eTextbooks: A Wish List

Kindle at the Barnes & Noble CafeI'm a fan of ebooks. My Kindle Reader is my primary reading device for trade books. Text books, and some professional research books, render better on my . The iPad's larger screen and color display is a better fit for rendering tables and figures. Many eTextbooks are not available in Kindle format. For eTextbooks, published on proprietary platforms such as CourseSmart, a tablet device provides a reading experience vastly superior to reading texts on a laptop, netbook, or desktop machine.

I prefer to purchase digital books in Kindle format for three key reasons:
  1. Purchase ease: Amazon.com provides an excellent shopping experience.
  2. Safe keeping: Amazon.com stores my ebooks so I always know where to find them.
  3. Ubiquity: I can read Kindle format books on every digital device I own: my laptop, my netbook, my iPad, my desktop machine, my Droid X Android phone.
  4. Future proof. I have confidence Amazon will make it possible for me to read my Kindle books on any device I may own in the future.
A recent email exchange with Steven Joos, Product Development Manager for 4LTR Press | Cengage Learning, suggests that some textbook publishers misunderstand the Kindle platform. Text publishers appear to equate Kindle with the Kindle device. Viewed narrowly, I agree that the original Kindle, due to its 7" screen, does not provide an optimal textbook reading experience (I've not tried reading texts on the larger Kindle DX, which seems a better fit with textbooks).

Texbook publishers appear to misunderstand (or prefer to ignore) is that Kindle is a publishing platform that integrates acquisition and distribution to almost any device a person is likely to own and use. If textbook publishers were to prioritize market access, the Kindle publishing platform would seem to have much going for it. I am confident that 100% of my students own one or more devices that support the Kindle platform.

Cengage dismisses the Kindle as incompatible with how students use text books; claiming that the Kindle is too linear. This video is offered as evidence of the superiority of Cengage's proprietary etext publishing platform. Perhaps I'm missing something obvious, but the video seems to confirm that the Cengage platform is (a) linear and (b) offers functionality very similar to that of the Kindle platform. The Kindle apps enable jumping around a text, search, highlighting, etc. The key features demonstrated in the cengage video. I do appreciate that the Kindle publishing platform has some limitations with regard to incorporation of interactive elements. Consequently, the Cengage claim of platform superiority of the Kindle platform appears without merit.

As a faculty member, the proliferation of ePublishing formats discourages adoption. I presume my students have a similar reaction. Keeping track of which platform I must access to use a particular text book -- must I log onto the publisher's website? do I use a dedicated app? what device do I have to use? -- is a distraction. The CourseSmart delivery platform offers less functionality than I experience with the Kindle platform. Flat Earth publishing offers wonderful customization features, but is weak on delivery options. The demise of the Kno Tablet illustrates the hazards of device dependence.

My take is that the textbook publishers efforts to develop proprietary eTextbook distribution systems is retarding, rather than encouraging, eTextbook adoption. By focussing on developing proprietary publishing platforms (i.e., by decreasing compatibility), textbook publishers are increasing complexity and failing to leverage ubiquity of availability (a key relative advantage of eTexbooks). The net result is to diminish customer value of eTextbooks relative to traditional dead tree textbooks.

My dream eTextbook (one I would readily recommend to my students) is:
  1. Device independent. I can read my eTextbooks on every device I own today or may own in the future; I'm not locked to reading the eTextbook on a specific device.
  2. Platform independent. I can read my eTextbooks using any OS platform.
  3. A consistent reading experience across devices and platforms. I want a similar reading experience and suite of reading tools (e.g., search, highlighting, etc.) now matter the device or platform on which I read an eTexbook.
  4. No connection required. Affords the ability to use materials when not connected to the internet. Yes, internet connectivity is near universal, but it is not universal. I want to know that I can read my eTextbooks anytime anywhere I happen to be and have a device available.
At present, the Kindle platform appears to be the publishing solution that comes closest to delivering on my dream list.

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