Dan's Blog

February 2, 2010

Why eBooks aren’t free…

Filed under: eBooks,publishing — ddswanson01 @ 4:00 pm

What’s the deal with selling eBooks?  Why do they have to cost anything?  Once you’ve got the book in electronic form for printing (the pBook), all you have to do is save that file in PDF form to make an eBook, right?  It’s a virtually free byproduct of the print product, right?  And hey, once you’ve got the digital file, you just post is and the only cost to the publisher after that is the bandwidth required for a customer to download it.  How much easier could it be?

NOT!  All of this might have been true when an eBook was just a flat PDF file, but eBooks are much more now and perhaps there are consumers who don’t understand what goes into making an eBook.

My eBook experience is in the textbook industry, so I can’t speak to any other kinds of eBooks, but here’s a discussion about some of the things that go into the eBook version of a textbook.

To start with, there is usually the flat PDF file.  I’m pretty sure most publishers these days have updated the book development process so that the PDF file does just drop out automatically, and you do get this file pretty much for free.  But the book development process up to that point isn’t free, and the eBook needs to cover some portion of those development costs.  And since eBook sales are growing at the expense of pBook sales, publishers can’t necessarily count on the pBook sales to cover the development costs any longer.  If the eBook sells for almost nothing, and sales of the pBook don’t cover the development costs, a lot of eBooks have to be sold to make up the difference.  And maybe the total market for that particular textbook isn’t large enough for eBook sales to even reach the break-even point.  Publishers can’t stay in business if they don’t make a profit.

But very few students would buy a flat PDF eTextbook any more; if they are buying an eBook, they want the bells and whistles.

Some of the bells and whistles are: videos; animations; simulations; interactive exercises; historical reenactments; links to paid news services; links to online live tutors; content management tools so you can make notes in the book; additional content that’s not in the pBook, and in the case of online eBooks, content that is regularly updated.  Maybe an online language lab, or graphic calculator, links to spreadsheet templates, and I’m sure there are lots of others I can’t recall right now.  Plus, someone is paying Web hosting fees and bandwidth charges.

You might think video is easy; the publisher I worked for had thousands of hours of video when we got into eBooks, which should minimize the cost for videos, right?  Unfortunately, having a video on a video tape doesn’t instantly translate to having downloadable video; even converting video tape to a digital movie file costs money.  And making new videos is expensive; an educational publisher can’t just use a cell phone or handheld video camera in a classroom – the place I worked had a reputation for high quality and the videos had to match that quality.  That means a studio, at least one professional-grade camera and camera operator, someone to write a script, people to read the script, cutting, editing, content verification, etc.  If a math book had a 2 minute video to illustrate every concept in the book (and some of the do), the cost for new video could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range.

Animations, simulations and interactive exercises aren’t free either; they share some of the same costs – someone has to write the script, and then software developers go to work, and someone has to review the final product and content.  Software developers aren’t free, and a textbook might have several of these items per chapter.

In fact, everything that is part of an eBook other than the flat PDF file is an additional expense, some of which didn’t even exist before eBooks.  And every publisher is currently looking for new types of content and services that can be added to their eBooks to provide a competitive advantage over all the other publishers.

I don’t know how the cost of developing the eBook bells and whistles compares to the cost of sale plus costs of printing, warehousing, distributing and dealing with returns a pBook, but if a textbook publisher totally dropped pBooks and their eBook sales had to cover the total development costs, I’ll bet the minimum eBook price to stay in business would surprise a lot of people.

Of course, I worked for a textbook publisher, and I hope to remain in publishing, so I’m clearly biased against free eBooks.  But I think the perception is that publishers get eBooks for free, and that’s far from true.  I also buy books, and as a consumer I want prices to be as low as possible, without driving the publisher out of business.  It seems to me that a new business model might be needed to satisfy both publishers and consumers.  What might that look like?  I’m sure there are a lot of people, much more aware of the financial facts than I will ever be, who are also considering this question right now.

January 31, 2010

what about Educational eBooks?

Filed under: eBooks,Volleyball — ddswanson01 @ 8:48 pm

I’ve been involved with online course management systems (Blackboard, WebCT, etc) since the mid 90s.  My company designed 4 of our own, the first one never made it off the drawing board, the second one (ExchangeSpace) was very simple; it mostly automated the exchange of documents between instructor and students.  The third one, eduSpace, was the real thing, a totally proprietary system for online homework, and it ran for two years before we decided to stop competing with Blackboard, WebCT and eCollege, and developed Eduspace Powered by Blackboard – which was Blackboard with a proprietary building block that let us run proprietary applications in Blackboard that were designed to facilitate homework.  I was the user administrator for Eduspace for 4 years; taught instructors, students, Sales Reps and Product Managers how to use it, resolved instructor issues – so I have a lot of experience with how online course management systems are used in colleges.  So what’s that got to do with eBooks?

Almost everyone uses an online course management system now, and publishers are now building eBooks that live in the OCMS or that can interact with it.  I find the eBook concept exciting, and I would love to be associated with eBooks for the rest of my working career or until the Singularity, whichever comes first.  What makes an eBook useful in an OCMS? Let’s talk about online eBooks that are password protected.  Perhaps actually embedded in your OCMS or on another site – but integrated with the OCMS to a lesser or greater extent, as opposed to downloaded eBooks or eBooks on disks…

There’s homework… When I was in school, we didn’t have personal computers, and the homework assignment was usually something like, ‘Do the odd problems in Chapter 4’.  That was OK if you had the book.  How nice if the instructor can say ‘Do the odd problems in Chapter 4’ and you open the eBook, from wherever you are, and there are those problems.  They should be algorithmic, so me and my roommate, working on the same assignment at adjacent desks, don’t see the same questions, though the type of the question and the difficulty are similar.  And even better, they are attached to the gradebook, so the instructor doesn’t have to collect them, grade them, enter the grade in the gradebook and then turn them back to you.  If the problems are tagged correctly, you should be able to go to the page(s) in the book that tells you how to solve that type of problem.  And if you still don’t get it, direct links from within the eBook to a video and to an online tutoring service.

There’s studying… Reading the eBook wherever you happen to have access, it can provide you with example problems of every type, and if they are algorithmic, you can work them over and over again until you get them right.  And you have immediate access to interactive teaching tools, videos, animations, simulations, if you have problems with a concept. For the instructor, perhaps your progress can be monitored in some way, and the areas where you and your fellow students are having problems can be highlighted for additional instruction.

There’s convenience… many instructors don’t teach the whole book, and in fact, would rather the whole book didn’t have the chapters they don’t teach.  With an eBook, it should be possible to hide these chapters so they don’t distract anyone – but, on the other hand, students who want to study these chapters should be able to access them.  And there are a lot of instructors who would like to teach out of two or more books.  With eBooks, it shouldn’t be all that difficult to pick chapters from several books and make them available in a single eBook.

There could be a tool that allows the instructor to add course notes to the eBook; to highlight sections in eBook before class even begins, to add post-it notes, for the entire class and perhaps for individual students.  And how about a way for the instructor to add links right to the eBook?

The issue for me with this kind of eBook is availability after the course ends.  To some people this isn’t an issue, but I used some of my schoolbooks for several years after I got out of school.  This issue could be overcome with a DVD with a limited feature set, perhaps created individually for each student at the end of the course, so you get to keep all your notes and customizations…

Surely instructors and students have ideas for making eBooks more useful.  And there must be other services that could be designed to complement eBooks.  That’s what I’d like to do!

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