January 26, 2012
Last Thursday Apple announced a big textbook initiative. In case you’ve been living under a rock, the major products are:
- iBooks 2, a K-12 e-textbook store (Apple is shacking up with the Legacy Publishers.)
- iBooks Author, an application for writing interactive textbooks
Those looking for more detail should consult AllThingsD’s liveblogging of the event.
We hadn’t intended to weigh in on this topic; so much has already been written, and we were fine with sitting out the PR battle. But last night I was at a meetup where over a dozen people asked for our thoughts, and I decided it’d be simpler if I just wrote them down here. So here we go.
The mainstream press is wrong: Apple is not ‘throwing out the rulebook’.
There is a compelling narrative that’s repeatedly employed the mainstream press: “Tech people are smart. Old Industry people are dumb and slow. Tech people will blow up Old Industry.” Amazingly, this story works even when the tech company is partnering with the incumbents, as is the case here.
Apple’s presentation was fantastic: it was full of simple, plausible, appealing statements that help tell a great story, but fall down under analysis. Exhibit A:
The mainstream press is right: This is going to be huge because, hey, it’s Apple.
This announcement sucks the oxygen out of the room. From now on, Apple factors into every conversation about the future of textbooks. Companies without sufficient differentiation are toast.
Sure, there are tons of e-textbook stores out there, and iBooks is a me-too product. But it’s the slickest me-too product around. Apple’s presence will weed out the weak players and elevate the game of those that remain.
The edtech press is disappointed, but only because expectations were so high.
Audrey Watters has written an excellent—and very thorough, if not quite Unabomber-length—blog post dissecting the announcement. Her take: “What was missing was vision, ambition, ‘this changes everything.’”
Educators’ criticisms are valid—the $15 price point is a Kafkaesque joke; the reader is gorgeous but oddly lacking in social features; the EULA for iBooks Author is an abomination; and much of this looks uncomfortably like a multimedia CD-ROM from the 1990s—but that doesn’t change the fact that these are solid products. Apple has long been the education community’s favorite son, and the edtech press expected Apple to reveal novel insights and demonstrate a nuanced understanding of the space. Instead, they got the platitudes that the mainstream press adores.
Other firms that rely on the Legacy Publishers are scared.
The existing e-textbook storefronts attempted to get out in front of the story; in the days prior to the announcement, they acted as pundits, speculating about what Apple would release. The more that the iBooks bookstore encroached on their turf, the more distraught they were. (While iBooks textbooks are currently only for K-12, nobody is so naïve to think that Apple will remain there.) CourseSmart—a company that uses the word “Chillax” on its homepage without any sense of irony—issued a panicked, snarky press release titled “CourseSmart Welcomes Apple to the Party!”
What About Eleven Learning?
All companies, even ones as large as Apple, need to focus. In targeting the textbook space, Apple zeroed in on content creation and content consumption. In other words, the absolute beginning and end of the process. What’s missing is everything in between: editing, peer review, revisions, versioning, market awareness, adoption, and so on.
There are a few ways to handle the remaining tasks:
- Don’t do it. These books are doomed to only be used in the author’s own classroom.
- Spend a jillion dollars and do it the old-fashioned way, like the Legacy Publishers do. It’s been suggested that Apple’s app store approval team will vet the quality of textbooks. Depending on their sense of humor, educators will find this either hilarious or horrifying.
- Build tools that enable a community of academics to make their own superior materials. Wait, that’s what Eleven Learning does!
At Eleven Learning, our authors can write their books in our editing tools, or they can use Word, or LATEX, or heck, even iBooks Author. And students are welcome to read their textbooks in our Reader, or on a Kindle, or on a Nook, or, yes, in iBooks. Those aren’t our differentiators.
What separates Eleven Learning from everyone else is our laser focus on building a community that makes better content. That’s what we mean by “community-powered textbooks”, and it’s how we solve the Textbook Problem.
January 10, 2012
With the passing of Steve Jobs in 2011, there’s been much discussion of his famed Reality Distortion Field: his ability to convince others (and himself) of something through a mix of enthusiasm, bullying, and charismatic authority. Lots of companies attempt to conjure up their own RDF, but it’s only effective if the story has a kernel of truth to it—we have to want to believe it. Otherwise it’s just a big fat lie, and everyone sees right through it.
Check out these whoppers from the Legacy Textbook Publishers:
#1: They lie about prices
Many textbook sales reps cheerfully admit to telling professors the wholesale price the bookstore pays, not the retail price the student pays.
A couple of years ago the industry trade group bought the domain http://www.textbookfacts.org. (I won’t hyperlink to it because they let the domain expire, and someone’s turned it into a spam blog.) In it they justified the price of textbooks by noting that it was less than college students spent on cars. I’m not making this up.
