Steve Jobs' Plans to Disrupt the Textbook Industry. How Disruptive Were They?

The new Steve Jobs biography details the Apple co-founder's plans to disrupt the textbook industry.  But just how disruptive were his plans?

November 7, 2011

Before the official release of the Steve Jobs biography, one of the leaked sections in the book revealed that Jobs was weighing the next industries for Apple to disrupt. The textbook industry was apparently one of his targets. That's hardly surprising since the iPad has helped usher in an explosion of e-reading apps and digital study tools. 

It's also not surprising since Apple already successfully challenged the way in which records were bought and sold, moving us away from having to shell out cash for an entire album and letting us buy just the singles we like. Why spend $14.99 on a CD that only has 3 songs you like? You can just buy those on iTunes for $.99 apiece. That new business model seems like one that can be readily adapted to textbooks. After all, unlike other genres of literature or types of book, the textbook is often less about the "whole album" and more about the individual songs (or chapters at least). Why spend $149.99 on a Biology textbook that only has 3 chapters you need?

Some textbook publishers and e-reader apps are wising up to that model. You can purchase individual chapters via Inkling, for example. And instructors can remix textbooks via Flat World Knowledge, so that students only have to buy the chapters they actually need to read. If the launch last week of Washington state's Open Course Library is any indication, we'll probably see more and more initiatives that try to take advantage of existing OER materials so that instructors can provide affordable digital textbooks to students.

Like many readers, I've been working my way through the Walter Isaacson book about Steve Jobs, eager to get to the parts where he speaks to his plans for disrupting the textbook industry. Because even with the promise of the iPad and other e-reading devices, it doesn't feel like we've really seen much disruption at all.

So let me confess two things: 1) even though I'm only on Chapter 21 (Steve meets his wife) right now, I skipped ahead to Chapters 38 and 39 (the iPad, the new battles) to find the passages on textbooks. And 2) I'm not terribly impressed with what I read.

"In fact Jobs had his sights set on textbooks as the next business he wanted to transform. He believed it was an $8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction. He was also struck by the fact that many schools, for security reasons, don’t have lockers, so kids have to lug a heavy backpack around. 'The iPad would solve that,' he said. His idea was to hire great textbook writers to create digital versions, and make them a feature of the iPad. In addition, he held meetings with the major publishers, such as Pearson Education, about partnering with Apple. 'The process by which states certify textbooks is corrupt,' he said. 'But if we can make the textbooks free, and they come with the iPad, then they don’t have to be certified. The crappy economy at the state level will last for a decade, and we can give them an opportunity to circumvent that whole process and save money.' "

And that's it.

Now granted, it's hard to make too much about Apple's potential plans here based on one paragraph in the co-founder's biography. And it's obvious that this passage at least addresses textbooks in use at the K-12 level, not necessarily those at the college level. Although some of the publishers are the same, the processes for textbook adoption are indeed quite different.

But let's imagine that some textbooks did come with the iPad. Let's imagine that, along with the other free titles available, you could simply access them via iBooks, the e-reading app for iPad, iPod and iPhone. No doubt "free" could be disruptive, particularly in a world where college students spend about $900 a year on textbooks.

This isn't the same approach, however, that Apple took to disrupting the music industry. This isn't the equivalent of $.99 download for songs. This is about hiring "great textbook writers," something I don't think Apple ever did for songwriters, other than a few "iTunes Exclusive Releases" perhaps. And it seems as though -- again, just based on this passage from the biography -- that Jobs' frustration with the industry isn't with the industry so much as the bureaucracy that goes into textbook certification and adoption. How would partnering with Pearson, the largest education publisher in the world, disrupt textbook publishing? Color me skeptical.

I'm also skeptical because of some of the recent surveys that continue to find college students rather non-plussed about digital textbooks. Now granted, students might change their tune if digital textbooks were free, but there are still other important considerations: selection, social sharing and reading tools, and DRM and file-standard restrictions.

Ah, that last one's a clincher. After all, you can't even read your iBooks on your Mac yet, let alone on your Android phone or your Windows laptop. That could be a way, I suppose, to sell a lot of iPads. But if students want to be able to share their books with friends -- and yes, students do share their books, although primarily as a cost-saving tactic -- DRM would prevent that. Now, you could argue that the free textbooks could be DRM-free too (it's possible) and in an open standard like ePUB (which it's worth pointing out is not currently supported by Amazon Kindle). That would indeed be pretty disruptive. But just how likely is that sort of disruption? Could Apple's textbook revolution really be about open access? Does that model fit with the rest of the company's media ecosystem?



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