The history of digital reading in a fascinating one and I believe exploring its development arc helps predict the trends that may lie ahead. Thinking about what worked early on – meaning what was read in digital form – use cases where search, find, and quick read were the primary means of interacting with the content, such as encyclopedias and reference works, directories and other data driven compendia.
Very thoughtful and original post. You make a critical point that textbooks matched the ecosystem of learning: one class moving at a constant speed from a common starting point to a common ending point. And clearly, digital change enables our learning materials, at least, to be much more nuanced than that.
Re: “The basic assumption of each text is that students all come in at or near the same level and leave at or near the same level.”
Having taught a foreign language from various textbooks, I can say that there is no class in which everyone is assumed to be at exactly the same level, though it is perhaps always a quixotic hope. The teacher inevitably makes adjustments for as many students as possible. FL textbooks are designed to be used in precisely this way. Many include sets of questions in the introduction to help the student determine what to work on, as well as tests at the end of chapters. Students naturally learn to work with the textbook at their own pace. A good teacher expects more from advanced students and recognizes real progress in the less advanced students.
I’m not sure there is anything earth-shattering a digital book can bring to *this aspect* of the textbook. It is up to the author to create a pedagogically sound design, and up to the teacher to coach the students on how to use the textbook.
One way a digital approach might address the problem of different levels of ability is a kind of rental or buy-in to a whole set of textbooks, so the student is free to move forwards and backwards through the material preceding and subsequent to the class.
But even this may be resisted by educators. After all, the student is always free to go to the library for more material, or to work with a tutor if they are behind. The whole point of a class is to be working together on a subject, to be on the same page. That motivates less advanced students to catch up, and it helps the ‘advanced’ students to solidify material of which they may not yet have a perfect grasp.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing two of the most influential forces in publishing today: Cathie Black of Hearst and Jane Friedman of Open Road Integrated Media at the Publishing Business Expo. We spent an hour talking about the impact of digital on the book and magazine industries and both Cathie and Jane were immensely impressive. To open our session entitled Reinventing Today‘s Publishing Company,Cathie and Jane each spent 10 minutes in their opening remarks. Jane presented the 4-layered “cake” that is the structure of Open Road, and Cathie played a video and followed it up with an overview of the goal behind the massive effort that will roll out behind the campaign entitled “Magazines, The Power of Print.”
After she played the video Cathie said “We don’t have a print problem in magazine publishing, we have an advertising problem.” I couldn’t agree more.
Brian O’Leary (who knows magazines the way you and I know books) wrote a great post on his blog about how the mags have built these huge and costly rate bases so that they’re getting killed on their print fulfillment at the same time the ad market tanked. Unfortunately for them, print advertising is a form of “broadcast media” that isn’t particularly “careful” about whom it hits (unlike a targeted Google message) and brooks almost no “response” (as in click-thru.) So magazine publishers committed themselves to selling print ads just ahead of watching the business really tank.
I think the poor magazine publishers have already bought a lifetime supply of lemons. You’re right that lemonade won’t sell as Diet Coke, beer, or Pinoit Noir, but I’m afraid they don’t have a lot of choice.
Glad Black Plastic Glasses is back in the saddle and proud to be delivering the first comment of the new era.
Thanks Mike – I am always flattered to be in your company!
I agree that the magazine folks are indeed in a pickle and its not one they necessarily caused – Madison Avenue sold the world on display advertising and the rates just grew from there.
While they do have great circulation and great audience penetration – but when dollars are too valuable to be be ventured against donuts, display advertising and its lack of direct action-ability takes a far back seat seat to campaigns that pay for performance.
I hope the publishers in the video find ways to take advantage of their amazing brands and build content verticals around their products that bring their customers online. I hope they do it sooner than later as the closing this past fall of venerable magazines such as Gourmet is simply a harbinger of things to come.
I admit I haven’t been able to find all your opinions on the downside to publishers dealing through e-commerce ,however has anyone addressed the fact that people are not likely to lend others their e readers therefore forcing the sale of many more books than a publisher might have sold to begin with..I think it is so obvious that a new novel or especially a textbook is loaned out and given away or read by many others that cannot be monetized by a publisher, so to me if they get to sell a book via e commerce they are likely to sell and earn from many more downloads than actual hardcover sales.
First of all, congratualtions on your new work gig!
As someone who still puts food on the table by virtue of working in print, I think the recent “pro-print” campaign has the same desperate feel as re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
The chief problem with print advertising is that it is inherently difficult to measure. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone present a credible ROI for print advertising. Not to say that print advertising doesn’t work, but does anyone really know how well it works? This is where digital has a significant advantage.
And to Eric’s post above, at some point, just like with music, the content of e-readers will be easily transported to other devices post-purchase, eliminating the need to “loan” an expensive device (people don’t loan their iPods to friends, but they certainly do share the content of their iPods).