How a Student-Friendly Kindle Could Change the Textbook Market

May 06, 2009

Rumors that Amazon will introduce a wide-format Kindle have the news media and bloggers speculating about whether the new gadget will spark an electronic-textbook revolution and lighten backpacks nationwide.

This week The Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon plans to work with a handful of universities on a pilot project featuring Kindles loaded with textbooks. Officials at the institutions named in the article—Arizona State University, Case Western Reserve University, Pace University, Princeton University, Reed College, and the University of Virginia's business school—refused to reveal details, citing nondisclosure agreements. But textbook publishers and resellers, industry watchers, and students have been happy to chime in about what the reported move might mean for them.

Most experts interviewed by The Chronicle expressed skepticism that students would buy and carry around a Kindle for textbooks, even if the device was bigger and had better annotating and Web-browsing capabilities than Amazon's current e-book reader. But the new gadget might do something that all of the current providers of e-textbooks have failed to do—make digital textbooks seem cool.

The tough question is, How will Amazon succeed where all previous electronic-textbook efforts have failed?

A Tiny Piece of the Market

Most college students—more than 80 percent, according to a survey by Educause—already own portable machines that can display electronic textbooks: They're called laptops. And more than half of all major textbooks are already offered in electronic form for download to those laptops.

Yet so far sales of electronic textbooks are tiny, despite efforts by college bookstores to make the option to buy digital versions clearer by advertising e-books next to printed ones on their shelves. "It's a very small percentage of our sales at this point," said Bill Dampier, general manager of MBS Direct, a major textbook reseller.

What the textbook industry needs is the equivalent of an iTunes store for e-books, say some experts, who note that sales of digital music never took off until Apple created the iPod and an easy-to-use online music marketplace. That's why Amazon seems like a promising entrant.

Except for one thing: Publishers have already set up a digital store meant to serve as the iTunes of e-textbooks, and it has been slow to catch on. The online store, called CourseSmart, was started two years ago by the five largest textbook publishers. Now 12 publishers contribute content to the service, which offers more than 6,300 titles. The e-books are all designed to be read on laptops or desktops, rather than Kindles or other dedicated e-book reading devices.

One problem for CourseSmart has been a lack of awareness by both students and professors that the service even exists.

"I've never heard of that," said David K. Belsky, a graduate student at the State University of New York at Albany who started a Facebook group calling for cheaper textbook options. He has heard about Amazon's plans for a new Kindle for textbooks, but he said he isn't likely to invest in one. "I already have my laptop, and there's only so many things you can carry," he said, adding that he regularly types notes during class on his laptop. "I wouldn't sit there taking notes on a Kindle, that's for sure."

Students at Northwest Missouri State University had the same reaction when officials did a pilot project there last year with Sony's e-book reader. Students were excited at first to get an unusual new gadget, but they quickly found the readers too hard to flip pages in and take notes on, and the institution decided to switch to delivering e-books on laptops in subsequent experiments.

"It didn't lend itself to the way students actually study," said Paul Klute, who runs the university's e-textbook project. "The students skip around, they look for key words, they look for pictures or charts or graphs. … They wanted to be able to jump to Page 29 without having to push a button 29 times."

Screen size was also cited by some professors as a problem with Sony's device, Mr. Klute said, so if Amazon's Kindle is bigger, that could help.

What Is an Electronic Textbook?

Still, getting around the image problem may be one of the biggest challenges facing Amazon's new project. Leaders of CourseSmart and the publishers creating e-textbooks for laptops say that more students and professors would use their products if they understood the features the latest editions allow, including easy searching and the ability to share notes with friends online.

Some professors who were early adopters of e-books several years ago say they had bad experiences—because back then many publishers simply sold noninteractive PDF documents that were hard to navigate.

"There probably needs to be a rebranding of the term e-book," said Jeffrey Ho, a manager at McGraw Hill Higher Education whose official title is e-book czar. When the company has shown e-textbooks to instructors, "generally there's a sense of them being impressed and also being surprised that it can do all of these things," he said.

Mr. Ho said that his company is not involved in the Amazon project and that he sees computers as the best device for reading electronic textbooks, rather than Kindles or other e-book devices.

Perhaps students and professors just need a demonstration of what an e-book can do and they'll jump in—especially considering that electronic texts typically cost half as much as printed versions. Amazon has the marketing power and cachet to provide that demo.

Publishers are eager to go digital in hopes of eliminating the used-book market, as buyers are prohibited from reselling electronic books, argues Albert N. Greco. a professor of marketing at Fordham University's Graduate School of Business who studies the textbook industry. That market represents "a staggering amount of business that the publishers lose," he said, "so by going to digital they'll be able to regain what they lose in used books."

So plenty of people are watching whether Amazon will succeed in raising awareness, becoming the go-to spot, and reshaping the whole textbook market in the process.