Possible non-DRM future for e-textbooks?

As my previous post makes clear, I have been thwarted from printing an e-textbook for class.  Frustrations aside, there is a silver-lining in all of this — a solution for my frustration and a cash-generating possibility for the publishers.

First, the obvious — everything that can go digital is.  A few examples: music, photos, videos.   Books are stuck with mildly updated 15th century technology (thanks Johann Gutenberg).  Why?

There are numerous reasons why the easiest-to-move-to-digital format is stuck in 500+ year old technology.  1. People like reading from paper rather than a screen, 2. people prefer holding something in their hands, 3. people want to highlight text (if you are a student), 4. people like having bookcases and seeming erudite (just as I might seem by using that word!).

Unfortunately, in this digital age, those reasons no longer hold any water.  People used to like to own DVDs but now people are starting to download them.  People used to like own a CD/tape player to make mixes but a digital version is so much more malleable — mashups are great.

Most important, reading from paper is no longer the medium from which most people see words.  A large majority of the reading public spends their working days in front of a computer and their nights in front of a TV.  That is all digital (mostly).  I am writing this post on a computer and you will read it on a computer.

When was the last time you read a paper copy of a newspaper?  You probably can’t remember because you instead spend your reading free time going to http://www.drudgereport.com,  http://www.huffingtonpost.com, http://www.nytimes.com, http://www.usatoday.com, etc.  While I do receive the paper edition of the Wall Street Journal every day, I still spend the majority of my reading time online (see my google reader shared items).  I am used to digital and it does not bother my eyes.  You are, as well, even if you don’t realize it.

Textbook publishers, you need to figure this out or watch your business go down the drain (for a reference, see: music companies).

So what is the future of  e-textbooks?  Give the book away for FREE, mix with advertising and watch your revenues soar!  See this excellent article by Chris Anderson (of Long Tail fame) from Wired.  I imagine a future (for my kids since I will be graduating shortly) where they never have to pay for a book.  Instead, they will be able to download it for free from the publisher’s website.  In exchange, the student gives the publisher some personal information and the student receives a book filled with pertinent and appropriate advertisements on the sides of the pages.

The publisher can reap huge profits by this model — advertising access from the most lucrative target market in the world — students aged 14-27 (or so…).  The students win by saving money (school is not cheap).

Would these ads distract students from the learning contained in the book’s pages?  I doubt it.  Every student is already very used to seeing ads everywhere.  They are a generally a mild distraction, at best (and barely register when compared to their iPod, computer, barking dog and annoying sibling).  If a student wants to focus on their reading, they will.

Everyone wins.  I like these types of scenarios.  🙂


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