Ebooks are actually not books—schools among first to realize

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This is Part 1 in a series on e-book distribution to schools. See Part 2 here.

Digital books are triggering tectonic shifts in education. One of the most fundamental, yet seemingly invisible, shifts is happening in the back rooms of district offices—not in the classrooms, not among teachers and students, and definitely not in the board rooms of most big-name publishers and textbook companies.

If ebooks are not actually books, what are they? School purchasing departments know.

If ebooks are not actually books, what are they? School purchasing departments know.

This profound, significant change is happening first in school district business offices, IT departments, and cubicles among staff members who work behind the scenes to acquire materials for today’s students.

What exactly is this shift? It’s a shift in awareness. A very subtle, yet primary, change in perception.

It’s the revelation of the idea that  ebooks  are not books at all.

That’s right, ebooks are not books.

If ebooks are not books, what are they?

Ebooks are actually software. School acquisition professionals are realizing this before most other people in education. In fact, it seems like they’re realizing this before it’s dawning on most book publishers. (Read about one publisher that already understands this, and has built a distribution model around this model in Part Two of this article—Streaming Ebooks: A New Distribution Model For Schools.)

Here’s the view of the situation from the district back room.

Books are objects

Books are objects. They are limited by their physicality. Only one person can sit comfortably and read a book. So when a classroom or a school or a whole district wants their students to read a book, school district purchasing departments have no choice but to purchase one of them for each student. Granted, teachers can use the same books year after year until they wear out (and many districts frugally use them well beyond their intended lifecycle) but what districts are paying for when they by a book is both the content and the “thing” that is a book.

Ebooks are software

Ebooks, however, have practically no physical limitations. Once the “master” is finalized, all that’s needed to replicate it onto hundreds, thousands, even millions or billions of devices. This master doesn’t need to be located at the school, or outside the publisher’s own walls, or even in the same continent as the school that’s downloading it.

The replication of this master is not limited by time (an ebook can be downloaded today, tomorrow, or next year). Nor is it limited by space (an ebook that’s sitting on a server in Sidney, Australia can just as easily be downloaded in a classroom in Bombay, India as in Omaha, Nebraska.)

Ebooks can be accessed by thousand devices simultaneously without ever being “permanently” transferred to an individual device, as is the case when titles are distributed via the cloud or a website.

So an ebook differs from a book in that it is content only, not content-plus-object, as in the case of a paper book.

Even ebook content is not the same as book content

But let’s think for a moment a bit more about content.  Even when we look at content, an ebook can be very different from as a paper book.  Even though the only property an ebook shares with a regular book is the content—that element is changing. The ebook versions of many textbooks are being enhanced with audio, interactivity, and multimedia.

Once all of their attributes are listed this way, it’s pretty clear that ebooks are software, not books. So why, then, are publishers still trying to sell ebooks the same way they sell paper books?

Ebooks should be sold the way software is sold

It’s the conundrum that schools are facing today. Ebooks are not books at all—they are software and they should be sold the way software is sold.

Why do some publishers and distributors require schools to pay for a separate version of every ebook they want every child to see? Why can’t the ebooks be distributed in bundles, with user agreements and tiered pricing levels that change based on the number of “seats” served?

Why aren’t more ebooks being served up in cloud-based computers, with password-protected access based on subscription payment models? Why are ebooks still being sold individually, as if their “thingness” was their primary attribute, when they are not, in fact “things” at all?

To be fair, some publishers are looking at ebooks this way. Certainly publishers that have incorporated in recent years are doing so. In part two of this article—you can read about a publisher that’s focusing on the school market and distributing ebooks in innovative ways.

Ebooks don’t have any of the physical attributes of paper books—and they shouldn’t have paper books’ pricing and distribution models, either.

Book graphic via Shutterstock.

Beth Bacon

About Beth Bacon

Beth Bacon is a children's book author and runs www.e-booksandkids.com. Contact her via Twitter @ebooksandkids.

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26 thoughts on “Ebooks are actually not books—schools among first to realize

  1. Being software based, also means they can implement spyware as part of the ‘deal’. A physical book cannot read you so doesn’t have the potential to be as dangerous. Is mixing spyware with education a sensible combination really?

  2. Yes, we ran into this as we transitioned into our first year as a 1:1 BYOT school. While we left the decision of paper vs. ebook in the hands of families for the most part (paperbacks are a type of “T” after all), we quickly ran into issues in one of our three mandatory ebook pilot classes (for balance, the Library of Congress and Kindle pilots went off without much of a hitch and students had some great feedback).

