July 26, 2008

Textbook Publishers and the Digital Text [7:09 pm]

First It Was Song Downloads. Now It’s Organic Chemistry

Compared with music publishers, textbook publishers have been relatively protected from piracy by the considerable trouble entailed in digitizing a printed textbook. Converting the roughly 1,300 pages of “Organic Chemistry” into a digital file requires much more time than ripping a CD.

Time flies, however, if you’re having a good time plotting righteous revenge, and students seem angrier than ever before about the price of textbooks. More students are choosing used books over new; sales of a new edition plunge as soon as used copies are available, in the semester following introduction; and publishers raise prices and shorten intervals between revisions to try to recoup the loss of revenue — and the demand for used books goes up all the more.

Used book sales return nothing to publishers and authors. Digital publishing, however, offers textbook publishers a way to effectively destroy the secondary market for textbooks: they now can shift the entire business model away from selling objects toward renting access to a site with a time-defined subscription, a different thing entirely.

The transition has already begun, even while publishers continue to sell print editions. [...]

Although the tone is a little negative, one does have to ask whether, with regularly updated online editions, the publishers have come up with a better product? And, again, are at least trying to better their product, rather than adopting the record industry’s attitude of product stagnation and consumer litigation?

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