Apple, iBooks Author, and Open Textbooks: RIP K-12 Publishers as We Know Them

Last week Apple made a rather significant iPad / iBooks / textbooks announcement. Several people have asked whether it is a net win or net loss for advocates of open textbooks specifically and affordability generally. From my perspective, the announcement is an outright win for advocates of affordability and open textbooks. Here’s why.

It’s fairly clear from the Jobs biography and the publishers’ behavior that the original plan was: (1) Apple would hire some rockstar PhDs who would write textbooks (2) Apple would own the textbooks, and (3) Apple would give away the books for free in order to sell more iPads.

This apparently kindled a great fear in the publishers, who consequently agreed to create video- and multimedia-rich, moderately interactive textbooks and sell them for only $14.99.

Now, if video-based, multimedia-rich, interactive textbooks are only worth $14.99 to the big publishers, what are relatively static, text-based books with a few photos worth to them? Answer: The Apple event was the big publishers’ public announcement that they are ceding the traditional textbook market to OER creators and others. Oh, they’ll continue to try to sell the books, but only in the way that a basketball team down 35 points plays out the last three minutes of the game. OER creators have won the “race to the bottom” on the price of open textbooks. As we have shown in Utah, when you don’t have to pay an IP royalty high school-level open textbooks can be printed and shipped at ridiculously low cost – $5 per book last fall and $4 per book this coming fall. And given the statewide announcement in Utah yesterday, plus Reuven’s bill in Washington, etc., we can now “call it” in the same way that elections are called after sufficient trends are evident in the data: 2012 is the year big K-12 publishers gave up on traditional textbooks.

For a number of years, the big publishers have used the price-as-proxy-for-quality argument that says “you get what you pay for” to fight the insurgence of open textbooks. However, when they’re selling their own top-of-the-line multimedia books for under $15, they cut this argument out from under themselves.

But aren’t $15 publisher books a threat to open textbooks (if their primary benefit is low cost)? Not at all, for three reasons. First, the new iBooks system is apparently architected to require the school / district / state to purchase a new copy of each book for each child. $15 x the 7 year cycle on which we replace textbooks in Utah and the $15 book is actually significantly more expensive than (over 130% the price of) the $80 books our schools use now. Second, did I mention you need a $500 iPad to use the book on? Third, low cost is only one of many benefits of open textbooks.

The iBooks Author EULA also works in favor of open textbooks. If you want to sell your iBooks Author created book, the only channel you are allowed to sell it through is the iBookstore. Period. The slow rate of purchase of $500 iPads in budget-strapped schools, combined with the sales channel lock-in, combined with Apple capping prices at $14.99, combined with Apple taking a cut of your revenue when you sell through their store will be enough to make many commercial outfits think twice about distributing their books for the iPad at all. However, if you give your book away for free, say, under a CC license, then you can distribute it for free through the iBookstore and any other channels you wish. The iBooks Author EULA actually creates a very strange commercial-book-hostile / open-book-friendly environment.

Anyway, all this to say that the Apple announcement is great news for open textbook advocates. The publishers have validated our argument that very inexpensive books can still be high quality by pricing their own books under $15, but they have still managed to price themselves out of the market through their protectionism (forced repurchase every year) and lock-in on the $500 iPad platform. The whole thing is a capital w Win for open textbooks advocates and everyone else who cares about affordability.

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  • José Mota

    It is a very interesting perspective, and well argued. I hope it goes the way you describe. One thing that bugs me, though, is the seemingly current tendency to revise the meaning of “open” in open education and open educational resources, making it very similar to the way “free” is used in the context of open source software. People are now also boasting “open access” to refer to articles that give you the right to, well, read them without paying, maintaining full copyright. Which makes ALL content available on the Internet that does not require registration “open access”.

    If we look at the best accepted definitions of OER, “open” means free of charge/at no cost (among other things), not “affordable” or “at a low cost”. I am totally OK with very affordable courses, textbooks or any other resources – they are surely a great step forward to make education better and more generalized. However, why call it “open” if you set a financial barrier? We may argue that it’s very little money, but then where do we set the price bar, above which it is not “open” anymore? What economic context do we use to set this bar? $5 dollars are not the same everywhere in the world. That is why I think this is not a matter of “how much”, but a matter of principle. If you want to call anything “open”, make it free of charge. If you want to charge, call it something else. With all due respect, of course (and I really mean it) for an open education rock-star and long time champion :-).

    • Anonymous

      Jose, I think the point you are missing in my discussion of $5 open textbooks is that we are ~printing~ them, because not many students have access to the digital devices they would need in order to use the open textbooks in a digital format (in which case they would be free).

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  • http://twitter.com/jryoung Jeff

    It was a bit fuzzy at the Apple event, but an official told me that the $14.99 price is not a cap. That is the price of the introductory titles, but my understanding was that the publishers have not agreed to that price point for future titles. It will be interesting to see how things shake out.

    • Anonymous

      Yes, there was some disagreement about this afterward. Several of the publishers tried to hedge on the pricing, calling it introductory, while folks from Apple were adamant that this is the long-term pricing. We’ll see how it plays out…

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