Whatever happened to e-textbooks?

I wrote a series of posts in 2011 reflecting on the future of textbooks and how I thought they would evolve. I predicted that textbooks would not be supplanted by ‘free’ internet resources but that paper textbooks would disappear in favour of e-books. Almost 5 years on, how did I do? Well, textbooks have certainly survived and we hear less and less about how you can learn things simply by drawing on materials on the internet. But they certainly haven’t become e-books and paper versions of texts continue to dominate, even in areas like computer science.  This survey suggests that students prefer paper books to electronic books.

Why has this happened? Textbooks are the obvious e-book. You rarely read a text in sequence and you access material randomly. You often want to search and link to other resources.  As I said in this post, e-textbooks have huge potential to provide a richer learning experience than paper books.

So what has stopped the development of e-textbooks. I think there are three  factors that are most significant:

  1.  General issues with retention from screen reading compared to paper.  This is not just a textbook issue but for reasons that are unclear, we seem to be better at remembering things when we read on paper rather than on a screen. It’s certainly true for me and I now rarely read non-fiction books as e-books. This is obviously a big deal for students as they use textbooks to help them pass exams and texts so having to obviously want to avoid having to work harder to learn.
  2. The Kindle standard. Amazon dominate e-book publishing and, although there are much richer e-book standards, if you’re not published on Kindle then you are not a serious -e-book player. But the Kindle standard has been designed for cheap, portable devices being used to read novels without illustrations, equations, tables, breakout boxes or other features that are standard in textbooks. Therefore, converting a textbook to work properly on a Kindle takes a lot of work as a simple conversion ends up with a complete mess if your book isn’t just sequential text. In the latest edition of my text, we decided it just wasn’t worth the effort and don’t publish on Kindle.
  3. User perceptions that digital resources should be ‘free’ or at least much cheaper than their paper equivalents.  Internet giants such as Facebook and Google have defined the internet business model to be an advertising model rather than a paid-content model so users are reluctant to pay – I am regularly asked for free digital copies of my book as if somehow the only cost in producing a book is that of paper and distribution.  However. selling adverts around a textbook isn’t ever going to be viable.

    When readers are willing to pay for an e-book, they want to pay less as, obviously, there are no printing or material costs involved. However, if you want to produce an e-book that’s a better learning resource than a paper book, you need to do a lot more work – to build in links, simulations, social networking, multi-media etc. I looked into this and reckoned that producing an e-book that would take advantage of the affordances of the Internet that I discussed in this post would take at least 3 times as much effort as simply producing sequential text. To cover the cost of an e-book that’s more than a PDF, the price would have to be considerably higher than a paper book. I don’t think that there’s a hope that people will pay for this so it simply won’t happen.

There are other reasons too. Publishers are increasingly squeezed financially and are unwilling to take risks and  textbooks are not recognised in the university funding model so academic writers are discouraged from spending time experimenting with new approaches to publishing;

I’d like to see e-textbooks as I described in my 2011 post and I’d like to create this kind of learning resource. But if this is going to happen, we need a reward model for content creators that recompenses them for the work involved and for Amazon to develop a new technical standard for e-publishing.  The Kindle model will certainly evolve but I see no recognition of the fact that high-quality digital content (either created or curated) is expensive.  Until that happens, then I really don’t think we’ll see any real change.



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