Thursday, September 09, 2010

Post-script to e-books developments

The University of Michigan Press is offering a short and medium term rental option for their academic titles. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wired Campus, Sept. 3, 2010, page A23 in print. I discover to my dismay that there does not seem to be a way to link to any archived version of a week-old "Wired Campus" article online. So, I will report without links.

University of Michigan Press has apparently been offering all or many of their academic titles available to rent for a semester or a year, at a discounted price. At the end of the term, the digital copy self-destructs. Now, the press is offering a shorter term lease to see if there will be interest. 261 of the most popular scholarly titles are available for for 40% of the normal list price for 30 days. Or for 75% of the full price, you get it for 180 days. For that time period, the e-book can be viewed on up to six different devices. The time begins to run when the e-book is opened.

For a digital book that costs $25.00, this is not a huge cost savings, but there are some titles that are much more expensive where the savings would be more substantial. The deal, even if savings are minimal, might be of interest to a student writing a paper, who just wants to be able to cut and paste text. When you calculate savings though, you must take into consideration that with a full purchase of the e-book, as with a print book, there is an item to return for resale.

The short article quotes Heather Newman, UM Press's trade-marketing manager, for several points. They hope the short-term lease interests students who need books for single citations or a single paper, or the use of a single course. The discount, she said, was determined by balancing book-production costs against what customers can spend. They are testing both rental costs and delivery options, trying to "align production costs with consumers' budgets." I thought that was a rather ominous-sounding way to produce scholarly texts. But I suppose university presses have to remain solvent. They hope to expand from the current 261 titles to 325 by the end of the year.

The article interviews Prof. Albert N. Greco, who teaches marketing at Fordham University's business school. Mr. Greco believes that the business model is a good one, addressing three problems the textbook industry has been facing:

1) competition from used-book sellers;
2) high return rates;
3) expensive production costs.

Greco says with digital books, all these problems are either eliminated or much reduced. But he notes that students may decide that the loss from not being able to resell the book is not worth the discount they receive at the purchase. Still, he predicts that by 2015, digital books will have taken off in universities, though he agrees, that it will be up to the students to decide.

*Note from Betsy: Nobody I have seen writing about this has done as good a job as Lyonette Louis-Jacques analyzing what students (at least law students) will want in a textbook. Her comments in a presentation on the issue were excellent. But summing up things that I recall and notes from this blog over the months we have commented on e-books, the most important things in e-textbooks seem to be:

1) Interface and Hardware
Customer satisfaction rests heavily on the design of the device and its software. How easily can the user flip pages, locate text, highlight material, enlarge tables? Does it handle color? Can it work on laptops or is it designated for a certain reader machine? How heavy is it? How long does it take to learn to use? If you are going to have the entire school on e-books, plan to offer tutorials for everybody on the most important features. There is a learning curve!

2) Battery Life
Laptop batteries rarely last more than an hour and a half without recharge or being plugged in. Dedicated e-reader batteries last much longer, but if you really mean to use e-textbooks throughout the day of school, you need to plan to have outlets in every classroom.

3) Subjects are not equally e-friendly
Math-heavy subjects are difficult in digital formats because the tables and formulas are difficult to read without easy enlargement. Tables are usually pop-up affairs that cannot be enlarged, and this makes digital versions very hard to read. Also, the Kindle and Sony Reader do not handle color. For many law textbooks this will not matter, but be alert, because a few courses, this may make a difference.

4) Weighty Matters
Students will welcome being able to carry just ONE item rather than hauling multiple heavy law books, or making multiple trips to and from their lockers with heavy law books, and a laptop or notebooks. They will, if the reader has a great interface, be thrilled to be able to take notes on the same device as the textbook, and have the outline aided from that text as well.

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