Publishers Invest in Inkling, Producer of Digital Textbooks

Pearson and McGraw-Hill announced on Wednesday that they will take a minority stake in Inkling. The move is seen as a major endorsement from the publishing industry of the electronic-textbook start-up.

Inkling offers existing print textbooks in a multimedia-rich format designed for the iPad. The company now offers only 14 titles, but officials said it plans to make 100 available by the end of the year.

Despite the explosion of the wider e-book market and high hopes among publishers for the future of e-textbooks, colleges and their students have yet to adopt them in large numbers.

Matt MacInnis, Inkling’s chief executive, said that students have resisted e-textbooks because they have been difficult to use, but that the success of the iPad offers a chance to start over. Inkling’s focus on painstakingly rebuilding textbooks from scratch in an iPad-friendly format, along with their lower price, will make the difference, he said.

“We believe that this market is going to make an about-face sharply in the next 18 months–between this September and next–when people get used to the standards and quality experience they have with Inkling,” said Mr. MacInnis, who worked at Apple before co-founding Inkling in 2009.

Inkling’s approach contrasts with that of CourseSmart, a competitor with a much larger library of titles that creates digital books that largely recreate the format of printed textbooks. CourseSmart’s approach is “a short-sighted folly,” Mr. MacInnis said. “Sticking a PDF on a screen is operating within all of the constraints of the print book and realizing none of the potential of the iPad.”

CourseSmart officials were not available for comment on Tuesday. In an interview last week, Heather Shelstad, the company’s director of marketing, said a lack of awareness among faculty members that digital course materials are widely available was a big factor hampering their wider adoption.

Publishers have hedged their bets in their attempts to find the right form and delivery model for electronic textbooks, by supporting CourseSmart and their own offerings at the same time. Keith Hampson, a higher-education consultant at Alston Road Group, said the publishers’ investment in Inkling was a signal that they wanted to create a more polished product–“more Apple”–that went beyond recreating the printed textbook.

“If you go with Inkling, we’re going to go up-market,” Mr. Hampson said. “That’s a good idea–I think it will actually be of considerably greater value than the current product offerings.”

Inkling officials declined to say whether they had plans to introduce software for platforms other than the iPad, such as Android-based tablets or the Web. But Mr. MacInnis wrote recently that the company would be offering software for “a number of platforms.”

Kenneth C. Green, director of the Campus Computing Project, said he was skeptical that e-textbooks would see a major turnaround on the timeline that Mr. MacInnis suggested. It is not clear that students actually want digital textbooks, he said, and early indications are that few students believe e-textbooks are a better experience.

It’s also not clear that electronic textbooks will cost much less than their printed cousins, he said. Publishers and others “have to thread the needle between the great aspirations and expectations that these products are going to cost less, and bring dramatic added value,” Mr. Green said. “It just hasn’t happened yet.”

The number of organizations and people that need to work together to offer electronic textbooks will make the process long, slow, and painful, he said.

“I’m not hostile to e-books,” Mr. Green said. “I’m just pragmatic.”

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