.

Publishers like this concept because it cuts used books out of the loop (in an earlier post, I mentioned this point made by Dan Poynter at the SF Writer's Conference this year, in reference to e-books generally), and textbook authors will see similar (if not quite so lucrative) benefit too. Students who buy textbooks like the lower prices (lower even than used books) and the portability implicit in many-books-one-device content delivery. In Macmillan's offering, professors not only get to teach as they wish, but have a financial incentive as well. As the CHE article put it: "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."

In my professional incarnation I've been involved with Project Bamboo for the last two years or so. In wide-ranging discussions around multi-institutional support for arts & humanities scholarship there's been a lot of interest in "crowdsourcing," (where distributed groups or communities contribute to a large project in small increments -- the Wikipedia thing, though Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales finds the term "incredibly irritating"). At the same time, faculty whose long years of study and peer-reviewed authority are primary assets, the ability to measure and validate the reliability of information is a major concern.

It may be that the facultysourcing enabled by Dynamic Books hits that nail right on the head.

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