Archive for February, 2012

Bookrenter is Now Rafter

While Chegg has been sharply focused on building a media empire well beyond textbooks and rentals, it’s now clear that BookRenter has taken the hint and is now getting in on content-management and the course-material adoption process. Today the company announced that its now be called Rafter, they will continue to run the site Bookrenter as public brand under the new corporate umbrella. Along with the re-branding they have released a new set of software services that allows educators and college administrators to control and manage course materials using a cloud-based computing platform.

The new system relies upon the company’s eight years of adoptions and bibliographical and sales data to paint a picture of the patterns for more than 11 million titles. The newly named Rafter is hedging its bets that these tools will better enable the adoption process to produce cost-savings for students and colleges. More details on the product can be found at www.rafter.com

This announcement is undoubtedly the first of many of its kind as CAMEX approaches and the many companies servicing the even-more departments of the college bookstore compete to deliver (or at least announce) the next big thing.

Textbook Guru Headed to SXSWedu Conference

I don’t get on the road much these days, but I’ll be making an exception and attending the SXSWedu conference March 6-8 in Austin, TX.

Are you planning on attending? Or maybe you’re Austin based. If so, please let me know so we can schedule a meet-up.

For those not familiar with it, SXSWedu is a three-day conference centered around gaining a better understanding of where learning is headed in this technology-driven age.

I plan to cover the show via Twitter (trying something new) and I will post recaps on the blog when I return. Feel free to follow me @textbooknews to read my SXSWedu coverage (in 140-characters or less, of course). You can also follow the conference via the #SXSWedu hashtag.

The show has a few interesting highlights in case you want to consider attending or following online (and yes, there’s even an app for that):

  • Keynote Speakers include actor and “Reading Rainbow” legend LeVar Burton, Pearson CEO Marjorie Scardino, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
  • Speakers and Sessions cover topics such as college and career readiness, digital content, emerging trends, gaming and learning, open educational resources, and much more.
  • LAUNCHedu is a chance to see entrepreneurs publicly pitch their start-up education business concepts.

I’m really looking forward to the conference and I hope to meet any of you who are also attending so if you’re planning to being there, drop me a line and we’ll synch up in Austin.

Who Controls the Power When It Comes to eBooks?

Recently in the news I’ve seen a few articles related to eBook content providers pulling titles from distributors. This raises the questions about the risks and benefits of this distribution model.

As reported by Mashable, Kno is suing Cengage for breach of contract over the publisher’s decision to stop selling their titles on the platform. According to the article, Kno “infringed Cengage’s copyrights through the creation of a derivative work.” The feature they are referring to is the Journal Feature, which allows users to create a notebook by highlighting passages. These passages are viewable at a later time. Cengage had it first, Kno offered their version of the feature, Cengage deemed that infringement and yanked their content from Kno.

In separate news , Amazon is pulling 5,000 of its Kindle titles distributed by Chicago-based Independent Publisher’s Group over a dispute in terms. The article reports quite bluntly this no-nonsense quote from IPG president Mark Suchomel:”They [Amazon] decided they didn’t like the terms we [IPG] offered and we said, ‘we’re not going to change,’ and they removed them [the 5,000 Kindle titles].” That doesn’t sound like a happy relationship.

Both of these incidents in the past month highlight the vulnerability of this new model as well as the fact that we are still in a sort of lawless Wild West where publishers, sellers, platform makers, and even authors often overlap and they are all vying to be the new sheriff in town. Authors need publishers, publishers need distributors, and distributors need content. But publishers and distributors have strict sets of rules that govern their products and with eBooks, the ecosystem becomes increasingly fragile.

Barnes and Noble in the News

Lots of B&N news this week so let’s get down the three big points of interest:

1) Earnings Report: B&N recently released their third-quarter fiscal report. In a nutshell:

  •  Total sales increased 5% as compared to the prior year, from $2.3 billion to $2.4 billion.
  •  Barnes & Noble store (“Retail”) sales increased 2% from $1.46 billion to $1.49 billion.
  • Comparable store sales increased 2.8%, on top of a 7.3% increase a year ago.
  • Retail core comparable store sales, which exclude sales of devices, accessories and warranties, increased 4.2% over last year.

