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Predicting when e-textbooks will become a viable alternative to the dead-tree variety churned from printing presses to millions of college students a year is a bit like asking whether newspapers will give way to the Internet. Everyone thinks they will, but it's a question of when, and what the new paradigm will look like.

At the beginning of this year, Amazon's newly released Kindle electronic reader, along with its competitors, sparked renewed interested in digital books in general, and their application to instructional materials in particular. More recently, some tech prognosticators are sounding downright bullish on Kindle's future prospects, or at least the probability that in the near future, e-readers will become adopted by a critical mass of consumers.

In other words, more predictions, despite the fact that previous projections of major adoption of electronic books have not historically panned out. But gradually, as the trickle of students and professors who use e-textbooks starts to grow, advances in hardware and an evolving market -- not to mention increasing complaints about textbook costs -- are sure to speed along continuing changes in reading (and studying) habits.

"Most students still buy print versions of textbooks, and carrying them around is as big a pain as it has been for past generations of students," wrote Michael Arrington last month in the popular blog TechCrunch, which tracks Internet start-ups and emerging trends. "Most publishers now offer electronic versions of their textbooks -- McGraw-Hill Education, for example, publishes 95% of their books electronically as well as in print. But there is no compelling device to read them on....

"A new large-screen Kindle would solve those problems. The battery life is much longer than most electronic devices, and carrying a large Kindle is still a lot better than carrying ten heavy textbooks. Our guess is that Amazon will make a major push into the educational markets next year -- it’s the only obvious reason to create a large-screen Kindle" -- which Arrington predicted would be released next year.

Developments in hardware accompany a batch of new initiatives and partnerships from colleges as well as stakeholders not popularly associated with radical changes in the industry: textbook publishers themselves, and independent bookstores. As it turns out, neither is quite as opposed to a digital revolution in publishing as it might initially seem -- especially in the case of publishers, who have invested in e-books for at least a decade.

"The answer is yes, it’s happening already, it’s going to be happening more swiftly in the coming years. There’s been a feeling of inevitability about it," said Joseph J. Esposito, president of the management consulting firm Portable CEO, who has worked in traditional publishing and advised both scholarly presses and Internet companies.

Latest Developments

More and more, colleges are getting into the mix as they start their own initiatives or partner with consortiums or start-ups testing new business models. For colleges, the impetus is to address cash-strapped students' concerns about textbook costs in a lagging economic environment, while publishers get the benefit of increased visibility. Last year, according to the Association of American Publishers, e-textbooks sold by major publishers in the United States added up to $241 million out of about $3.5 billion in sales by major publishers.

As part of its Textbook Affordability Symposium, the University System of Ohio is planning to offer incentives to professors who significantly reduce textbook costs for their students, including grants -- five, to the tune of $50,000 each -- to instructors who help create free materials for the state's most commonly taught courses. In a partnership with CourseSmart, a consortium of major publishers seeking to jump-start an e-textbook market, the system will allow students to use the existing university Web portal, OhioLINK, to buy electronic textbooks directly, said Sean Devine, CourseSmart's CEO.

That agreement follows an ongoing CourseSmart partnership at San Diego State University, where a “substantive number” of courses, at least 200, have their materials available in electronic format, Devine said. The e-books can be purchased directly through the campus store, which he said provides students with "definitive knowledge" about course lists and the ability to use any financial aid benefits. Moreover, CourseSmart recently finalized an agreement with the wholesaler MBS Direct, which will make its member publishers' e-books available on and in various college bookstores.

Partnering with stores is part of CourseSmart's overall strategy, Devine said. "What we believe is that students are going to purchase their textbooks in a number of different places, and there’s not kind of a monolithic approach to this." (Others in the space, such as CaféScribe, remain online only.)

Esposito said publishers have been eager to jump into the e-textbook market in hopes of shutting out the used-book market -- which some estimate makes up to a third of textbook sales -- once and for all. (Already, several online services offer students the ability to compare prices for used textbooks.) They're "drooling, salivating, rubbing their hands together” at the thought, he said. “They’ve been dying to do this for decades." Many of the available e-textbook platforms, CourseSmart included, operate on a subscription model that presumably expires once the semester is over, much like a library or an online video rental service.

At the same time, publishers stand to gain from the ability to track which digital materials are used by professors and institutions, he said. That would be a potential boon for developers of the next generation of teaching materials. And e-textbooks would easily integrate with existing course management systems, providing students with opportunities for increased collaboration with classmates and instructors. Esposito flagged Pearson's acquisition last year of eCollege, a provider of course management, assessment and e-learning software, as a potential signal of future trends.

Meanwhile, start-ups are jumping in to test competing business models. Flat World Knowledge, for example, plans on offering free and open textbook materials to participating institutions, while drawing revenue from add-ons such as study guides and print editions. Other efforts seek to bypass revenue models altogether and promote the adoption of free, ready-to-edit open-source content, a movement that, while miniscule in comparison to print and even electronic textbooks from publishers so far, has attracted significant interest online.

Remaining Obstacles

Whether -- or when -- e-textbooks become as ubiquitous as laptops or smartphones on campuses depends on several factors that continue to hinder widespread adoption. Observers of the nascent market point variously to available hardware, consumer demand and the dearth of content made specifically for digital formats.

"We believe firmly that the most significant gating factor in prior eras of this has been that there hasn’t been a critical mass of inventory available on a single platform. So that student that wanted to try it had to wonder ... 'Is it going to be on a platform that’s compatible? Do I have to have multiple books on [different] platforms?'" Devine said.

"We believe as standards emerge, the market will grow, and as common platforms emerge, the market will grow. We don’t even necessarily believe it has to be our platform."

In Ohio, especially, Devine stressed the key combination of a "critical mass of content," a single platform and a pre-existing portal that students already heavily use. If it's successful, it could be seen as a model for future e-textbook ventures.

Esposito, meanwhile, stressed that until professors start assigning e-textbooks on a widespread basis -- or nudging their students to use them -- the market will continue to respond to demand for print materials. He added that the level of adoption may vary by institution type, noting that some community college systems have more top-down control over curriculums, allowing for coordinated changes in formats.

And even if e-textbooks catch on, he warned that there is no reason to suppose that they would completely take over the higher education market. “People don’t get into foolish false dichotomies. It’s not either-or, it’s supplemental," he said.

Besides having a widely used device and e-textbook platform -- say, something as common as the iPod and iTunes for music -- an important factor in the medium's development may be the growth of content that's "born digital" rather than merely transposed from print, said Bob Stein, founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book.

"We’re getting close in the sense that we might see the right device in the next three to five years, and I think that we’ll start to see some credible examples. How long it takes for things to flip, that really depends on the device more than anything else."

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