And for decades, publishers have been lying about why their prices are high. As we noted in a previous post, publishers led everyone to believe that it was because of printing costs. While killing trees is a major expense when you’re selling $5 paperbacks, it’s a rounding error when you’re hawking $200 biology books. Now that students are demanding digital editions—and prices aren’t dropping—everyone is discovering the truth.
#2: They lie about being digital-ready
I once heard a Pearson exec speak at a conference. “Digital,” he proclaimed, “is not disruptive.” Well, I guess that’s true if you’re still a print-first shop, and you only make a digital edition after the fact. That’s why their online product look like a half-hearted conversion of the paper book, instead of something that takes advantage of the web.
Coursesmart, the online textbook outfit jointly owned by the big publishers, was originally a system to distribute free evaluation editions to professors (because the publishers were too cheap to mail physical books). It was never intended to be a way to distribute books to students, which explains why their electronic editions are so crippled.
#3: They lie about being open
A few months back the education press was abuzz with news about a Pearson / Google joint venture. The Chronicle’s headline was: Pearson and Google Jump Into Learning Management With a New, Free System.
There were two problems with this:
- The extent of Google’s involvement is that it’s available via their app marketplace. That’s it. Google went so far as to describe the announcement as “misleading”. They said, “It’s not a joint release, and it’s not a shared product.”
- Less blatant, but just as dishonest, is the product’s name: OpenClass. Pearson is attempting to hop on the ‘open’ bandwagon. After all, Open Educational Resource products that use the Creative Commons licenses (like, say, Eleven Learning) are in the news a lot these days. The problem is that, while Pearson’s product is free to use, it’s anything but open-source. This is yet another example of openwashing.
Pearson has been giving state education officials free trips to Rio, London, Helsinki, and Singapore. Here’s how it works: the Pearson Foundation—a tax-exempt 501(c)3 foundation that is forbidden from lobbying on behalf of Pearson Education—pays for the superintendents to attend these ‘idea exchanges’. Then a few months later, Pearson Education wins contracts, even though they’re not the low-cost bidder. Coincidence? That’s what the NY attorney general is figuring out.
I particularly enjoyed this quote from one attendee at the bacchanal in Australia:
“Everybody’s highlight of Canberra was to get to see the kangaroos.”
Why 2012 will not be like 2011
Us. Eleven Learning. The time is right for community-powered modular textbooks. They’re more interactive, more up-to-date, more flexible, and less expensive. By working with our authors and peer reviewers, we’re making it happen right now. Come join us.
August 25, 2011
I’ve never met Rob, so I only know him through his work (and through his colleagues at Xplana). Rob has been THE thought leader on topics such as the future of textbooks and learning management systems. My friends in edtech pass around his blog posts all the time. This is a real loss, and I hope he pops up somewhere else soon. And Rob, if you happen to read this, you’re always welcome to do a Guest Lecture post here!
A few months back, Rob made a video in which he laid out the future of the textbook industry far more clearly than I ever could. If you’re in tl;dr mode, the part about Eleven Learning starts 53 seconds in.
March 25, 2011
We’ve got big news. Today we’re announcing something that you may have assumed was already the the case: Eleven Learning is an open source textbook publisher.
What does that mean?
From now on, our textbooks will be available freely. We’re recommending that our authors adopt the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Click the link to read the full text of the license deed—in plain English, no less—but the brief version is that you can freely share and distribute our textbooks for noncommercial purposes. You can also modify them and share those derivative works, provided that credit is given to the copyright holder and that this license also applies to the new works.
What if an author wants to use another license, like CC BY-NC-ND?
We can live with that. You’ll find thousands of online debates about which license is most “free”, and the difference between “free as in beer” and “free as in speech”, but you won’t find it here. For us, pragmatism trumps ideology. This is a big tent.
Why do you use the term “Open Source” instead of “Open Educational Resources”?
Because everybody and their grandma knows what “Open Source” means. Unfortunately, only OER people seem to know what “OER” means. When I use “OER” in an email message, I inevitably feel the need to define it. That’s a drag.
If the book content is free, and you’re a for-profit company, how do you make money?
OK, more seriously: by charging for it.
Yes, readers can obtain the content for free. Some of them will do so. They’ll download the source, reformat it, print it, then get it spiral-bound. Good for them.
Many will look at the print and online solutions we offer and think, “It’s easy to buy. It’s a fair price. It makes my life more convenient. They’re paying royalties to the authors. That’s a pretty good deal.”