    Our saga of a week of e-book, “not really a book” misery is here: http://geekreflection.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-etext-conundrum-byot-fiasco.html

  3. I disagree. Changing the wrapper from paper to digital does not somehow make an ebook not a book; digital music is still music, even though it has no discrete form, like a vinyl record.

    I agree that the digital transition offers the possibility to create new forms of literature– things that are not entirely books, but those things are currently sold as apps, not ebooks. But frankly, the ebooks that are selling best seem to me to be the ones are selling best as paper books, because that’s what people want right now.

    As far as textbooks go, the future is unlimited, but the transition is yet to come.

  4. While old public school textbooks were NOT purchased by the student and only signed out to him/her, ebooks, with their increased functionality and content, will potentially be useful to students AFTER they complete their course. What considerations should be given to students’ accessing these after the course has ended? And, as a librarian, I wonder how these fit into the school (or public library) accessibility and acquisition scheme.

    • what is interesting is that the “licensing” model that is preferred among most publishers (vs. the low cost per student model) makes non-user-generated content inaccessible after the license expires. It has been an education for parents in our private school as we discuss the elimination of the used-book market and the need to take notes/annotations to preserve a record beyond the life of the book.

      It is a tradeoff for the ability to tip content in by the teachers so that students have access to up-to-date material (pluto no longer a planet? paste in the youtube video and a reflection question). E-books are in their infancy, but the quality of material is going to go head-to-head with the Internet at the exact same time that content-providers online are looking for ways to monetize their information. Exciting times.

  5. PLEASE, PLEASE read this.
    The newest trend for book distributors is to sell eBooks as a site license. My company http://www.esebco.com has been selling eBooks for 2 years now and every eBook we sell is sold as a site license (every student in the school can read each eBook simultaneously. We have been a book distributor for almost 30 years so we understand the needs of our customers. Any schools going the E-way please contact us – 800.223.3251.

  6. Wrong! eBooks are not software. They are data files. Although software of some kind is required to render them in readable form, the books themselves are most assuredly NOT software.

  7. Wrong on two accounts…intellectual property (and copyright). When you buy a book you do not own the content. That’s why schools don’t just buy one book and copy the rest (although some have tried). No when you buy a book you get the same thing as when you buy an ebook; content. It is not the paper and the binding that are valuable. They are barely worth their weights kindling. It is the information inscribed on the pages that matters. Books have always been software. With ebooks, the wrapper has changed.

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  9. Ebooks as software? Hunh. Even if they are just data files, they’re still a different form from physical books. That’s opening my mind!! I never really thought about ebooks being such an issue for schools.

    (P.S. Sydney, Australia; Mumbai, India ;-) )

  10. You need to be sure about what kind of eBook you’re talking about – mobile devices or browser-based? The latter has been around for a very long time through such aggregators as netlibrary, ebrary etc., and they have all offered a variety of models. The simultaneous user licence/subscription model is not new at all – we’ve been doing it for 11 years and we’re not alone in that. But we’ve also evolved our business models according to customer demand – real, evidence-based customer demand. We’re an STM publisher that sells predominantly to universities, and I can tell you that the subscription model is not popular anywhere in the world! In fact, in North America it was a barrier to sales and we had to change it. The emerging trend in universities is for PDA – patron driven acquisition – whereby a book sale is recorded against the account only after it has been checked out 3-5 times. That disintermediates the librarian from title selection but ensures that end users get the titles they actually want. Of course it’s not foolproof, but it’s here and it’s working.

    The point is: eBooks aren’t new, mobile eBooks are new. There are some old hands in the eBooks world and there’s a lot to be learned from their experiences and mistakes.

  11. Great post! I’m of a very similar opinion here, and just recently posted an article addressing many of the same thoughts. Good to see others are making similar arguments!

  12. My question/problem remains: when a school district purchases copies of physical books, all the students in the district can use them with ease. But when a school district purchases or licenses electronic books, the students then require some piece of hardware with which to access the books: a computer, an ebook reader, something. And if the electronic books also need to access the web or cloud for full functionality of all the nifty features that can be embedded, then the students also require access thereto, whether they have it at home or not.

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  15. This is true for library books, but this article is discussing textbooks which is a completely different matter. Librarians select books that students may need for research and make them available for check out (either physically or electronically), but students are required to use textbooks, so a subscription model has the potential to save schools tons of money.

  16. Ebooks are limited in their physicality in that there has to be a reading device and there also has to be an internet connection. These are not always givens.

  17. I agree. I think that having schools pay for a subscription in order to use an Ebook makes so much more sense. Ebooks are software that a school buys the right to use. I do believe more students would take home Ebooks to study from than a textbook. They can carry all there books home on one device and let’s face it Kids want technology not paper anymore.

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