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It's the central paradox of 21st-century college students: Despite embracing radically new ways of communicating with each other and learning about the world, they still remain wedded to the old-fashioned, paper-bound textbook.

That steadfast commitment to the printed page isn't shared only by students. But sensing an opportunity among early adopters -- and possibly signaling a shift in people's preferences -- two companies recently bet that the time is ripe for nudging a change in reading habits. So far, it's too early to tell whether Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader Digital Book will be considered a success at luring customers willing to try out a new paradigm; like many promising technologies before it, e-books have perpetually remained on the verge of taking off. But those hardware devices, and other efforts sure to come down the pipeline in the near future, echo a broader attempt by companies across the publishing world to apply the technology and economics of iTunes to the written word.

The textbook industry is no exception. Over the past year, a consortium of major textbook publishers and several competing ventures have been getting ready for a new push in what is becoming a small but steadily growing fraction of the overall market for college students. "Those efforts are starting to crack the surface of digital content being a serious growing enterprise in higher education,” said Evan Schnittman, vice president of business development and rights for Oxford University Press's academic and U.S. divisions. McGraw-Hill Education, for example, offers almost 95 percent of its textbooks as e-books, and the publisher has seen a steady growth in interest over the past several years, albeit from a small base.

Their logic seems unassailable: With laptops now an ubiquitous presence on college campuses and textbook prices ever on the rise and suddenly a hot issue, technologically inclined students seem poised to change their study habits -- and save a lot of money -- by forgoing scribbles in the margin and trading in their highlighters for cursors.

“We’re not talking about a huge market at all at this point in time,” said Will Moore, the director of marketing for VitalSource Technologies, a company that works with publishers and academic institutions to deliver digital textbooks online. Actual numbers focusing on electronic books in the higher education sector are scarce. Still, he said, he projects “very rapid” growth in the future.

Large publishing companies have their own reasons for embracing the new technologies before an entire industry gets upended, but they'll soon be competing with upstart ventures seeking to harness Facebook-style social networking to make e-textbooks widely available to the average student. Each effort represents a different approach to delivering what is now comfortably available in print via 1's and 0's, through computer screens and on portable readers.

In a September blog post titled "Is This It?", Schnittman, of Oxford, described CaféScribe -- a downloadable service that offers an iTunes-like interface for browsing books combined with social networking features allowing students, for example, to share notes online -- as a potential "magic bullet solution" to students' rejection, so far, of "every effort to get them to use electronic textbooks."

It's a conundrum that many in the industry still scratch their heads over. "The joke that I like to tell is that e-books in college have been 2 years away for 10 years, but I think ... if you ask people, 'Will college students get their course content digitally?' ... everyone says yes," said Frank Lyman, the executive vice president for marketing at CourseSmart, a venture supported by six higher-education textbook publishers. "Why not now?"

The Social Networking Approach

Bryce Johnson dedicated a master's thesis to the question. As a graduate student earning his MBA at the University of California at Berkeley several years ago, he explored why digital books hadn't caught on as a viable medium. He "quickly realized that not a lot of people had really taken a plunge into universities," he said.

What he found, after numerous focus groups and surveys, was that students weren't interested in a flat interface that replicated what they already had between their textbook covers. "The predominant thing was, make it easy for me to highlight, take notes," Johnson recounted.

So the outgrowth of his thesis, and then business plan, became CaféScribe, a company that launched to the general public in August. It uses a direct-to-consumer model in which users download a program that lets them browse, purchase and view books, and then annotate and share notes. Rather than working with bookstores or colleges, CaféScribe is relying more on word of mouth.

Its strategy from the start has been to address issues that students say keep them from considering digital books as a viable alternative. That hard-to-pinpoint feeling that keeps people attached to their books? Check. Starting in September, the company announced that it would send each customer a scratch-and-sniff sticker with the "musty book" smell.

Anticipating students' learning styles, and possibly horrifying some professors, the interface links directly to Wikipedia articles. It allows readers to annotate and "highlight" text with different colors. Words can be searched as easily as a Google query, and skimming is easier with navigation tools. Students who prefer collaboration can even collect the notes of their online classmates and see them in one place.

"I think it’s very close to the tipping point, at least from the reads we’re getting from our students," Johnson said.

Like iTunes, the model features a type of digital rights management that allows users to download individually purchased e-textbooks to three separate computers or laptops. But like Apple's digital music service, the success of ventures like CaféScribe depend on the availability of content. Johnson estimated that the company would have some 15 publishers on board in the first quarter of 2008, including more content from Oxford. Still, he conceded, he receives hundreds of requests for titles each day. "Content is our biggest obstacle right now," he said.

Still, Johnson sees a lot of growth at community colleges and from non-traditional students. Not necessarily right away, though: "It’s probably still a couple years out." (Johnson hasn't been making this prediction for 10 years; he received his MBA in 2004.)

The Publishers' Approach

Lyman, of CourseSmart, has another theory about the market for electronic textbooks: There isn't a critical mass of content in a widely available format. With that in mind, the venture -- backed by publishers including Wiley, Pearson, Cengage Learning and McGraw-Hill -- is an attempt to "jump-start" a market where it hasn't arisen spontaneously.

For students, that means a Web-based repository for PDF-style versions of popular textbooks -- although they're only online and can't be downloaded for offline reading. At the same time, Lyman said, the collaboration would allow professors to more easily review potential course materials online.

So far, the venture is still working out the best way to reach its customers. So, besides direct marketing, CourseSmart will start working with college bookstores and other retailers in an attempt to give students as many purchasing choices as possible. After all, in college, billing home to mom is an important payment option. And parents may approve of the savings: a 180-day online "subscription" to the ninth edition of Marketing, by Lamb, Hair and McDaniel, enough for a semester of work, sells for $80.99 on CourseSmart from a list price of $176.95 -- over a 50-percent discount. (Used versions sell upwards of $91.99 on Amazon.)

Still, CourseSmart's entry into the market has rankled the National Association of College Bookstores enough to cause it to look into potential antitrust issues raised by the consortium.

Individual publishers are also beginning to formulate their own strategies for electronic delivery. "We are starting to see ... interest by students in purchasing their ‘textbook content’ in an e-book form in lieu of the print book," said Wendy Spiegel, the senior vice president for communications at Pearson Education. "We continue to see interest and growth."

The publisher offers at least 800 titles in electronic format, with prices about half of what they'd be in print. Spiegel, recognizing their appeal, sees e-textbooks as an important part of the company's overall strategy in the future.

Some have even considered the viability of portable readers as a potential way to deliver textbooks. "The development of Kindle validates our view that the development of digital content presents a major market opportunity for us. We are currently participating in a pilot program to evaluate the feasibility of higher ed titles being viewed via Kindle," said Tom Stanton, the director of communications at McGraw-Hill Education, in an e-mail.

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