Thursday, January 19, 2012

Apple's eTextbook announcements: Far from a slam dunk

This morning, Apple announced:

Apple's announcements could be very important, but the company has a long way to go, for several reasons:
  • Apple's focusing on the high school market, not colleges and universities, and it's trying to convince parents and students to purchase eTextbooks directly from Apple. In most U.S. schools and districts, students get their textbooks from the school, either at no charge or as part of an activities fee. Why would parents who don't have to pay for textbooks now or get them automatically start paying for them? Thus, Apple's plan only impacts those parents and students who have to pay for their textbooks now.
  • Parents also have to be willing to buy an iPad for their child. That cuts out low-income and many middle-income families.
  • There are currently only eight titles in Apple's eTextbook collection--not even enough to be called a good start.
  • Although iBooks Author creates eBooks that are based on EPUB 2.0, it uses Apple's proprietary extensions for supporting multimedia, animation and JavaScript-based new features. Thus, titles created with iBooks Author can only be used in iBooks. (This might change in the future, when Apple fully implements EPUB 3 in both iBooks and iBooks Author.)
  • If you use iBooks Author and create eBooks that you intend to sell, according to the EULA for the software, you are prohibited from selling the eBooks anywhere except through Apple.
Apple's decision to focus on high school textbooks before going after the college market is questionable: College students pay far more for textbooks than do high schoolers, and parents are far more likely to purchase a tablet for a new college student than for a high school student. However, that's not the most important reason why I believe that Apple will have an uphill battle. When Apple launched the iBookstore initially, with the support of five of the "Big 6" trade publishers and the agency pricing model to eliminate Amazon's price advantage, it looked as though Apple would eventually become as dominant in eBooks as it already was in music. The results, however, have been far from what Apple and its boosters expected.

Even today, Apple has a minuscule share of the U.S. eBook market, far below those of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Apple's eBooks can only be used on Apple's devices, while Amazon's and Barnes & Noble's eBooks can be be used on those companies' popular eReaders and tablets, as well as with software eReaders on PCs, tablets and smartphones. Amazon in particular has set up an effective self-publishing program for authors, while Apple is just taking the first tentative steps today.

In short, Apple's new eTextbook initiative could make a big difference eventually, but it's far from a slam dunk.

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