Textbook Publishers Prepare for iPad, Murdoch Favors High Prices


The Wall Street Journal has reported that major textbook publishers have made deals with ScrollMotion Inc, in an effort to bring their textbooks to digital devices — including Apple’s upcoming iPad.

McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt K-12, Pearson Education and Kaplan Inc are all named as ScrollMotions’s latest partners (customers?). According to WSJ, ScrollMotion;

…has already developed applications for Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch. ScrollMotion takes digital files provided by publishers for the iPad, adapts them to fit on the device, and then adds enhancements such as a search function, dictionaries, glossaries, interactive quizzes and page numbers.

Pretty much all the things you’d expect from a a digital edu-book. Other cool features said to be included in the iPad deal include;

…applications to let students play video, highlight text, record lectures, take printed notes, search the text, and participate in interactive quizzes to test how much they’ve learned and where they may need more work.

Only in recent years have tablet devices begun to offer a glimpse at a practical digital realization of many educators long-harbored dreams. It helps enormously that they’re book-shaped (almost removing the physical and psychological barriers laptops and desktop computers put between people), and, sometimes, they’re almost affordable. Sadly, their adoption has been hampered by lackluster design. Until the iPad appeared, the Kindle offered the best digital textbook platform for students and teachers, although that’s not saying much; the Kindle is slow, features a greyscale-only screen and offers a cumbersome input method. Most importantly, the Kindle does only one thing. It does it competently, to be sure, but it doesn’t dazzle.

It’s no wonder then, that textbook publishers are paying close attention to the iPad; it not only improves on the Kindle in almost every way (perhaps with the exception of battery life) but introduces an input paradigm already very well established and understood by millions of iPhone or iPod Touch owners. Some critics decry a lack of multitasking and expansion; but consider the far more powerful reality that the iPad just happens to be the easiest-to-use computer ever made.

For a teaching/learning aid, on the trajectory of “intuitively easy” it lies closer to the humble pen and paper than to a TFT screen with a bunch of plastic keys and a pointing device.

Publishers were already dipping their toes into the digital book market, but only tentatively. Now the iPad is just around the corner, it looks like they’re losing those prior inhibitions and preparing to dive right in, though they’re trying not to sound too enamoured. Rik Kranenburg, president of McGraw-Hill’s higher education unit, said;

People have been talking about the impact of technology on education for 25 years. It feels like it is really going to happen in 2010. Nobody knows what device will take off, or which ‘killer app’ will drive student adaptations. Today they aren’t reading e-textbooks on their laptops. But ahead we see all kinds of new instruction materials.”

Prickly Issue

Of course, the issue of Price remains prickly. Amazon sold its e-books at $9.99, despite the wishes of publishers who wanted to charge a bit more. Now, following a bit of a public spat with publisher Macmillans, prices of some e-book titles on Amazon.com (and, presumably, international Amazon sites) are beginning to change. Amazon maintains they set book prices at $9.99 to make it fair for consumers. Cynicism, on the other hand, offers an alternative reason, that includes the phrases “loss leader” and “market dominance.” I’ll leave you to decide which is most likely.

Meanwhile, one man who never seems to give two hoots about what’s fair, right or even logical – Rupert “Mad Dog” Murdoch – took a break from hating on Google to declare that he supported (and preferred) Apple’s pricing model for titles in the iBookstore. In a News Corp. earnings call yesterday, Murdoch said,

We don’t like the Amazon model of selling everything at $9.99… We think it really devalues books and it hurts all the retailers of the hard cover books. We are not against [electronic] books. On the contrary we like them very much indeed. It is low cost to us… Apple in its agreement with us […] does allow for a variety of slightly higher prices.

It’s interesting to note that a lot of criticism and debate surrounding Apple’s foray into e-book sales has been negative. Many bloggers have grumbled bitterly about Apple “doing to the publishing industry what they did to the music industry” and even yesterday All Things Digital was making reference to the “scarring” experienced by the music industry.

But what exactly did Apple do to the music industry that was so terrible? Last time I checked, Apple pretty much saved it, bringing sanity to a media landscape that, before the iTunes store arrived, was a fragmented sales and accessibility nightmare, where prices and content distribution were so appallingly inconsistent across competing services/platforms that scores of customers resorted to illegal file sharing as the de facto method for getting music.

If Apple can bring to the publishing industry the same format homogeny, pricing stability and content distribution/management methods that it brought to the music industry, that’s good for everyone. Everyone except Amazon.

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