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Breakthrough, Bust, or Building Block?

May 7, 2009

Higher education was front and center Wednesday as Amazon unveiled a new version of its Kindle reader that is specifically designed to be friendlier to books and newspapers than other digital devices are.

Flanked on a stage at New York's Pace University by administrators from several colleges (as well as newspaper executives), Amazon officials played up the extent to which the bigger, PDF-enabled Kindle (price: $489) could speed up the use and embrace of electronic textbooks on campuses -- driven in part by partnerships with three textbook publishers and experiments in which six colleges will incorporate the Kindle into their curriculums.

Even as they enthused about the promise of the enhanced technology, though, Amazon's collaborators and other experts on e-publishing took varying views about the extent to which the introduction of the new Kindle and Amazon's direct entry into the electronic textbook market was likely to be a game changer.

Anyone who has even remotely followed the trends in textbook publishing will be intimately familiar with the cries of wolf that have periodically promised that the moment is here (or just around the corner) for the transformative shift from paper to pixels. "E-textbooks have been 'this year's breakthrough' for the last 10 years," said Richard F. Bellaver, associate director of Ball State University's Center for Information and Communications Sciences, who has studied e-book technology.

Some of Amazon's partners in the Kindle project, like Adrian Sannier, chief technology officer at Arizona State University and a self-professed "big Kindle fan," are extremely bullish that Amazon's gambit could be "one of the two or three major events that cause the digital textbook revolution to really happen," as he put it Wednesday. That is less because of the textbook-friendly improvements in Kindle technology, Sannier said (though he praised that, too), than because of what he described as Amazon's singular ability to create a supportive "ecosystem" for electronic publishing based on the company's unmatchable distribution model.

"What we've been looking for is the third party, the 'iTunes' in this crowd who can find a way to break the logjam" between textbook publishers and would-be buyers, Sannier said. "With the Kindle, from your bed, you can buy the book and 60 seconds later, you're reading it. With three major publishers joining with them, all the machinery exists to take their content and turn it into Amazon content very quickly. This could be the confluence, not only of a device but of an ecosystem for the device, along with the cooperation of leading publishers, that allows it all to come together."

The president of one of the other universities in the Kindle project seemed far less certain she was participating in a breakthrough moment. Speaking from a taxi on her way to LaGuardia airport after speaking at the Amazon event, Case Western Reserve University's Barbara Snyder said that she, like Sannier, is "personally a big Kindle fan," and that Case was excited that its faculty members and students, through their experimentation with and use of Kindle, would provide feedback to help improve it.

But Snyder also described herself as someone who "likes my old newspapers and books, too," and pointed out that even as digital books have emerged, "the fact that Kindle is out there doesn't mean nobody is buying books. ... It's great to have choice," she said, "and it will probably be about choice for a long time, and I think that's great."

Amazon's Approach

Despite frequent bold predictions that it was about to take off, the electronic textbook market has emerged in fits and starts over the last decade, serving a steadily growing but still small segment of the college student population. Activity has picked up in the last few years, with the arrival of new technologies like Kindle and the Sony Reader, among others; the emergence of entities like CourseSmart, a consortium of major publishers seeking to jump-start an e-textbook market; and slightly larger-scale experiments on campuses and even within state university systems.

Views on the reasons for the failure of e-textbooks to take off vary. Most observers agree that while the hardware can always be improved, technological limitations are no longer the major deterrent. Some say that publishers have been too slow to develop and market their electronic offerings, disinclined to put at

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risk the bigger margins they get from (new and used) books in print; others point to a relative lack of interest from faculty members and students on the demand side, often more attributable to a lack of familiarity or knowledge than an active dislike.

Enter Amazon, whose name aptly described its increasingly dominant position in e-commerce and book selling. Jeff Bezos, the company's CEO, noted that Amazon is selling books that are available on the Kindle at 35 percent of the rate of sales for the same books in print, nearly triple the proportion before February's introduction of Kindle 2 (the original Kindle was unveiled in late 2007).

At Wednesday's event at Pace, he held aloft the company's new Kindle DX with a biology textbook displayed, showing off its 9.7 inch, auto-rotating screen and PDF reader. Those features, Bezos said, would add to the appeal of existing Kindle features such as the ability to take notes and highlight, search across book libraries, and replace a heavy backpack with a lightweight device. (Disclosure: Inside Higher Ed has reached an agreement with Amazon to make our content available on Kindle.)

