Are Textbooks Obsolete? An Education in the Impact of Electronic Textbooks

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Overcoming the Challenges
Lyman notes that the approach at most schools seems to be making instructors aware of e-options and allowing them to make a choice. "In my mind this is the best way for institutions to handle it right now," he says.

It is a change that will likely come over time, not unlike other transitions, Williams points out. Reel-to-reel films and slide projectors, for instance, have become virtually obsolete with the advent of PowerPoint and access to online media.

As Kranenburg noted, though, the multiplicity of various formats and options presents some challenges. "We have to really look at what device they're going to actually use to consume this content," says Eckler. "The fact that you've got Kindles out there doesn't mean that every student in every university should have a Kindle."

Existing print textbooks, he says, are laid out in a two-page format designed to lay open so that both pages are visible and easily scanned, back and forth. When accessed in other forms, obvious design and layout issues emerge.

"What's going to make all of this click is the publisher that is first to market with a flexible solution that can provide a platform for the best of both worlds," says Eckler. "If there isn't a platform for that, the system is just going to plod along." But, he adds, "The good news is that the publishers we're working with are heavily vested in finding these solutions." The ultimate goal, he says, is "flexibility combined with control."

And that, it appears, is what the future holds-not just for textbooks but for general consumer content as well.

The Future
"The key to all of this is the relationship between the publishers of content and the recipients of the content," says Eckler. What publishers are concerned about, he says, is that "if they spend money to create premium content, [they want to be sure] that they're being adequately paid and compensated for that, balanced with the need of the next generation of students wanting access to all information at all times at the lower cost-in other words, free."

This same challenge exists outside the world of textbook publishing as well, of course-as the newspaper and magazine industry can attest. Still, the "train has left the station" as they say, and there is no turning back now. Textbooks may be just the beginning of the ebook evolution. Wiley is already experimenting with this format in other divisions such as professional and trade.

"We put virtually all of our frontlist on Amazon Kindle and through other ebook channels," says St. John. "We have more than 9,000 Wiley books available for Amazon Kindle." In addition, other lines are being offered online, with content sometimes available at no cost. "You can go onto our website, and a lot of the material is free," says St. John. Similarly, Wiley's site offers free how-to information. "It's less about selling books than about giving people a way to figure out how to do something; re-imagining the dummy experience for an online marketplace," he says.

Both of these sites, he says, are designed to be brand-building sites. The added benefits are that the sites help to sell more print books and drive traffic to build online advertising, "a component of our revised mission."

Yet despite this march toward digital, few believe that print will ever entirely go away. "Certainly, people will still want and need books," says Kranenburg. However, he adds, "I think there are increasing signs that print on demand will become much more popular and economical." Ultimately, he says, there will be a lot more choices for consumers of information. And that's a good thing.
Publishers are thinking about, and experimenting with, new ways to deliver content and new business models that bring value and benefit in innovative ways. Schools continue to respond to the changing needs of students who are increasingly comfortable with technology. What will the future hold? Who knows? But one thing is certain: These innovations are likely to continue to improve the textbook experience and information of all kinds.

Companies Featured in This Article


John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

McGraw-Hill Education

North Plains Systems, Inc.

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