Apple iBook Author: Still Science Fiction for the Textbook Biz

Our Peter Baer Galvin is excited — and concerned — about Apple’s new electronic textbook business. Here’s why.

Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

I happen to author textbooks, so I watched Apple’s recent iBook Author announcement and textbook plans with a mixture of excitement and temerity.

Before the event, the pundits predicted Apple was about to crack the textbook business — making essential changes to textbook writing, publication, distribution and use.  I worried over how would it affect my business — and that of my publisher, John Wiley & Sons? I noticed Wiley wan’t even included on the roster at the event, though Pearson, McGraw-Hill and other major publishers were.

As it turns out, we all can relax. Apple’s announcement is compelling on its face. But it is anything but fatal.

It isn’t that the text book biz couldn’t stand some innovation. Beyond making electronic copies of standard print books available through platforms like the Amazon Kindle — or offering online lesson plans and texts — the textbook industry has remained pretty much the same for decades.

But Apple’s plans for textbooks and its iBook Author App are nebulous. It feels more like the old Apple iPod Hi-Fi project — remember that? Interesting. Worth understanding. But not of long-term impact. At least not in the current rendition.

Apple is just the latest in a long line of companies trying to modernize textbooks. Publishers have been trying to online for years. My publisher, Wiley, has an online library and a facility called WileyPLUS, for instance. The system has online lesson plans, problems, projects, full book contents and grading. But few professors ever use it.

No reason for it.

On the outside, Apple’s effort does look different. Apple has the marketing clout, a world-class platform in its iPad and a huge and loyal following in education. It’s potentially lucrative for authors and app makers ready and willing to create apps and ebooks for the platform.


But Apple has a lot of hurdles to jump before it improves the age old textbook state of the art.

The first problem is the End User Licensing Agreement (EULA) that comes with the new iBooks Author application in the Mac App Store. Not only does it apparently claim ownership of the books authors publish, but it also states that if you author and distribute a book with it, you’re only able to sell it via iTunes forever more.

Even worse, the iPad is the only eTextbook reader Apple supports.

Did the publishers that have announced support for the Apple platform really agree to not sell their ebooks via any other avenue?  Do potential textbook authors really want to limit the platform for selling and reading their ebooks to Apple and the iPad? I know I don’t.

Further challenges await Apple down the road. A lot depends on whether school districts provide iPads in some way to all of their students as a textbook reading platform. That’s expensive. The math, as one Associated Press reporter correctly points out, just does not add up.

There’s no apparent or obvious financial benefit for districts. So what’s the motivation?

And then there’s the big kahuna: Approval. Apple, like a traditional publisher, has to approve texts. But at least they do it on the front side. Writing a textbook sometimes takes years. Getting a refusal after that much work — once you’ve competed a text — would be devastating.

Why go there?

Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Apple’s execution may be a challenge, too. Already, the gray-screen-of-non-learning looms large — and that’s the demo. Schools don’t have the time or money to deal with such technical hassles.

All this said, these are short term issues that Apple could get around to fixing eventually.

Today, this Apple initiative falls short. But over the next few years, Apple could well succeed in changing the textbook landscape as technology continues to improve and prices fall in accordance with Moore’s Law.

Imagine iPads at lower prices, higher resolution, higher capacity and with better eTextbook writing and reading applications. Imagine the rich learning applications and the potential they hold.

Such a tool could, should, and possibly will be an innovative learning tool.

That of course is the end-goal and a very worthy one. Improving the learning process, engaging with learners, enabling self-learning, and improving the price/performance ratio in education tech is a noble pursuit.

The cost of a system of eTextbooks plus iPads would be small compared to the value they would bring to education. It sounds like science fiction for a reason. It’s the future. And it’s not yet here.

1 Comment

  • From what Peter says, it sounds like Apple is focused on the format, but not the business model. Textbooks are adopted by busy professors who are generally looking for a complete package — a book, PowerPoints, text banks and other ancillary material. Other factors like accessibility and integration with learning management systems are also important in today’s textbook market.

    That being said, I agree with Apple that future learning material will neither be “text” nor “books” and that the current textbook publishing business model has been broken by technology.

    It is too soon to say what “post Gutenberg” teaching material will look like, but Nature Publishing has taken a fresh approach with their new principles of biology e-text. The content is modular and goes well beyond static text. The business model is also innovative — there are many authors and students subscribe to rather than purchase the e-text.