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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Another reason to HATE DRM

I am in a business school class called Strategic Management. The first two sentences of the course description say, “Organizations live in multiple environments. How they adapt and navigate their environments is a measure of their success.”

Note to the teacher — a measure of your success is how you stimulate the students to learn and do their reading.

Note to electronic document publishers/distributors — a measure of your success is how well your programs work. If they do not work or take an inordinate amount of time to work, then they are a failure. If they also clog up my desktop and taskbars, then your program is a double failure. I will never buy another book from you again unless forced. You have lost me as a customer.

Why is this pertinent? The textbook for the course is only available electronically. My professor assigned this version of the book with altruistic reasons in mind — to save the students money. Our version of the book only includes the chapters we are supposed to read, not all the superfluous (for the class) material. Educational books are overpriced (one of my business school books costs $190 new). I appreciate the professors effort to save us money. As one would expect with most everything DRM, the program was a huge hassle and I still can’t use MY book how I want.

A long discussion of what went wrong is below. However, to save time, I have put the pertinent points up top.

I gave away my personal information to two companies. I downloaded a program that is running all the time and slowing down my computer. It took me over an hour to make my book work. I saw a blue screen of death (first time that I have seen that since installing Vista Ultimate). Now that I can view my book, I might want to print it at school where I can print a few hundred pages with relative speed, double sided. That won’t happen, however, because installing programs on those computes is [rightfully] blocked. How about just saving the book so that I can read it when I don’t have an internet connection or in a few years when I have deleted the program (and the company that distributes it is out of business)? It is my book, is it not?

I don’t know whether to blame the publisher, author, or electronic distributor. Whomever is to blame, know that this model is a failure. You need to start thinking into the future and into a world where content is only a means to a different sale — think putting the book online for free, with printing ability, but filled with ads. You will have access to the most lucrative market on the planet (college age students). Stop making me hate your programs, make me hate the fact that I tried to pay for this, and make me want to find a free way to read this book. I am just itching to download Limewire right now.

The story of buying and reading the book:

To buy and read the book, we have to go through two different companies and give away personal information to both. One company is Cengage. The other is iChapters. I bought the book on Cengage’s website and then they moved me to iChapters. The purchase process with Cengage went smoothly. Viewing the book on iChapters was a whole other story.

I was first required to install an onerous copyright program from Oracle. Once that occurred, I could test the program to see if it’s DRM was working (note that this DRM program is now running, at all times, in the background and on Internet Explorer). iChapter’s website said it was working. Great. I then downloaded the book, which was zipped to save .02 MB. Nice. After unzipping, I tried to open the file and was told to either let Windows select the best program or I could choose it myself. I know something about computers (and know that Window’s and the internet won’t know), so I decided to do it myself. Heck, I knew the folder where the DRM program was installed. I found the program and…nothing. I tried opening it through Adobe Reader (the book is a form of PDF). Nothing. What to do?

Like any good techie who has failed to find a solution after hours of trying, I decided to actually read the “Help with installation” file on iChapter’s website. Unfortunately, the installation FAQ was not updated to include any Vista information (although the program I installed was clearly for Vista). Also, the program that the FAQ referenced was something wholly different than what I downloaded and installed. Now what? The help desk is closed. Good thing I don’t need to read this book for tomorrow.

Nevertheless, I gave it one more try. Internet Explorer is usually my go to program of last resort. Kazam…it worked. Hey iChapters, thanks for telling me that IE was the program I needed to use to open MY book.

Plus, iChapter’s left my computer buggy as all hell and me pissed. Nicely done. Good work. Great programming.

p.s. iChapters & Cengage, you should check out Xanedu. I have not had any problems buying, reading, and printing books that I buy from them for school.

Copyrights & Larry Lessig

TED talks are great. I am glad they made them available to the public — lucky us. I highly recommend watching them.

One of the more interesting ones that was just released is Larry Lessig, the veritable Internet/media law professor. I recommend watching the whole video (it is only 18 minutes long). However, if you are short on time, start watching at about the half-way mark.

His point is pretty simple – don’t steal content but we should all should be allowed to re-mix. My generation will create new “amateur” content but due to the restrictions placed on copyrights by the big media companies, we are all turning into law-breaking citizens with a disregard for the law. That is not good for us, for society or for the world.

Happy watching

UPDATE: Sumner Redstone (all of 84) disagrees (here).  Too bad he probably won’t be around to see what happens when a generation used to buying CDs ages and is replaced by a generation raised on file-sharing and “illegal” mashups.