Apple's e-textbook push earns mixed grades

People in educational publishing say Apple's foray into e-textbooks is good for the industry -- but good luck to Apple

Ask people in educational publishing about Apple's foray into e-textbooks, and you'll hear a consistent message: It's good for all of us -- and good luck to Apple.

It's good for e-textbooks in general because "Every time Apple enters a market, that market gets attention," as Dan Rosensweig, CEO of textbook-rental firm Chegg, puts it. Widespread availability of e-textbooks on the iPad could help alert a lot of students, teachers, and parents who didn't know otherwise that such things exist.

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And authoring tools like the just-released iBooks Author Mac OS X application could help raise expectations about what's possible in such texts -- things like interactivity, multimedia, and personalized content. "This could be where innovation in publishing comes from," says Sarah Rotman Epps, a senior analyst at Forrester Research.

Epps points out that there's no lack of digital content for schools; there are thousands of apps and e-texts available now. But much of that content wasn't optimized for digital; it's often the replica of a print original with a few digital enhancements. iBooks Author could help change that. In the process, it could also enable a new generation of developers who are currently locked out of the education publishing market. "This democratizes production while it centralizes distribution," Epps said.

But if Apple's announcement worries existing e-textbook companies such as Chegg, Kno, or Inkling, they're not letting on. Those companies largely target the higher education market, while Apple seems to be focusing on elementary and high schools (at least at first). And the textbook market for K-12 schools is very different from its college counterpart.

For one thing, at the college level professors can pick and choose the texts they want to use. But in K-12, teachers don't have that freedom of choice. They have to use the texts their state and local school boards approve. And that approval process -- combined with the sometimes cumbersome process of publishing in the iBooks ecosystem -- could make it a hassle for publishers to adopt Apple's new platform. (One publisher we spoke to said that Apple's 30/70 revenue split with publishers -- customary for magazines and apps -- remains in force for textbooks.)

More important, for Apple's e-textbooks to succeed, there needs to be a critical mass of iPads in K-12 classrooms -- and that isn't there yet. Apple might boast that 1.1 million iPads are in use in K-12 nationwide. But those tablets are divided unevenly among the country's more than 130,000 schools. And while Apple might boast about the low price of its textbooks, schools will still need to buy all of those iPads -- not an easy thing in a time of constricted school funding.

Education publishers point out that they need to be able to make their content usable on a variety of platforms -- not just the iPad. But the iBooks Author app won't enable them to do that. "I have to be device-agnostic," says Bethlam Forsa, executive vice president of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, one of the companies highlighted during Thursday's press event as one of Apple's iBooks textbook partners.

Chegg CEO Rosensweig says his company uses HTML5 for its e-textbooks, which allows it to use a variety of authoring tools. HTML5 also supports a range of multimedia features, which are then viewable on a variety of devices. You can't say the same thing about the iBooks format introduced Thursday, which is limited to the iPad. "The majority of devices out there certainly aren't iPads," he says, "and we need ubiquity across platforms."

And according to Inkling CEO Matt McInnis, iBooks Author isn't ideal for large-scale publishing companies. "It might be fine if the goal is to enable individuals to create e-books," said MacInnis, "But it's not an industrial-strength product."

This story, "Apple's e-textbook push earns mixed grades" was originally published by Macworld.

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