Interesting and important of course, but here’s what really matters: “Barnes & Noble College (“College”) sales declined 3% from $540 million to $525 million, due to a shift from selling new and used textbooks to lower priced textbook rentals. Comparable store sales were flat as compared to a year ago. College comparable store sales reflect the retail selling price of a new or used textbook when rented, rather than solely the rental fee received and amortized over the rental period.”

It looks like rental prices are affecting stores in the same ways in which they’ve changed the average order value online.

2) New Nook Tablet for $199
This news release is sure to catch some attention as the Nook has been getting great reviews from users across the Web and now the device is really starting to become much more of a tablet a la the iPad and less simply an eReader. Given the upgraded and expanded capabilities, storage, and power (and a very attractive price point), it will be interesting to see how Amazon and Apple respond. It looks like cheaper tablets with more power will be the wave of the future as rumors of an iPad 3 surface and swirl around the Internet.

3) No Amazon for You!
As reported earlier this month, B&N will be pulling all Amazon publishing titles from its shelves for related exclusivity concerns. As we move to a world where the platform is for both publishing and reading, we’re going to see more blurry boundaries, protective covers, and channel conflicts between the sellers, publishers, and merchants. And I wouldn’t rule out authors given the self-publishing capabilities of iBookstore an vanity presses.

eBook Review: Chegg

Plugging along in our eBook review series we come next to Chegg.com. Chegg is one of the biggest online textbook retailers and boasts one of the largest rental libraries available.  They are also one of the largest names in eBooks, and growing. To get up to speed on our eBook reviews, you can check out our past reviews of Kno, Inkling, and CourseSmart.

Lets get started with the purchasing process. Setting up my account took roughly 5 minutes start to finish, a new record so far. Chegg gives you the option to buy or rent physical textbooks, or to rent your eTextbook.

Just ordered the book on your first day of class and need it right away? Chegg has you covered with a free 7 day rental of the electronic version of your book while you wait for the physical version to show up. If you ask me this is a pretty smart feature for them to add. Chegg knows that students will wait until the last minute to order books and this save everyone by delivering the student a product while they wait for the physical book.

If you’ve rented an eTextbook, you have 14 days from the date of purchase to return it, which makes sense since there is no shipping period. This is the same 2 week return period offered by Kno and CourseSmart, although their rental periods vary. I have to admit it seems a bit odd to have to ‘return’ an electronic book, but with such long rental periods it may be even more odd to have need for the text after it’s been returned.

One big leg up for Chegg is that it’s platform is build on HTML 5. There are a lot of behind the scene things that make HTML5 better than HTML but the main advantage for Chegg is that you can read your eBooks from literally any device with a browser and an internet connection. No downloading apps or making sure you’re using Firefox and not Safari or Chrome since HTML 5 will display the same on any platform, which makes reading your books easy and convenient.

What Chegg doesn’t offer is offline viewing. In our modern world, this is becoming less of a set back as you can get an internet connection in more and more places, but the convenience of guaranteed access all the time is no small thing. Obviously this makes enforcing your rental time limit more difficult for Chegg, but other platforms like CourseSmart seem to do just fine with this capability. In the end though you must decide how often you’ll need access to your eBook when you don’t have an internet connection.


FEATURES:


Chegg has many of the features we’ve come to expect from electronic books. Zoom is a handy tool and I particularly like the way they added it to the interface. Rather than a slider bar like the one standard on most programs, Chegg uses a visual button system like this.

When taking notes, Chegg uses the ever popular ‘sticky note’ visual. Your notes are attached to the page you’re viewing by placing a small yellow sticky note icon in the margin. Clicking this icon reopens the note. Bookmarking is done with one click to the bookmark button in your user interface. You can easily browse bookmarks through the ‘Go To’ button which pops up an overlay that displays all bookmarked pages as scrolling thumbnails. I like this visual way to browse your bookmarks, but it could get confusing if you bookmark heavily.
The Chegg Search bar is the most dynamic and well thought out search tool of all the eBooks so far. First, it ‘predicts’ or ‘suggests’ search terms based on what you have typed in so far, much the same way Google does. Also, instead of opening a new page or taking over your current page, the search results are displayed in a tall, narrow overlay bar that extends down from the search bar (see below). This is convenient if you are referencing the page you are on to find the right result to jump to.