But for many of those involved, the moment was less about the seemingly better technology for textbooks (and newspapers) than about the collaboration between Amazon, colleges and publishers. Officials of six colleges -- Princeton University, Reed College, and the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, in addition to Arizona State, Case Western and Pace -- shared the dais with Bezos to describe how they would all incorporate Kindle into their curriculums in pilot experiments designed to test how students use e-textbooks and whether using them improves learning (or not).

The colleges are taking different approaches. Case will give Kindles to about 40 students in three courses and compare their reading performance, note taking skills, and retention of information with a control group of peers in the same courses who read the old-fashioned way (note: written with a smile). "We hope the data our research provides will lead to more choices," Snyder said. "We already know that different students learn best in different ways, and that one size doesn't fit all when it comes to learning and retention."

Given its size, Arizona State's first experiment (to be followed by others, said Sannier) will be significant larger, focused on the roughly 1,000 students in its honors college. Princeton, meanwhile, will focus on sustainability, said Serge Goldstein, its associate chief information officer, hoping to cut down on the "massive amount of printing" students do of reserve course readings they take out from Princeton's library. The university hopes to "make a dent" in the 10 million pages of paper that students print each year, Goldstein said, as well as getting data about whether students who use the machines learn differently.

Amazon and the university will split the roughly $60,000 cost of distributing the devices to students, Goldstein said -- hastening to add, given the economic climate, that Princeton's share will come not from its endowment or operating money but from a donor-sponsored fund to bolster sustainability.

The other significant piece of the Amazon textbook project is hugely important but ill-defined: the involvement of publishers. In making the Kindle announcement, Amazon trumpeted the fact that "[l]eading textbook publishers Cengage Learning, Pearson, and Wiley, together representing more than 60 percent of the U.S. higher education textbook market, will begin offering textbooks through the Kindle Store beginning this summer," which would make available books from a dozen different imprints, from Person's Addison-Wesley and Longman & Prentice Hall, Cengage's Wadsworth and Delmar, and Wiley Higher Education.

But neither Amazon nor the publishers themselves offered much of anything in the way of details, with a Wiley spokeswoman saying only that the company would "announce more details on specific titles and pricing this summer when the books go live," and a Cengage spokeswoman offering a statement that reflects the torn loyalties of many publishers.

She wrote: "Cengage Learning is committed to offering instructors educational materials in a variety of formats and price points through traditional, digital and hybrid products. ... The majority of students and professors still prefer print textbooks, however, digital solutions are becoming more popular. We recognize that the market for electronic materials is fluid and that our customers will be exploring a variety of alternatives for some time to come. We plan to work with a variety of partners who have significant roles to play in this area, as Amazon clearly does."

That is the sort of ambivalence that would seem to test the optimism of e-book boosters such as Arizona State's Sannier, who said he thought the involvement of three big publishers in Amazon's foray was "a hell of a good start" and would, as their participation solidified, make it hard for other publishers to hold out.

"One day, we all know that traditional textbooks are going to give way to electronic textbooks," he said. "The question is, is this the day? When I look at the momentum the Kindle is getting in the market place, and Amazon's distribution model, it's coming."

Yes, coming, but how soon? wondered Michael Granof, Ernst & Young Distinguished Centennial Professor in Accounting at the University of Texas, whose 2007 op-ed in The New York Times envisioned a new textbook model that leaned heavily on digital editions but retained a place for hard copies. There is "no question," he said, "that electronic books are the thing of the future," and Amazon's new Kindle strategy could be an "important step forward."

But practically, Granof noted that as chairman of the board of his campus's bookstore, UT has seen relatively limited demand for electronic textbooks from the thousands of students in courses for which digital versions are available -- a few score out of more than 12,000 "potential sales," he said.

And more philosophically, as an aside at the end of a phone interview, Granof recalled being at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, where then-Bell Telephone showed off its Picture Phone that, in the not-too-distant future, it projected, would be the standard mode of tele/video-communication. Well, vSkype and iChat are here now, Granof noted, but 55 years later, "we still haven't quite achieved that vision."

 

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