Blog Post

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 (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.

14 Responses to “Textbook Publishers Prepare for iPad, Murdoch Favors High Prices”

  1. There’s no way that textbook publishers would allow Apple to have a low-price model for textbooks. Note that Kindle titles on amazon tend to be 10-20% off the physical edition. (This is probably too expensive but way more than $9.99.)

  2. I don’t pretend to understand the factors affecting publishers, but I do know that I almost never buy full-priced books anymore – and I love books. There is so much good information available on the web (admittedly mostly non-fiction) and so many free or almost free books and references just a few clicks away in Apple apps, that the only books I am willing to buy are used books at steeply discounted prices. In this day of the web, I can no longer justify spending $15, and often much more depending on the book, for just one book. And it doesn’t matter if the book is made of paper or electrons; I’ll usually forego it if it’s more than a few dollars. I already have thousands of books and I can almost always wait until I locate what I want in an inexpensive or free digital format. This has been a significant modification of my book buying habits and it surprised me when I noticed it. I understand, though, that I’ve changed because the web has altered permanently my perception of information. If publishers ever identify ways to manage (profitably) the new reality and offer eBooks at truly reasonable rates, say $5.00 (which I’d hope wouldn’t be overly difficult as paper and warehouses are not required), I would likely spend hundreds of dollars to obtain large numbers of eBooks. I’m sorry about what this means for bookstores, but I’m no longer willing to pay thousands of dollars for those same books in paper versions; I want vastly more for less and with the convenience of digital storage, search, etc. Sadly, with the new developments reported here, I’m even less likely to buy paper or digital books at full price. Publishers, are you listening? I’ll turn over plenty of money to you, but you have to make it worth it to me in light of all the other easily accessible, inexpensive, and rapidly increasing, information on the web.

  3. I completely agree with Liam. I and friends were on Limewire etc…. And when ITunes came out it gave me better quality, a better conscience, less grief waiting for songs, and all for $.99/per….which everybody feels/felt they could afford. Paul — you’re wrong on this one.

  4. Agree pre-2004 all my song came from file sharing and played nicely with MusicMatch then I got my first iPod and with it iTunes.

    And is amazing how much I spent on it each year. I don’t even have a file sharing software on my mac anymore.

  5. I think a lot of people miss the point on the Macmillan deal. What they wanted was the ability to price books higher at the time of initial release (especially during the hardback phase) so as not to interfere with the cream of the market. Then, when the work is older and comes out in paperback, the price slides down to a fraction of the paperback price. Then, when the book is old and remaindered, the digital price can slide still lower.

    This makes perfect sense as a sales model: you don’t want the cheaper digital version to take sales from your more expensive versions while they last. Eventually, however, the digital version can be quite cheap.

    You can see this in action today at Amazon, where digital versions of older paperbacks that have dropped to $9.99 are priced at $6.39 or so. Ten years down the line, that digital version might drop to $1.99 and still be making money for the author and publisher long after a paperback would even be in print.

    The real destruction here is of used book stores. Digital content will destroy them.

    • So what is the profit margin on a hardback vs. softback book? Must cost a lot to print books, but like anything, the more you print the cheaper it is.

      A lot are going to go kicking and screaming into the digital age. They don’t want to give up their monopolies and huge profit margins.

  6. I find it fascinating that, ten years ago, everyone I knew got most of their music via file sharing services. Everyone was sharing music illegally. No one was buying.

    Today, most people I know are in the habit of going to the iTunes store to get their music. They don’t even consider the more clandestine methods!

    Apple’s rock-solid content distribution model helps of course. The seamless integration of iTunes with iPod takes the pain out of getting your music onto your MP3 player. But the (mostly) low prices help even more.

    I’ve owned ebook readers for some years now and they’ve left me cold and dissatisfied. I have books in different formats that only work on some readers, books that are DRM’d to the eyeballs and books that contain rich graphics (charts and illustrations) which NONE of my expensive greyscale eInk eBook readers render with much competency. Oh – and they’re always over-priced. Really terribly over-priced.

    I can’t wait to see what Apple does to this industry.

  7. Bottom line CDs too expensive, Digital media the new now. People / companies need to move with the times. Where this has all failed is purely down to people pirating and copying music illegally. Digital music, not itunes made that easy but that was not Apple doing, if anything they help stem it. If people just didn’t copy everything and bought more of it then this would be less of an issue. If digital music can get cheaper then it would be likely be sold more of. Its here to stay though and if people continue to pirate and not buy their music we all will end up paying for it elsewhere, either through lack of talent, through less investment or through missing out somewhere else.

  8. “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.”

    LOL. Take a look at how much money the industry has lost over the past decade. Now look at the profits Apple has made just from iPod sales. The iTunes store is small payback for creating and profiting handsomely off the most popular music piracy device of all time.