Highlighting is easy as well and comes in yellow and purple colors. However Chegg knows that some people go to town on their books with a whole case of highlighters and pens, so they’ve also included the option to add green or blue dotted underlines to text. This is the first eBook I’ve tried that offers underlining in addition to highlighting, which I’m sure will really come in handy for organizationally minded students.
Another standard feature that Chegg offers is ‘Look Up’ which is basically a dictionary tool. You can select any single word from the text and look up a definition. Similar to the handy overlay for search results, your definition is returned as a small bubble that pops up next to the word, so no leaving your spot in the text.
One of the most in depth and potentially most useful features that Chegg offers is called ‘Ask a Question’ which allows you to query experts on something you don’t understand. Say you come to a passage about the Nitrogen cycle and don’t understand part of it. You can highlight the text in question and click ‘Ask a Question’ which will copy the text over into the pop up question field. Here you can type out your specific questions and submit it to Chegg and get a response from a real person who knows the subject. Chegg says questions are answered ‘usually within 2 hours’ which isn’t a bad turn around, but presumably would be longer during mid-terms and finals when question volume would be higher. Afterwards, your questions and the answers from Chegg are stored under ‘Questions and Answers’ in the upper right of your interface for reference later.
This kind of innovative feature is what makes eBooks so exciting. They are a dynamic platform that only needs to mimic the paper books they are displaying, but they are not bound by the same restrictions and this proves it. It also distinguishes Chegg from other eBook retailers by combining the book store with tutoring services. I think there is a lot of potential for Chegg to grow this part of its business by offering more in-depth tutoring as a subscription service for students looking for extra help.


CONCLUSIONS


I have been very impressed with the Chegg platform as a whole. Their selection is impressive, prices are on par with their competitors and the eReader interface is simple, intuitive and robust. Of all the services I’ve seen so far, Chegg seems to be the most conscious of the way students purchase and use their textbooks. Generous return policies, complimentary eBook rentals while you wait for shipped books and innovative interface features make Chegg a strong leader in the field.
With eBook services being so proprietary, it can be difficult to commit to one, but Chegg is one that I would not hesitate to jump on board with. I think if you’re looking to make the move to digital, Chegg is a strong contender to check out because they put a lot of importance on the user experience. It takes about ten minutes from the time you first hit their site to the time you’re reading your first book, and if you change your mind it’s easy to go back. Most of all though, I think Chegg is innovating the market with services like ‘Ask a Question’ and as their library and customer base grow, there’s no telling how how far they can go with their platform.

Free Textbooks for All

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of websites and organizations positioning themselves as student allies dedicated to bringing low-cost or free textbooks. Many of these dot-orgs and dot-coms are relying on open-source content as an equally useful alternative to proprietary and copyrighted materials like textbooks (Correction – Open Source conent are copyrighted martials, they are just published with the intent to be shared more freely). In theory, it makes a ton of sense. After all, the basic concepts of biology, sociology and physics haven’t changed and the base content is centuries old in some cases. However, the publishers have an edge over this open content in the form of PEER REVIEW. Peer review is where members of the academic community come together to review an author’s finds and deem it suitable (or not) for use in an academic setting. It’s a seal of approval, a stamp that the content is accurate and valuable. Without peer review and that endorsement, academic content is nothing more than words on a page.

This brings us to OpenStax College, which announced earlier this month and recently again at the Connexions Conference that they will be releasing free of charge a series of five books that have been developed and peer reviewed by educators (including two Nobel laureates). OpenStax College is an initiative of Rice University and is supported by donations from organization such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and 20 Million Minds, and the group plans to offer more than 20 titles.

The first five books are College Physics, Intro to Sociology, Biology, Concepts of Biology, and Anatomy and Physiology. Once published, they will be free to download and view via the Web, PDF or EPUB. Given the nature of open-source content, faculty is a big part of the development process as they are encouraged to post corrections, suggest examples, or volunteer as editors.

As with a lot of the open-source content now being shared, it will take a bit of time for these books to work their way into the adoption process, but as they do, it is clear that a peer-reviewed book will have a leg up in credibility and thus in getting more widespread adoption and classroom use.

Dispatch From the Trenches: January 2012 Compete Numbers

Compete.com was updated yesterday to display numbers for January. Here are some of the numbers that I looked at.

