Archive for December, 2011

The Textbook Guru’s Year in Review

Happy Holidays and thanks for reading The site was launched in January 2011 as a way to start, carry out, and share conversations about education, technology, and the textbook business. These are the conversations in which I engage on a daily basis and the questions I get, all gathered here for the community’s benefit.

I’ve looked at my year that was and scoured the site to better understand my readers, what interests you, the kinds of things you want to discuss, and gather some ideas to move forward in 2012. Here’s what I’ve found:

– The blog has had over 15,000 views since first post.
– The busiest day saw more than 385 visitors.
– We’ve posted 91 articles (this will make 92 for the year).
– The Guru (in the forms of email and Twitter) has more than 162 followers/subscribers.
– More than 70 reader comments have been posted.

The Top-5 Articles:
– Amazon Rental – Are eBooks and Rental Actually Cheaper? (link)
– Budgetext Closes Its Door (link)
– International Textbook Editions: A Cheaper Alternative? (link)
– The Move to Digital: Consumer Trends and Drivers Towards e-Textbook Adoption (link)
– Is College Getting Too Expensive? (link)

When I started the blog, I didn’t know what to expect and given the straight-talk approach as an industry insider, I was even a bit worried that I might ruffle some feathers along the way. Anyone who knows anything about academic publishing and technology and education knows that these are industries that are guarded, places where people do not like to share information, an atmosphere where people are suspicious of change. So I wasn’t sure how my no-nonsense posts containing facts as well as my own opinions would go over.

It is fair to say that I have been delighted by the response and that any expectations I might have had have been exceeded. The most important thing I’ve realized is that the blog is only good and useful and valuable if you want to read it. And it seems that enough people do. So, during this holiday season I give thanks to you for taking time out of your busy days to read my thoughts and to respond with your own.

I’d like to hear from you about what you like and dislike about the blog and what you’d like to see in the upcoming new year. Feel free to post it for others to read or email me directly (link).

Thanks again and I wish you a happy and healthy new year.

California Senate Takes Steps to Make eTextbooks Free and Available

ImageToday, December 13th, the California’s Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) announced new legislation to lessen college expenses for students. The bill will create a free online library of digital textbooks full of the most common lower division courses taken by college students in California.President Steinberg was joined by college students and instructors today at the state capitol building for the announcement. Students announced an online petition targeted at legislators and college professors to show support for the bill.Speakers included students from UC Davis and CSUS, Dr. Larry Green, Mathematics Co-Chair at Lake Tahoe Community College and 20 Million Minds Foundation President Dean Florez.

As the state continues to cut the financial aid available to schools and students they are seeking ways to make the cost of college more affordable.  When looking at the financial trends you can see the cost of college, and its materials have grown at a exponential rate over the past 30 years.

According to George Skelton at the Capitol Journal: In 1980, the average annual cost of undergraduate tuition and fees at the University of California was $776. Today, it’s $13,218. That’s an 18% increase over last year, which was 14% higher than the previous year, which was 23% steeper than the year before that.

Add up room, board, books and pocket change and you’re easily into 30-plus grand.

In the California State University system, average annual fees were $160 in 1980. Now they’re around $6,500, up 23% in the last year. Another hike is on tap for next September.

At community colleges, there were no academic fees before 1984. That year, a $5 per unit charge was imposed. Now it’s up to $36; figure $864 annually for a full load. Sure, that’s a bargain. But it’s still a difficult reach for a single mom working a part-time job.

Darrell Steinberg, the lawmaker introducing the bills adds that the average college textbook in 2010 cost $104, a 24% increase from five years before. Between 1986 and 2004, textbook prices rose 186%, double the inflation rate. Students can expect to spend more than $1,100 a year on books.

One of the answers, according to the new proposal law is to establish a council to select 50 courses for the program to target.  Those courses would then have material sent out to bid with the goal of free online materials or a printed version for under $20. All materials created under the program would be housed in a “California open-source digital library”  similar to the one we discussed being produced in the State of Washington.  Steinberg estimates the start up costs of this project to be around 20 million dollars but anticipates an annual savings of student of over 1 billion dollars.

The key to the success of this program and others under way is their ability to create content that is as good or better than the materials provided by the publishers and then to get the faculty to adapt them.  It is a multi step process and I agree it needs to start somewhere but a lot of parts are required to get this locomotive moving down the track. I applaud the effort and will keep an eye on its progress.

eBooks Get Head Start on Young Readers

ImageThis week marks another small but adorable step forward for the move to digital. The world’s largest digital library for kids, MeeGenius Inc., announced a partnership with Fuhu Inc. to provide it’s library on the first Android tablet made especially for kids.

