Kindle Textbooks could be huge. That’s saying a lot for me since I’m not a big fan of the Kindle. It’s not that the device doesn’t look interesting or perform half-way well. I simply believe reading is active rather than passive and there is no motivating agent of change to adopt a new reading platform. So, I’m not nearly as bullish on future Kindle sales, despite the ‘sold out’ buzz and fawning praise from gadgeteers.
Yet, the textbook niche seems ripe for the Kindle. Textbooks are expensive, heavy, frequently updated, largely disposable and reach a demographic eager to adopt new technology.
The US Department of Education (DOE) and Government Accountability Office (GAO) have researched the rising cost of textbooks in the last ten years. Following are a few excerpts from the DOE Koch Report:
Between 1986 and 2004, textbook prices rose 186 percent in the United States, or slightly more than six percent per year (GAO, 2005). Meanwhile, other prices rose only about three percent per year (GAO, 2005).
CALPIRG (2005) found that students at California public universities spent an average of $898 on textbooks in the 2004-2005 academic year. If textbook prices have continued to rise at six percent per year, then this expenditure will rise to $1,009 in the 2006-2007 academic year and constitute 6.1 percent of the estimated annual cost of education for a resident student at a four-year public university (College Board, 2005).
There is a lot of money to be made in textbooks – publishers, college bookstores, used booksellers. In fact, the secondary market in textbooks is perhaps as important to the book vertical as the holiday season. Textbooks provide an ever renewing source of customers who are essentially forced to buy textbooks at high price points.
The Kindle would disrupt this ecosystem which may be why Amazon hasn’t (yet) tapped the textbook potential.
Who would win? Publishers could be persuaded to lower prices for digital distribution based on lower production costs. In addition, if DRM can be attached, the resale capability of textbooks is severely reduced. They likely lock in higher margins, even while reducing the cost of textbooks. The latter means students win and, of course, Amazon wins.
Who loses? Certainly the secondary market for used textbooks. The college bookstores also lose since they’re no longer in the distribution chain, ceding this to Amazon. Folks like Barnes & Noble (who run many college bookstores) and Follett would not be pleased.
Aside from the economic issues, the weight of textbooks has been a growing concern for both parents and educators. Kindle textbooks would solve the weight issue and would certainly appeal to those concerned with the environment.
However, it could potentially expand the disparity in education via the digital divide. Here’s where Kindle contracts with school systems or grants from non-profits could help distribute the Kindle to all economic classes.
Finally, the market is perfect. They’re young, not reading for pleasure and have no real necessity to hang onto a particular textbook. It’s practical and functional. Yet, a certain percentage will begin to view the Kindle as the preferred reading platform and likely use it for more than textbooks. Amazon could actually create the market I currently don’t see through wide adoption of Kindle textbooks.
The Kindle already provides some features that would benefit students:
… you can add annotations to text, just like you might write in the margins of a book. And because it is digital, you can edit, delete, and export your notes, highlight and clip key passages, and bookmark pages for future use.
I still think wide Kindle adoption is a long-shot but the odds would get better if Amazon launched a highly focused Kindle textbook initiative.