Publishing News: Apple's textbook foray may not be as disruptive as it hoped

Apple takes on textbooks, an insider dishes on publishing denial, and how SOPA would affect publishing.

Here are a few stories that caught my eye in the publishing space this week:

The textbook industry might not be as “reinvented” as Apple hoped

The most anticipated, if not the biggest, news this week was Apple’s education-centric event on Thursday. It announced iBooks 2 for iPad; iBooks Author, free WYSIWYG book formatting software for authors as well as textbook creators; and a new iTunes U app (also free) that gives users access to a variety of educational content. (Ars Technica has a nice roundup of the event, and Tim Carmody takes an in-depth look at each new feature.)

According to its press release, Apple also announced partnerships with publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill and Pearson to offer textbooks through the iBookstore. Many of the new textbooks are priced at $14.99 or less — Peter Kafka at All Things Digital explains how everyone could still make a profit at that price point.

As disruptive as this all may look on the surface, however, John Paul Titlow at ReadWriteWeb outlines four level-headed reasons why the textbook industry might not be as “reinvented” as Apple hopes. Specifically: Apple’s solution is expensive and closed platform; it misses the mark on the target audience; forming partnerships with major publishers may be misguided; and competition is as big as the web. Titlow’s post is worth reading.

In addition, a post at Business Insider points out that the digital textbooks will be between 2 and 3 GB. The storage on the iPad is rather limited, with the most affordable model having just 16 GB of space. That may be plenty of space … until your class schedule fills up and you want to have music, games, videos and other apps on your iPad. And to complicate things further, Dan Wineman also uncovers big issues with the end-user license agreement (EULA) for iBooks Author.

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A publishing insider’s must-read assessment of Amazon

Sarah Lacy, author and founder of PandoDaily, published an insightful email from an unnamed publishing industry insider this week, in which the person declares, “now we’re in Amazon’s sights, and they’re going to kill us.”

From the email:

“We all kinda assumed that Amazon was either using books as a loss leader for other things (like getting people to sign up for Prime or simply gathering customer data), or was maybe planning on raising the prices they sell books for once BN and Borders were eliminated as competition. But I think they actually intend to keep print books at their current prices, and they want ebooks to be even cheaper. What they’re actually targeting is the publishers’ margin.

“Long-term there’s no future in printed books. They’ll be like vinyl: pricey and for collectors only. 95% of people will read digitally. Everybody in publishing knows this but most are in denial about it because moving to becoming a digital company means laying off like 40% of our staffs. And the barriers to entry fall, too. We simply don’t want to think about it. Amazon is thinking about it, though, and they’re targeting the publishers directly.”

The insider also points out that “Amazon could probably afford to lose $20 million/year in their publishing arm just to put the other publishers out of business.” The letter is a must-read for anyone in publishing. (And a hat tip to John Gruber at Daring Fireball for the post discovery and his related insight about how Amazon’s bullying creates opportunities for Apple’s foray into books.)

In a similar vein, Don Linn, a former publisher at Taunton Press (among other things), wrote a post over at his blog Bait ‘n’ Beer with 10 tough questions he’d like CEOs and publishers to answer candidly. Here’s a couple of highlights from his list:

  • “Do you think online piracy is a significant factor in your business? If so, can you quantify its impact?”
  • “Using a three year time horizon, what do you see as the biggest opportunity facing your company? Are you investing proportionately to the size of that opportunity? What are the biggest obstacles to successfully exploiting that opportunity?”

Publishing executives looking to engage in forward-thinking discussions should check out the TOC Publishing Executive Roundtable being held in New York City on February 13. The event is free, but you have to request an invitation.

SOPA and publishing


Of course, the highest profile story this week was the SOPA/PIPA protest. ReadWriteWeb had a round-up (read: not a slideshow) of the various websites that went dark in protest of the SOPA/PIPA legislation — including O’Reilly.

Much has been written about the bills, but the publishing industry has been noticeably quiet on the subject. Dan Pacheco, founder of said as much this week and then spelled out exactly how the bills could affect ebook publishing. He says SOPA could “nullify” safe harbor copyright provisions:

“… one complaint could cause BookBrewer to be labeled a piracy site, and the author as a pirate. Our domain name could be blocked, effectively shutting down BookBrewer, and payments we receive through PayPal could be shut off. The same could happen to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo and all the places where the eBook is sold.”

Likewise, Cameron Neylon pointed out a huge problem with SOPA and scientific/scholarly publishing:

“Nature, every Elsevier journal, and every other academic communication medium, are full of copyright violations. The couple of paragraphs of methods text or introduction that keeps being used, that chunk of supplementary information that has appeared in a number of such places, that figure that ‘everyone in the field uses’ but no one has any idea who drew it, as well as those figures that the authors forgot that they’d signed over the copyright to some other publisher — or didn’t understand enough about copyright to realise that they had.”

Megellan Media’s Brian O’Leary posted a piece on copyright and SOPA/PIPA. He offers a rational suggestion:

“Rather than continue a debate that is heavily influenced by campaign donations, let’s try doing it [William] Patry’s way: figure out what copyright should do, and measure how well it is doing it. Then, change the law in ways that evidence says will make a difference. Repeat as necessary.”

For more discussion on how SOPA could affect the publishing industry, check out the Follow the Reader (hashtag #followreader) discussion today at 4 p.m. eastern on Twitter (rumor has it that Dan Gillmor will be the guest).

Photo: SOPA / PIPA by Ben Werdmuller von Elgg, on Flickr


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