By Sarah Morgan
The new digital textbook Apple announced this morning has the potential to one day help make low-cost college textbooks more widely available, but experts say that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Apple (AAPL) updated its iBooks app to include more functions like note-taking, started selling some digital textbooks for $14.99 and launched a free iBooks Author app that makes it easier for publishers or teachers to create their own textbooks with pictures and video. For now, the textbooks available through iBooks are aimed at high schools, although the company also announced updates to its iTunes U offering, which will allow professors to post syllabi, videos and other course materials online.
The new iBooks Author app could ultimately help tame the high prices of the college textbook market, where titles run as high as $175 or more, says Nicole Allen, a textbook advocate for the Student Public Interest Research Groups. The key to bringing prices down, she says, is making low-cost, open-source books more widely available. Such books are free to use and professors can customize them. “The new app levels the playing field in a sense, offering smaller publishers or individual authors the ability to distribute their content in a way that they don’t have now,” she says. Apple did not immediately return calls for comment.
However, change will likely come more slowly to the textbook market than it did to the music business, says Eric Weil, a managing partner of Student Monitor, a market research firm that specializes in higher education. Students have been slow to adopt e-textbooks: While their market share is growing, e-textbooks still only claim 4 cents of every dollar students spend on textbooks overall, according to Student Monitor’s research. In surveys, students say they prefer printed books because they don’t like to read on a screen for long periods of time — and many say they like used printed books because another student has already highlighted the important points, Weil says. “You’re talking about behavior changes, changing habits, and that doesn’t happen overnight,” he says.
But if today’s high school students, or even younger kids, get used to the digital textbook experience now, they’ll certainly come to college ready to adopt this new technology, Weil says. “This is a bottom-up type process where you’re trying to create habits early on,” he says.