Saturday, February 28, 2009

Kindle: not for textbooks

I think that etextbooks are going to happen. People who buy and use textbooks are not generally emotionally attached to the physical book. College students resell them when they can; they don't tend to want to line their walls with them. No one likes lugging the things around. You also know that I think that the college bookstore model has broken down. We will move to etextbooks.

But Amazon is not well-positioned to be the source of those books.

When you want to buy a novel you go to a bookstore, physical or on-line. When I want to pick out a textbook, I go to the publisher. I pull a catalogue out of my desk, go to their web site, or send an email to the representative who contacts me every now and then. Actually, if I regularly use textbooks (rather than novels or books published by academic presses), I don't even have to do that. The publishers all know that I teach logic and so they send me, unrequested, exam copies of new logic books. If I am thinking about changing I just need to look at the stack of books that have been sent to me recently.

Textbook publisers are catching on that this is a good business model. At least they are experiementing with it. They are now selling their most popular textbooks on their web sites. Students can pay for the right to read it there from any computer, or to download it to one computer and print it once.

And the students like it.

No one really wants to read a novel on a computer screen, but a calculus book? Sure. Why not? Even a sociology text book can be read on the computer. It's not like you would have taken the five pound book into the tub with you. Besides, the publishers charge significantly less for these electronic copies, often less than the student would pay for a used book.

The publishers are making all the profit on this model. If they sell the text books through Amazon they have to give Amazon a cut and Amazon simply has nothing to offer them that they need.

I do think, or rather I hope, that it will be possible to download these textbooks onto an ereader, but I think the business model will have to be one in which the seller of the ereader is not planning on getting a cut on the sale of the books. If the Kindle for textbooks that we hear rumors about will not allow me to download a book that I have purchased directly from the publisher, it isn't going to happen. (Right now you can down-load unprotected free books onto your Kindle, but nothing you have bought from another vendor).

As far as using the Kindle in the classroom with other sorts of books, there is another HUGE problem: no page numbers. If I ask my students to read Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics, or Jane Austin's Emma, I am going to ask them to order the same edition. This is so we can all easily find the same passage. Now, if they all have the book on some electronic platform, people can search for a phrase and all get to the same place. However, if some have paper and some have electronic version, well, right now we are in trouble.


  1. If I were Amazon, I would see this as a huge opportunity. Offer the textbooks without any profit in hopes of convincing college students to buy the Kindle, and then suck them in to buying other books for fun.

  2. It would be smart.

  3. If you have the iLiad or Gen3, you can view many different types of sources... quite a few textbooks are available in formats that are recognized. Though for textbook purposes, I'd suggest the iLiad, as you can write notes with it, as opposed to the Gen3 being a reader only. Unfortunately you lose access to the Amazon library, which is the most extensive.

  4. My issue would be that it is hard to make notes in the computerized copy....though I bet mozilla has some kind of side bar add on where you can make notes as you read or something....

  5. Some of the newer texts allow note taking. Certainly if we can get them downloaded to something like the Kindle that would solve that problem.

  6. I don't know how many here have used it, but the pay version of Adobe Acrobat has great annotation features - you can highlight passages, insert little virtual "sticky notes", and all sorts of goodness. I've actually thought more than once that a piece of hardware running sort of an "embedded" Acrobat reader would make a pretty decent e-book platform.

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