An Inkling of the Future? Enhanced Ebooks and the College Textbook Market

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By Yvette Chin, Editor, Digital Book World

Last week, interactive textbook app startup Inkling announced new partnerships with two of the major players in the higher education textbook industry. McGraw-Hill is set to release its top 100 undergraduate titles as well its medical school curriculum. Pearson Education is offering several business and health care titles, primarily through its Prentice Hall and Benjamin Cummings imprints. The Inkling iPad app offers interactivity, not just with the course material (well beyond standard textbook conversions to digital formats), but also among students engaged with the same text. At the same time, Inkling directly challenges traditional textbook pricing through an optional “by chapter” business model that might boost course adoption this fall.

McGraw-Hill and Pearson are not alone in moving to enhanced textbooks through Inkling; they join a roster of other higher education textbook publishers looking to use the features Inkling’s iPad app as a way to offer enhanced course material, publishers such as W.W. Norton, perhaps best-known for its oft-adopted literary anthologies, and medical publisher Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Currently, 14 titles are available for purchase, but Inkling plans to release 100 titles in time for the fall semester rush.

There is no doubt that digital textbooks is an emerging trend in higher education publishing: a recent market forecast by the educational software consultant Xplana claims that 1 in 4 textbooks in 2012 will be digital. Already, the industry landscape features several promising publishers and platforms. Many are offering traditional print publications in an ebook form: Students can check eCampus.com for digital conversions of textbooks, academic libraries might have subscriptions to digital book providers such as Ebrary, and the widely used Blackboard course management service has become the norm for many professors to provide digital excerpts of larger works to customize course readings.

But, only a handful of publishers are using technology to create new ways of learning and interactivity with college-level course material. For instance, the computational knowledge engine, Wolfram|Alpha recently launched a series of supplemental courseware apps for math and science; Wolfram Research’s enhanced ebook imprint Touch Press published Theodore Gray’s The Elements.

Similarly, what set Inkling’s titles apart are their “natively digital” origins and built-in interactivity features. Rather than being a more or less faithful electronic version of a traditional print textbook, Inkling incorporates multimedia elements, including video and 3D objects, to enhance the learning experience. For example, a title about music appreciation involves integrated tracks by classical composers, while biology students can use the iPad’s pinch-and-zoom functionality to get a closer look at organs in the human body.

Interestingly, there’s also a social dimension to Inkling’s iPad app. Readers can write notes “in the margins” that can be shared to other students, inspiring discussion and interaction between students that might otherwise be engaged in solitary reading of the course material. Professors can also “enhance” the material by providing their own notes to share with students.

As for its business model and offerings, Fortune’s Senior Editor-at-Large Adam Lashinsky, Sr., called Inkling’s business model “revolutionary”:

“Students can buy single chapters of books for $3, allowing them to spread out the cost of expensive textbooks. Publishers will like this model as well because, if Inkling’s technology is widely adopted, the market for second-hand books will go away. Today, publishers only make money selling new books. In an Inkling future their revenue streams will recur with each new class.”

No doubt, the digital textbooks, whether enhanced or not, will greatly affect classroom learning methods, used book sales, and the ubiquitous campus bookstore—all features that make the higher education book industry a unique market.

At around $70 for a complete textbook, Inkling’s low price stands out quite starkly in a market where, according to Publishers Weekly, the average price of a college textbook is $104. Digital textbooks, both enhanced and converted print books, will certainly affect used book sales at colleges and universities, even while ebook pricing, lending, and devices are being hashed out in the larger book publishing industry landscape.

It’s not clear how widely professors and students will use Inkling and other enhanced textbook platforms in the classroom. However, Inkling is already being deployed in pilot programs at Seton Hall University and the University of Alabama. On a broader front, the Duke Digital Initiative at Duke University purchased 89 iPads to loan out to faculty and students and recently published a report on the demand and use of loaned iPads. The response was overwhelmingly positive at Duke. However, other studies, including this one for Information Technology and Libraries, suggest that the adoption of ebooks and ereaders by college students is much less dramatic.

Will there be resistance to the adoption of iPad enhanced titles in higher education? No doubt. Already the question of allowing students to use iPads in the classroom is being debated, hearkening back to earlier discussions about whether laptops were appropriate tools for learning in a classroom setting.

It remains to be seen how quickly professors will adopt enhanced digital textbooks into their curricula—and how quickly the higher education book market will change. But, what do you think? Have you used an enhanced e-textbook in a course, either as a student or a professor? What does the adoption of enhanced digital textbooks mean for the future of education? For the textbook market?

Yvette Chin has worked in and out of book publishing for almost 15 years, primarily for trade nonfiction and scholarly publishers. With out-of-industry experience in academia and activism, for the past year, she had been working as a full-time freelance editor and writer, blogging about a range of topics from coworking to higher education to transmedia storytelling.

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6 thoughts on “An Inkling of the Future? Enhanced Ebooks and the College Textbook Market

  1. What a good article. Two comments:
    1/. I think the predictions are underestimated.
    2/. This does not take into account the post graduate buyer of academic material. The worldwide (territorial) regulation of professions are increasingly demanding that competence is maintained through Life Long Learning. This is a totally discretionary market and works through meritocracy of content. It is also driven by local knowledge of regulations and standards. There will be a strong growth in niche local publishing that services this market in the profit and not-for-profit areas.

  2. Pingback: What is the future of textbook publication, sales, and use in colleges around the nation in light of the e-book revolution and the advent of inexpensive readers such as the Kindle fire? | Editing and Publishing FAQs

  3. “Last week, interactive textbook app startup Inkling announced new partnerships with two of the major players in the higher education textbook industry” is it really true?!

    any way thanks for sharing this helpful article ,Yvette M. Chin.

  4. Pingback: An Inkling of the Future? Enhanced Ebooks and t...

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