Is this the start of e-Textbooks?

“Is this the start of e-textbooks?” It was 2006 and I was in a production meeting with the head of our college textbooks division. She had just passed around the new Sony ebook reader and we were trying to decide if this was the device that would start the transition from print to electronic textbooks.

The answer then was clearly no: textbooks have large, colorful pages packed with images, boxes, time lines, and tables. None of these features translated to the small, black-and-white screen of the Sony ereader — nor the first-generation Kindle (which felt like reading on an Etch-A-Sketch).

Fast forward to 2010. My boss had just purchased a new iPad and we were passing it around the table. Everyone knew that this was what we’d been waiting for. Here was a device that could support a wider range of content than had ever been possible. The only problem was, we didn’t have the content for it.

If you haven’t been in publishing, it’s hard to describe how much of what we do is based on what has been done before. Publishers and authors create books based on a mental image of how the words will look on a page, how professors will teach their classes, and how students will study.

But none of us had an image of what a textbook should look like on an iPad. The screen was gorgeous, but still too small for the normal textbook trim size. And what would be the point of simply putting a print book on the device? Static images and tables seemed stale on the iPad. We needed a whole new paradigm, but didn’t know what it should be.

With the release of the iPad 3 only a few weeks away, I believe that textbook publishers are finally ready to take advantage of the new generation of tablet devices. This past January, Apple released the iBooks Author app, which lets publishers create an interactive textbook with 3D images, quizzes, glossaries, and iPad-optimized navigation and search. Most importantly, publishers can immediately preview their work, thus allowing a seamless learning cycle as content is written, previewed, and then revised to take better advantage of the device.

While the Author app is good, I am even more impressed with a San Fransisco-based start-up called Inkling, which has developed its own online platform for creating digital textbooks. I like Inkling because its books can be read not only on the iPad, but also the Kindle Fire, Samsung Galaxy Tab, and Barnes and Noble Nook. Additionally, where Apple only allows books created with Author to be sold through the iBookstore, Inkling lets publishers sell their e-textbooks on their own websites.

Printed textbooks are certainly not going to disappear overnight. After all, tablet computers are expensive and printed textbooks are familiar and ubiquitous. It reminds me of the early 1980s, when I started college and my grandparents bought me a brand new electronic typewriter. I lugged that typewriter around for years, but it wasn’t my first choice for writing papers. Apple had just released the Macintosh, and if the computer center wasn’t too full, I preferred to do all my work on that.

Demian Hess About Demian Hess

Demian Hess is Avalon Consulting, LLC's Director of Digital Asset Management and Publishing Systems. Demian has worked in online publishing since 2000, specializing in XML transformations and content management solutions. He has worked at Elsevier, SAGE Publications, Inc., and PubMed Central. After studying American Civilization and Computer Science at Brown University, he went on to complete a Master's in English at Oregon State University, as well as a Master's in Information Systems at Drexel University.


  1. This is a nice take on what’s happening. For any of your readers who want to take a deeper look into the evolution of the e-textbook industry, we have just published a free e-book over at Next Is Now ( Chapter 6, in particular, provides the most up-to-date research information available, as well as market forecasts.

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