Call it the freemium approach. Call it similar to Red Hat’s value-added model for Linux. With apologies to Heinlein, we call it appealing to students’ self-interest and their better nature.
So just to be clear, students can just use the books for free.
Why go open source?
Our slogan is “community-powered textbooks”. Through our peersourcing process, we ask our reviewers to help us both edit and spread the word about our books. And when one asks for help, it’s only fair to offer something in return. We can’t pay them back, so we are <gag>paying it forward</gag>.
What took you so long?
For a while now, we’ve danced around this issue and been open source in all but name. Our books were already free. People assumed we were open source. But we hadn’t officially committed to it. We were the common-law marriage of open source publishers.
The rest of our team was in favor of taking the leap. But I was chicken. Why? Perhaps it was the you-can’t-do-that look of horror I received from a few publishing industry sages when I shared our plans with them.
But then I remembered that, contrary to their knee-jerk reactions, we already are doing it. This is the way forward.
March 1, 2011
As regular readers will know, we participated in the Startup Showcase at O’Reilly’s Tools of Change for Publishing conference a couple of weeks ago. It was pretty overwhelming: we picked up some great information, met a lot of interesting people, renewed old acquaintances, and received tons of positive feedback. Some observations (warning, may include significant randomness):
- Starting conversations with “We’re an open source college textbook publisher” is a great way to grab people’s attention these days. More on our OER effort coming soon.
- Said the CEO of another textbook publisher: “I know you…you’re the guys who quit math.” Thanks for reading our blog!
- The mix of companies at the Startup Showcase was interesting. Some were disruptive, but most were enabling technologies. Overall, it was the right combination for an event such as this one. The audience was fantastic: we were pleased to learn that there were a couple potential authors in the crowd, too.
- Our favorite bit of advice came from media entrepreneur and investor Linda Holliday, who said “Your mix of free and revenue-generating content is a dance you do with your customers.”
- If you weren’t able to make the conference and want to check out some of the presentations, here they are. This conference really is the bleeding edge of the industry. We’re smarter just for having been in the building.
Finally, we were presenting opposite the Westminster Dog Show. Fluffy dogs are hard to compete with. As we headed back to Boston, we saw a bunch of them outside of Penn Station…
October 26, 2010
A not-for-profit has announced a massive new biology textbook that, when complete, will have cost $10 million to develop. That’s just for content creation; it doesn’t include marketing and sales expenses. (It will be digital-only, so there are no print costs.) Before clicking on that link, be ready to exercise a little willing suspension of disbelief.
Read the rest of this entry »
This month, we’re embarking on a proof-of-concept project to pave the way for the crowdsourced editorial model we’ll employ starting in 2011. If everything goes as planned, we won’t just be taking good manuscripts and making them better…we’ll be revolutionizing a key part of the textbook development process.
Read the rest of this entry »
September 3, 2010
It’s Friday, and here’s what I learned this week. Hope you’ll share what you learned with us, as well.
- Daytona State College is moving to an e-book-only model starting in January, 2011. Students will no longer purchase “textbooks” for their courses, but will instead pay a “digital materials fee” to Daytona State for the use of the e-books the school has licensed from the various publishers. Significant? You bet. Academics will still control book selection, but pricing and delivery now fall squarely into the per-course cost model used by the for-profit institutions like DeVry and University of Phoenix. Guess who’s not happy about the new deal? That’s right…the campus bookstore.
- On a related note, our friends at fellow “upstart publisher” Flat World Knowledge are doing something similar at Virginia State University in the business school, although they’re trying a purely “free” model.
- Coincidentally, 5 Cal State campuses signed licensing agreements with the Big Publishers this week for all-digital course materials. In this scenario, however, students make the purchase through the campus bookstore.
Sensing a trend here? Do you think initiatives like these will result in lower textbook prices for students over the long term? Is this disruption, or just a new edition of the same old model?
Your comments are welcome and appreciated.
August 27, 2010
It’s Friday…time for another edition of “What Did You Learn This Week,” where I drop a couple of quick hits on you, and ask you to do the same.
Here’s what I learned this week:
- That there have been more than 300 million downloads from iTunes U, Apple’s education-related portal that’s a part of the iTunes store. Draw your own conclusions. My conclusion is that we’re definitely on the right track with this little publishing company idea.
- In addition to making it legal to jailbreak your iPhone, the Library of Congress has also given you the legal right to hack your e-books. Check out item 6 at the bottom of the notice. Note to self, don’t spend a whole lot of money on DRM at the moment.
- What’s next, single-use versions of e-books that disappear when you shut off the device you’re using to read them? (University of Michigan Press announces e-book rentals.)
What did you learn this week? We need your comments and feedback, so please post up your own items.