It seems like a match made in elementary school heaven. Fuhu Inc is the company behind Nabi, an Android based tablet made especially for kids. It looks like a pretty standard Android tablet except that it has a large red rubber bumper around the edges to make it more kid friendly/resilient. It also has case/stand combos available to make the tablet look like a leopard or a dinosaur, making it easier for very young children who are lacking in coordination. I’m an adult and I drop my iPhone several times a day, so the though of putting a tablet in the hands of a child seems a risky, but I have to admit I see it more and more often out in public.

However, wrapping a tablet in rubber to ‘kid-proof’ it doesn’t mean they’ll use it. What makes the Nabi tablet so great for kids is that it is designed to be navigated by children. The home screen offers large, colorful buttons for each app, an easy enough system for today’s tech savvy youth. Nabi plays games like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, it plays movies in hi-def, has educational apps like Fooz Kids University, and now, thanks to MeeGenius it has hundreds of children’s stories as well.

Launched almost two years ago, MeeGenius digitizes children’s stories and makes them available on Google and Apple iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad. At just a few dollars a piece, these books won’t break the bank. Each story can be read by flipping through it like a normal eBook, or you can listen as the book is read aloud and follow along as it highlights each word as it’s read.

This kind of partnership may seem a small shift in the world of eBooks, but I believe it is more than that. While it won’t help today’s cash strapped college students avoid high textbook prices, it does mean tomorrows college student’s will have increasingly grown up reading eBooks for pleasure and for school. That is to say, any move to digital is a step towards cheaper books that are easier to use and easier to get. Just as we are watching a generation mature that has always had cell phones and Internet in their lives, next we will see students who expect to use eBooks for learning and the demands (and wallets) of these students will accelerate our move to digital.

A $10-Million Textbook Giveaway: Kno Wants You to Get to Know eBooks

Well, the guys at want to make sure that you have no excuses when it comes to trying an eBook and they’re willing to give you a freebie in hopes that you’ll buy more. They’re so convinced that you’ll love and buy eBooks that they are quite literally banking on it by giving away $10-million worth of eBooks. Now I can’t be sure how they calculated that value — Is it is based on the list price, a sale price, something else they’ve factored in? — but any way you cut it, that is a lot of books and bucks (For more about Kno eBook capabilities, check out my review of the Kno platform.)

While an exciting promotion, Kno is not the first to try it. Last year we covered how Neebo was giving away 100,000 textbook rentals, a number the company valued at close to $6 million in costs, but that campaign was not very successful and the results of the giveaway indicate that only about 10,000 books were in demand and given away. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty sure the marketing guys working for Kno will successfully execute this campaign. They’ve proven successful in similar social-media campaigns such as the one they (under a different company moniker) did for Chegg, which resulted in more than 30,000 students posting and tweeting codes for discount textbook rentals.

The Kno campaign is purely viral, which means it is dependent on one person telling another and that person telling many more and the message spreading that way. It’s low cost to them and there’s incentive for you: the more people you tell, the better your chances are for getting a book and the quicker you get your book delivered to you. They’re counting on you to want the product and be willing to work for it, knowing that the work simply means spreading the word. It’s got some game-like elements similar to the Orbitz Fill the Plane campaign.

Full program details are still murky and not yet defined anywhere on the Web. All the official site states is that:

  • Kno is giving away up to $10 million worth of free eTextbooks during December 2011 – January 2012.
  • The Program favors users who share with Facebook friends and it is first come, first served.
  • Must be a U.S college student or professor with a valid .edu email address in order to participate.
  • One free textbook limit per user, subject to textbook availability.
  • No credit card or purchase necessary.
  • Kno reserves the rights to discontinue the program at any time.

That begs a few questions.
1) What does “up to $10 million” mean?
2) What books are available in the program?
3) How much have the marketing folks got sewn up already and how much are they still cobbling together?
4) What would it take for this endeavor to be considered successful?

Only time will tell the answers. For now, the entry is easy, just give them your email address. I am not a student and don’t have a .EDU address. If you do, sign up and let me know how it goes. I would love to hear some feedback about getting a book and your experience with Kno, the campaign, and any other aspects of the textbook business.

eBook Review: Inkling

Next up in our review series on eTextbook readers is Inkling. A few weeks ago we reviewed the Kno app for iPad, so if you  missed that one check it out here. For this review we are using the Inkling app for iPad, which can be downloaded for free from the iTunes app store. It’s important to note that the iPad app is the only way to use Inkling, it is not offered on web or other mobile platforms. So if you don’t have an iPad, you’re out of luck. After downloading the app, I started searching around the Inkling store for a textbook to try.

