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Interactive textbook publisher Inkling announced today that it’s struck a distribution partnership with Follett, the largest college bookstore retailer in the industry. Follett, which operates some 900 college bookstores, says it will make “hundreds of titles” from Inkling available to its customers in the fall.

Students will be able to buy the Inkling titles online or in their local bookstores, using multiple payment methods including financial aid. They’ll also be able to take advantage of Inkling’s “Pick 3” pricing alternative whereby students can opt to purchase just 3 digital chapters rather than an entire textbook.

Follett boasts some 5 million students across the campus bookstores it serves, and that number clearly bodes well for Inkling, which will now have its brand and app in front of these potential customers.

But the operative word here might be “app,” as Inkling remains iPad only. The startup does say that an HTML5 Web app is in the works, but until then, its titles all remain bundled with a rather expensive piece of hardware. That’s not to say that college students don’t have or want iPads, of course. (They do.) But nor does that iDevice desire or ownership mean they necessarily want digital textbooks either. (Students’ attitudes towards them remain lukewarm.)

That hasn’t stopped recent moves by several publishers, hardware makers, bookstores, and app providers to strengthen their position their digital textbook market. Late last month, for example, Microsoft announced a $300 million investment in Barnes & Noble, which in turn revealed its plans to spin out its NOOK and college bookstore divisions into a new subsidiary. (To compare with today’s Inkling/Follett news, the B&N college bookstore system includes 600 stores.)

Over on The Digital Reader, Nate Hoffelder wonders if this spells a coming “format war” -- Microsoft/B&N versus Apple, for example (not to mention versus Amazon, versus other app makers like Kno and Coursesmart, and versus textbook rental services like Chegg).

But it’s hard to hold a war if no one shows up, that is if students remain apathetic about (if not hostile to) buying textbooks (digital or otherwise).

If that’s the case, I suppose, publishers and textbook providers might aim for some guerilla tactics: partner with universities and bookstores, as McGraw-Hill did this week with the University of Minnesota Bookstores to simply bill students directly for digital materials for the classes they sign up for. Or perhaps that will shake up and wake up students to "the cause." Stay tuned.

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