Friday, May 27, 2011

Textbooks -- moving beyond the "Gutenberg Bible"

Nature Education, in partnership with the California State University System (my employer), has announced a series of digital textbooks in college-level science. The first book in the series, Principles of Biology, is intended for biology majors and will be available September 1, 2011. It will be used at three CSU campuses in the fall.

Gutenberg's first books were reprints of the large handwritten bibles of the time. Today, traditional textbook publishers are offering machine readable versions of previously printed books and chapters. Nature's books promise to depart from tradition in the way they are created and distributed.

Nature's books will be "born digital" -- created from scratch by a group of scientists, instructors, artists, and interaction designers working together under the guidance of their editorial team. The first book will not be out until September, but it is undergoing extensive peer review by CSU faculty and is slated to include 175 interactive lessons and the usual supplementary material like test banks and PowerPoint presentations.

Nature's business model is also is also different. The biology book will retail for $49, which is cheap by the standards of the mainstream textbook industry. But that is not the big change. Students purchasing electronic versions of textbooks today typically gain access for a limited time, perhaps a year. Nature is proposing lifetime access to a continuously-updated book -- a textbook with an open-ended subscription.

They plan to sell direct to students through college book stores or sell site licenses to schools. But, if the subscription/books are as good as they sound in the press release, won't there be a general retail demand for them? Hey, I want one.

The textbook industry is ripe for change. There are a few dominant companies (including Nature’s parent company, MacMillan) with large sales forces, high printing and distribution costs, and bookstore markups. (Click the image above for a cost breakdown). These books from Nature may be game changers. Nature is a prestigious publisher, the CSU is a large textbook customer, and the access model and price are very attractive.

Nature is departing from the traditional textbook model by having a team of collaborators create a digital book from scratch and selling it as an ongoing subscription at a low price. If they can deliver, they may be the Aldine Press of our day. (Aldine's 15-16th century innovations included publishing small, portable books, punctuation like the period at the end of a sentence, and typography like italic text). Stay tuned for more when we get some hands-on experience with the biology book and interactive lessons.