In the process of purchasing books, there are two very important distinctions between Inkling and Kno. First, Kno has a 15 day return guarantee on all of their titles, given that you don’t flip past a certain page number (for my chemistry text that was page 59). Inkling however does not allow returns without a documented problem with the book itself. So if you’re a student trying to decide between the electronic version and hard copy of a text, you have to commit to one or the other. However, in Inklings defense, you are able to buy individual chapters out of books, rather than all at once, which Kno does not allow. So if you know you’ll only need a chapter or two, you can usually pick them up for $3-$7 a piece, or you can take the first chapter out for a trial run before purchasing the whole book. Also, Inkling offers one free chapter from just about every book they sell, so you can get a feel for how beneficial the book will be before deciding to spend any money at all.

For this review I browsed free chapters from several books in several disciplines to get a feel for how the varying Inkling features are used. Just like the Chemistry book from Kno, I feel that the Inkling features were best presented in the science texts, hence most of the images you will see are from Biology, Ninth Edition by Kenneth A. Mason. So lets dive into what Inkling has to offer.


The Inkling home screen is just as simple and easy to use as you’d expect anything for the iPad to be. All your purchased books are displayed as large tiles that you can tap to launch the book. Want to get another book? Easy, just tap the giant ‘Add content’ tile, or click the ‘Inkling Store’ link at the bottom. Books can easily be downloaded within the app as a whole or by the chapter. One interesting feature accessed from the home screen is the ‘Community’ section. From here you can find and follow other Inkling users to see what they are reading and exchange notes. As an individual user this is a bit of a novelty, however if you are working with a group it will make sharing notes simpler than ever.

After selecting a book, navigation within it is very simple. Chapters are displayed as images and selecting one allows you to scroll through each section (Chapter 5.1, 5.2, 5.3 ect.) with details on what is contained within each sub section. This is an advantage over Kno, with which you must scroll from the start of a chapter to find a particular section. It also allows you to skip directly to video and other multimedia content contained within each section.

Once you’ve found your appropriate chapter and you’ve begun reading, the dynamic features of Inkling really begin to show. First lets start with the video content, because there is a lot of it. Nearly every section in my biology book had at least one video explaining a theory or process, such as the one below describing photosynthesis. Others are interviews with experts in the field, describing principles in their own words. There are also audio recordings of experts designed to enhance  certain passages, and as an auditory learner, hearing someone explain a complex idea is much easier to digest than reading a block of text for me.

Also, any images, charts or diagrams in the text can be expanded with one tap for easier viewing. Similar to Kno, Inkling makes use of 3D Models like this one pictured below of a chlorophyll molecule. Slide shows also offer a concise way to view a series of related images, like following a caterpillar as it builds it’s cocoon. ‘Guided tours’ also enhance static images by giving pop up explanations at each point in a diagram, all at the tap of a finger.

When it comes to the plain text of the book, you have several standard options like highlighting, copy and search. You can also make use of Inkling’s ‘notebook’ feature which allows you to take post-it style notes connected to any amount of highlighted text. All these notes are stored directly on the page, as well as organized into you notebook for quick reference later. From the notebook you can also view notes other students you are connected have made on the same material. I was only able to view notes from Inkling controlled accounts, but this served to demonstrate the value of sharing notes (as long as other students have something intelligent to contribute).

Something I found very useful was the ‘define’ tool, which will look up a dictionary definition of any highlighted word. I’m sad to say that if you want to define a phrase, like ATP Synapse, you’re out of luck, but for individual words it works very well and doesn’t require you to leave the text since the definition displays as a pop-up bubble above the word.


Inkling is a strong leader in eReaders when it comes to features and navigation. I found the interface extremely intuitive and simple to navigate. As someone who made it a mission to never by a textbook unless I absolutely had to, purchasing only the chapters you need makes a lot of sense to me. As you might expect you don’t save any money if you buy the whole text one chapter at a time, but if you only want a few it’s a great bargain.

That said, I’m disappointed that Inkling is so strict about their return policy. Obviously if you have a serious issue with your text they are going to work with you, but what if you got the wrong version (like I did when purchasing from Kno) or you bought your eBook before the semester and then found little use for it? Personally I think having very strict guidelines for returns makes more sense than ruling them out all together.

Overall I think Inkling as a platform is a strong leader in eReaders for textbooks because it’s interface is so elegant and easy to use. However the catalog of available titles offered by Inkling is small and growing, with many titles listed as ‘coming soon.’ That said, if you’re one to commit to a platform, you may want to check first to make sure enough of your required titles are available before purchasing your first book.

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