An Open Letter to Textbook Publishers

Dear Textbook Industry:

Over the few years, I’ve noticed the slow emergence of e-textbooks. As someone who works in the e-publishing industry, and as someone closely interested in the post-secondary education sector, I support this. This is a great idea. E-publishing is the future of publishing. It’s been going through some growing pains, but 20 years from now, paper books will be a niche market, like typing on a typewriter.

The textbook industry, however, seems to be a decade behind the fiction publishing industry in this trend. In the fiction arena, we have dedicated e-readers, and e-reader software designed for the small screens people carry with them. We have ebook formats designed for those readers. And we have robust marketplaces to buy them.

For the textbook industry, the picture is different. E-textbooks are mostly PDF files. The Portable Document Format is not a text format, it is an image format. The PDF is a fancy desktop publishing tool. Some e-readers can do a decent job of displaying them, but only if they don’t have text in the margins. Textbooks love text in the margins. Which means they are near impossible to read on e-readers, phones, and small tablets. Even the screen of the iPad is roughly 2/3 the size of an 8 1/2 x 11″ page used on the e-textbooks I’ve purchased. Meanwhile, the marketplace is a complex warren of un-advertised websites, physical-economy mentality (how does an ebook sell out?), and weird licenses.

It’s time for you leap into the new economy of the 21st century, as the entertainment industry has finally started to (somewhat) embrace. Amazon sells more ebooks than paper-books. Music piracy is down largely because Apple created an ecosystem that makes piracy not worth the time. Many movies can be legally bought and streamed online. More and more video games are purchased as downloads instead of physical disks.

Textbooks have avoided these market pressures because consumer demand and consumer wishes aren’t really linked. But you avoid change at your own peril. Sooner or later, the tools to allow a backlash will come into maturity. More and more professors will eschew your books in favor for online resources, open textbooks, and alternatives that haven’t been invented yet. The question you have to ask yourselves is: are you prepared to become irrelevant?

Education is supposed to be about preparing for the future. Your stalling on ebooks shows you to be unconcerned with the future and stuck on the past. Luckily, there is still time to avoid this fate. Here is what you need to do:

Use ebook formats:

It’s going to be more work than simply printing off a pdf copy of the final typsetting. A lot more work. You will have to completely re-think how to compile a book. But it will be worth it. The aditional market you will be exposed to is HUGE.

Sell your textbooks like fiction publishers sell their books:

Drop the limited availability. Drop the “file valid for 180 days.” Work out partnerships with the major ebook retailers. The fastest way of speeding up adoption of e-textbooks is to make it easy for people to find e-textbooks.