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Can Symtext Disrupt the Textbook Market?

It is not everyday that I recommend that you invest your precious time to go and read a vendor whitepaper, so I hope this time you will take my advice. Go to the Symtext home page and download their whitepaper “The New Learning: Digital and Post-secondary Education." Even if you have no interest in checking out Symtext, I think you will find this brief (6 pages) document thought provoking and informative.

June 9, 2010
 

It is not everyday that I recommend that you invest your precious time to go and read a vendor whitepaper, so I hope this time you will take my advice. Go to the Symtext home page and download their whitepaper “The New Learning: Digital and Post-secondary Education." Even if you have no interest in checking out Symtext, I think you will find this brief (6 pages) document thought provoking and informative.

The main argument the whitepaper makes, and the value proposition of Symtext, is that the traditional textbook business is an anachronism in a world of digital content. To quote, “Textbooks are products of an industrial era”. The value of textbooks is in their content, not their delivery mechanism (“wood pulp is not a business model” reads one heading), yet traditional publishers revenue models depend on selling physical books. This model is bad for students, as they end up paying an “unread chapter tax” for content not used in the course, and bad for publishers, as they capture no revenues in the used book market. Further, course content is no longer limited to text, as multimedia is an increasingly important curricular source. Textbook publishers, however, locked into a paper textbook economy, have difficulty monetizing (and therefore investing in) curricular multimedia.

Symtext’s answer to this twin problem of student needs (better content and paying for only what is utilized) and publisher needs (revenue loss in the used book market) is their “liquid textbook” platform. Symtext is building a platform that allows publishers to disaggregate and price their content (be it chapters, media, or even smaller chunked content such as diagrams or images) and professors to discover (through search or browse) this content to custom build their own digital textbooks. What Symtext is doing is working to create a market for digital curricular content, by providing the platform, tools, and frameworks necessary for suppliers of content (publishers) and purchasers (faculty decision makers, student payers) to get together.

Ideally, the market that Symtext creates through their platform should be a win-win-win. Professors can pick only the content they want, the content can be mixed media, and collaborative tagging, community and advanced search tools can help the professor discover the best-of-breed content. Students only pay for what they will use, and can receive and consume their content on the platform of their choice (Symtext is developing iPad/iPhone platforms and print-on-demand options to complement their existing browser delivered format). And publishers (and authors and other content creators) can price and receive revenues for chunks of content, and be paid each time the content is used.

The question, of course, is will Symtext be able to pull this off? There is no doubt that their fundamental value proposition is compelling. Their success, however, will depend on the willingness of publishers and content creators to make their disaggregated content available in this marketplace. No doubt some publishers will be concerned about cannibalizing their textbook sales. They will also be suspicious of mixing their content with their competitors (for branding reasons), and they will not want to share digital revenues with a middleman such as Symtext if they can create their own market. The role of publishing reps should also be kept in minds, as it is often the case that instructor textbook adoptions are (at least partially) influenced by the relationship faculty have with the reps.

Assuming that Symtext can overcome publisher’s reluctance to share content to build a large enough database (and they claim they have had strong success), they will then need to flawlessly execute their plan. Developing a robust platform for curricular objects, one that includes community and tagging features, and which can insure that content plays seamlessly across devices will not be easy or cheap. Will Symtext be able to develop an iPad version of a textbook with the same functionality, design and features as a publisher version? One example that comes to mind is the Wired iPad App, a product that publishers could build and sell but that would be difficult to duplicate across a range of titles.

Despite these challenges, I think that Symtext is on to something important with their liquid textbook concept. They deserve our attention and support as they try to disrupt the traditional educational publishing market.

What ideas would you give to Symtext to help them succeed?

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