2011 2012 % Change
Amazon 78,383 88,422 12.8%
Half.com 2,665 2,649 -0.6%
Chegg 1,287 1,581 22.8%
Abebooks.com 1,390 1,567 12.7%
Alibris.com 1,729 1,456 -15.7%
Textbooks.com 889 1,035 16.4%
eCampus.com 717 591 -17.5%
CourseSmart 392 368 -6.1%
Bookrenter 329 347 5.4%
CollegeBookRenter 206 252 22.3%
ValoreBooks 379 244 -35.6%
CampusBookRentals 184 144 -21.7%
KnetBooks 0 71 <100%
Kno.com 36 52 44%

All numbers reprsent vistors in thousands

As with all stats you have to take these with a grain of salt. I have heard people argue they are accurate and inaccurate. When looking at the numbers for Campusbooks.com, they were in-line with what we say in January. If nothing more they can provide a way to show the overall industry and how one merchant ranks compared to another.

Is Scraping Bookstore Data Wrong? Is It Legal? Is It a Game Changer?

Today I read an interesting post at TextYard where they’ve made an open-source platform for students (and other programmers) to scrape bookstore course-to-book data for their own uses. How is this possible? Well, it’s already happening (the post provides examples with links) and it’s not as difficult as one might think given that majority of college bookstores use one of six software systems. Open those six systems and you’ve really opened up almost all individual bookstores. As for legality . . . the guys at TextYard who developed the scrape technique and ported it believe that it is legal (and ethical) and have presented their case.

Data scraping is not a new topic so much as an extension and outgrowth of P2P and file-sharing technology and conversations about who owns what information and what is sharing and what is stealing. Now we are talking providing the middle information access-point in code rather than the end product such as a PDF of a scanned book. My first brush with bookstore scrapes was in 2007 with the company Ugenie. They collected bookstore information and provided it to merchants across the Web so that students could purchase books in a shop-by-course fashion. Almost all of their data came from Follett stores and they were forced to drop the service after a legal battle with the bookstore giant ensued.

There is no doubt that many sites have been, are, and will continue collecting data by scraping college bookstore systems. It’s been an unspoken known for some time, something that just sort of floated around in the ether, and while seen as enough of a problem that store systems put anti-scraping technology in place, it wasn’t seen as that much of a threat. But now with TextYard pulling together all of the code and making it open source and providing documentation, the technology becomes concerted and a much more powerful tool and thus a much larger threat to the status quo. While I salute TextYard for taking this on and putting it out there, I question what’s in it for them and if they’re not asking for trouble by publicizing the project.

Follett Acquires Budgetext

Follett Landing PageSimilar to the move that Barnes and Noble pulled in the late acquisition of Border’s assets, it is now official that Follett Education Services has acquired Budgetext. As reported back in October, in light of the current market Budgetext has chosen to close its doors. While no official announcement has been made, the Budgetext website is now redirected to Follett with a message about the acquisition.

This move makes a lot of sense for Follett’s strategy to keep other players out of the K-12 book space.

Custom Publications — The Next Rental?

Recently, NACS released an announcement about a new initiative put in place grow custom publishing. The “Grow Custom, Grow Green” program was launched with 10 initial sponsors (mainly coming from the publishing world). You can read a good follow-up on the program from Mark Nelson, a fellow blogger.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I view custom as a perfect way for the publishers to increase profits while fighting competition in the form of the used book. In some cases, custom is a win for the student, bookstore, and publisher, but all too often it only benefits the last in that group of three. So what would it look like to do custom the right way, the way that would make these publications of value to more than just publishers?

If custom is an extension of the class or the core textbook, it is a benefit to the student. If it is a replacement for the textbook, it’s very possible that the student will pay more in the long run. While the initial cost of the custom book will be lower than that of a used book, the tailored edition will have a small, if any, resale value and will only be available from a limited number of sellers and for a limited number of students within one school and maybe even one section of one course.

The press release mentions “smart custom” and “examining the content” instead of just “creating another ISBN.” Sure, that sounds good, but who defines the difference and holds publishers accountable? To me, the jury is still out as publishers have proven in the past that they are more interested in bottom-line profits. Remember, the rental and the used book are threats to the publishers’ business model where new print is king. Publishers desperately need to reinvent how they sell their products directly to the student and remove the third-party players eating away at their profits. Keep this in mind when considering custom pubs.

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