Publishers Invest In iPad e-Textbooks Despite Uncertain Future

Two major textbook publishers, Pearson and McGraw-Hill, announced today that they've invested substantially in a company that creates iPad-specific interactive texts. The company, Inkling, believes that it delivers a better comprehensive textbook 'experience' that takes much better advantage of the multimedia capabilities of a modern tablet as opposed to offering little more than a duplicated physical text. Inkling isn't wasting tasting—it currently intends to have at least 100 titles available by the fall.

"This is not some pilot program on the part of the publishers, but a real commitment to build their business forward,” said Matt MacInnis, Inkling’s chief executive.

The print magnates aren't exactly willing to admit that the e-textbook versions might threaten their own dead-tree products. Gary June, Pearson's chief marketing officer in North America, was only grudgingly willing to admit that Inkling's products might take textbooks "to a slightly higher level."

The presentation is sexy, we have to give them that.

One of the advantages to Inkling, at least in theory, is that it'll allow students to buy a textbook at a ~35 percent discount compared to print, rent specific chapters, or even access supplementary materials. As the New York Times notes, experiments with online textbook have yielded mixed results thus far. The paper avoids examining why this might be so; we think Inkling may well struggle to succeed unless the eTextbook market is structurally changed.

No Free Lunches

Currently, the lower cost of using an eTextbook rather than a printed version is obliterated by the many and varying restrictions different sites place upon their content. We spot-checked titles at Chegg, eCampus, DigitalTextbooks, and CourseSmart and found that while policies for a given title tend to be consistent across websites, there's enormous variation in terms of what rights the 'purchaser' actually holds.

CourseSmart states that "Downloadable eTextbook subscriptions cannot be returned or canceled and are not refundable."  Online eTextbooks can only be returned "if you have not viewed or printed any more than 20% of the text." Readers who view the access code for supplementary textbook materials are also out of luck--that's against the site's policy. Even the long-established eCampus positions eTextbooks oddly compared to their printed brethren. Essentials of Corporate Finance, is available to rent (130 days) for $59.35, can be purchased (used) for $120, or "purchased" online from CourseSmart for $102. Note that this doesn't actually buy a permanent copy of the book; it simply extends the subscription length to 180 days.

CourseSmart itself, meanwhile, notes that certain textbooks can't be downloaded and accessed while offline. DigitalTextbooks, meanwhile, includes information on whether or not a textbook can be read aloud, copied/printed, or permanently retained post-purchase. Again, we wonder—when did "purchase" become a synonym for rent?

The rise of mobile computing and downloadable textbooks should have been an opportunity for students to personally annotate and retain the textbooks they found most valuable indefinitely. Given the trainwreck of current eText rentals, it's no wonder that results have been mixed.

Those of you who graduated college ~10 years ago probably remember the impact the Internet had on the used textbook market as sites like eCampus cut out the middleman and passed discounts directly on to students.  At this point, the publishers seem to have come out ahead. Because there's no such thing as a 'used' digital edition, publishers can continue selling texts at higher prices while simultaneously slashing inventory and printing costs.

Inkling's approach to eTexts definitely focuses on including useful supplementary material but we'll be surprised if the eTextbook market takes off as a whole before these rifts are addressed. Nobody we've ever heard of likes the idea of paying $100+ for a non-paper version of a book they lose access to in just six months, no matter how fancy the bonus material.