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Apple enters digital textbook market

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Apple’s recent announcements about its tools for interactive textbooks take the company deeper into the world of e-books. Andrew Williams looks at what the news means for publishers and students

Late last month, Apple made a bold move for a slice of the digital textbook market with the launch of two new products - iBooks 2, which enables publishers to create interactive textbooks for those students with access to iPads, and iBooks Author, designed to allow people to create their own interactive textbooks.

Changing the conversation

Bill Kasdorf, vice president at Apex Content Solutions, is confident that the capabilities these tools provide will prove very useful to students. He also dismisses the findings of surveys that claim students don’t particularly care for e-textbooks.

‘What those surveys usually fail to make clear is that the digital textbooks students have been offered so far have mainly been “replicas” of the print books, often with less functionality than the print books,’ he says.

‘One of the biggest benefits of Apple’s announcements will be to change the conversation [to say] okay, these digital textbooks really do provide useful pedagogical features that print books can’t,’ he adds.

Kasdorf believes that the new apps will be popular with teachers, especially with those who want to create customised resources for their students. He also thinks the tools will catalyse the market and spur other companies to create similar or related tools, hopefully resulting in a 'much more dynamic, creative, personalised approach to teaching and learning - not only with the Apple tools, but with others as well.'

Jane Tappuni, business development director at Publishing Technology, is also excited about the prospect of students using immersive, interactive textbooks that could ultimately be more engaging to use than their paper counterparts. However, on the downside, she highlights the fact that Apple’s iPad is likely to be too expensive for many students. She and fears that access to the new tools could become the preserve of elite private schools and more well-off students. For her, a key question to ask is whether books could be provided by school libraries or need to be purchased on an individual basis.

‘The access model for a class purchase of these titles will be interesting to see. If there are multiple devices in a school there will be the need for some support so who will support any IT issues?’ she wonders.

Tappuni is enthused by the prospect that teachers could use the iBooks Author tool to create bespoke and relevant course material for classes. However, she stresses the added complication related to clearing permissions and paying royalty on the content created.

‘The supply of new interactive text books for students via the iPad might also spark an interesting shift in the student - teacher dynamic. As the engagement of students changes from watching the teacher to watching the screen, will teachers be guiding their students though the process of interacting with the iPad rather than lecturing?’ she adds.

Accessing the tools

Early indications are that the new tools will be very simple to use and access. However, some commentators remain concerned that, in general at least, the process of getting titles onto the iBookstore is too slow and that texts might need to go through similar Apple approval processes - although this remains to be seen.

‘iBooks Author will be easy to access and use, but not as simple as they make it out to be. [It] still requires the creator to own an ISBN in order to publish to the iBookstore, which is not too hard to acquire, but it’s more difficult than just exporting from GarageBand,’ says Matt Mullin, programming director at Digital Book World.

So how will academic publishers react to Apple's bid for a slice of the textbook market? Some big names, including Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill and Pearson have already published digital content on the new platform and, perhaps understandably, the reaction from this group has been glowing. In a recent press release, Genevieve Shore, Pearson’s CIO and director of digital strategy, remarked that these books 'break new ground in digital and mobile publishing,' adding that Pearson is 'delighted with the results and hopes that readers, students, teachers and parents are too.'

Publishing Technology’s Tappuni thinks that the new tools will push all educational publishers to look at creating their books via Apple’s iBooks 2 with haste in order 'not to lose market share' to the publishers who are already signed up. Her belief is that publishers are likely to view them in both positive and negative terms - as a drain on resources and another product they will need to create and manage, but also as another revenue opportunity.

‘Publishers are getting very adept at reacting to their ever-changing market conditions and adding new skill sets to cope,’ she says.

However, according to Apex’s Kasdorf at least, other publishers might find it harder to get enthusiastic about iBooks Author. The main reason for this is that many textbook publishers may be unable, or unwilling, to limit their books to one device (the iPad) and one retailer (Apple).

‘Major textbooks are created by huge teams of people - design, editorial, and production people, including in-house staff, vendors, freelancers, and other contractors and developers. The 'do it yourself on a Mac' approach doesn’t fit well with this process,’ explains Kasdorf.

He also stresses that serious pricing and contractual issues remain, particularly in relation to Apple's approach to End User Licensing Agreements (EULA). In sum, his view is that the biggest benefit of these developments for publishers lies in the added impetus it lends to the transition to digital textbooks in general and in how it might spur development by others.

A walled garden?

One thing that is sure to ruffle a few feathers in the e-book industry is the fact that Apple has chosen not to use the EPUB 3 digital publishing standard for the new apps. According to Mullin of Digital Book World, publishing for multiple formats has been a major challenge for publishers and this announcement won’t make anything easier. He notes that Apple is incredibly adept at creating true 'walled gardens' – ecosystems for apps, e-books, music, and more where publishers can create beautiful products, but which are shut off from the rest of the open web.

‘By refusing to go with EPUB 3 for iBooks Author, Apple is making it harder for publishers to create once and distribute everywhere,’ he argues.

However, Mullin also admits that in some ways Apple's new proprietary format may be a boon for companies that create e-books on behalf of publishers - at least partly because it allows them to lend their expertise in an increasingly complicated market.

‘If a publisher wants to be in all marketplaces, they’ll want a partner who understands the technical eccentricities of each device and format,’ he says.

When the dust settles though, the publishing industry might well find a good deal of common ground between EPUB 3 and the Apple format. Kasdorf of Apex thinks that although the new tools are not purely EPUB 3, they are 'mostly EPUB 3 under the hood,' and although they diverge from EPUB 3 in some respects, they 'by no means undermine EPUB 3 in general.'

‘If you are a professional publisher, rather than taking the do-it-yourself approach with iBooks Author on a Mac, you will still want to prepare your content as EPUB 3 and then adapt it as appropriate for iBooks 2 - depending on what features of iBooks 2 you actually need for your specific titles,’ he says.

In general though, Kasdorf strongly believes that EPUB 3 is still the best format for publishers to create for all these purposes - knowing that at the present time each of these platforms will require some modification to 'adapt EPUB 3 files as necessary.'

‘I think this will spur more development of this kind of advanced interactive functionality, and I hope most of the industry recognises the benefit of doing that development in a standards-based way. Every publisher I talk to wants EPUB 3 to succeed, and resents developments that seem to undermine it,’ he adds.

Meanwhile, Tappuni of Publishing Technology has similar predications. Her best guess is that companies currently working with publishers to create e-books will continue to do so, but that publishers will use the iBooks Author tool themselves to manage the process.

‘Competition is good for the consumer and reader, it will mean they will also have to find ways of helping publishers and authors to create engaging, high-quality content for their audiences,’ she says.

Whatever happens, it is difficult to deny that the Apple move is a key development in the ongoing evolution of the e-book publishing industry. However, whether or not it will help to catalyse a smooth transition to the broader adoption of digital textbooks remains to be seen.

Andrew Williams is a technology and business journalist