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:

'Great content'? That's an exceptionally generous assessment of todays' textbooks. Audrey Watters called it 'completely silly and wrong-headed.' This image is (obviously) from AllThingsD.

A side note: Regardless of how pretty it is, any textbook that costs $10 million to make is insane and archetypal of what is wrong with the industry, not a “stunning accomplishment”.

The mainstream press is right: This is going to be huge because, hey, it’s Apple.

Apple has done OK with taking existing concepts and polishing them.

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.'”

Apple doesn't do social anymore.

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:

  1. Don’t do it. These books are doomed to only be used in the author’s own classroom.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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 (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:

  1. 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.”

    The OpenClass homepage still says 'Google' in big letters; you have to scroll to the bottom of the page to see 'Pearson'. It also looks like my nephew's MySpace page.

  2. 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.

Bonus Lie!

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.

As my colleague Stephen mentioned a few weeks back, we’re launching a new series of short-form textbooks. Feel free to read his post to see the full description—or if you’re interested in writing a book for us—but the short version is that we want books that are very focused on specific topics. Our authors get to write the interesting parts and don’t have to give equal weight to the boring stuff. Our books are not attempting to be all things to all people; instead, they’re exactly what some people want.

We need your help

Part of what makes Eleven Learning different is crowdsourcing. It’s how we peer review our books, and as you might recall, it’s also how we selected our slogan. So now it’s time to name our new line of books. Here are our options. Vote early and often. If you have a better suggestion, please add it to the comments below.

One more thing: we decided against artsy, clever names that required explanation. We’re looking for a name that a potential author will see and think, “Ah, I know exactly what they mean!”

I’ll finish off by sharing how we ended our previous poll: everything still holds true:

As you no doubt expect, we don’t cross-my-heart-hope-to-die swear to follow the results of this poll. If somebody suggests something that’s absolutely brilliant, we might use that instead. So consider this fair warning that we reserve the right to claim ownership to any slogans people suggest in the comments below. (That’s Eleven Learning-style legalese for you, folks.) And if we notice themes in what people like that aren’t reflected in the final outcome, we might pick something else. Or we might just pull rank.

Happy voting.

Textbooks Are Like Sausages

September 30, 2010


Let’s start with a quote widely attributed to Otto von Bismarck:

The less the people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep in the night.

I like to have coffee with people from the traditional textbook publishing industry; they tell me stories about how screwed up their companies are. Here’s this week’s example:
Read the rest of this entry »

It’s not hard to be impressed by the Kno, the slick color dual-screen e-reader currently being class-tested in a couple of schools this Fall.  It’s a seriously cool piece of technology.  Two 14-inch screens.  A pen stylus for on-screen writing and highlighting.  Capacity for eight semesters worth of textbooks.  And a lot of other great features that could potentially blow things like  the iPad and Kindle right out of the water as textbook reading platforms.  The Kno is definitely poised to make a significant impact on the market.

Having said that, there is a very good reason why the Kno will not, despite its creators’ predictions, be “the textbook of the future.”
Read the rest of this entry »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.