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The Kindle and a Talking Head

posted September 4, 2009

Posted by Mariko Fujinaka in E-books books technology textbook publishing

David Byrne speaking at the 2006 Future of Mus...
Image via Wikipedia

I have long been a fan of David Byrne. Not only do I consider him to be a genius artist and musician but he also seems to be a thoughtful and keen observer. I was thus quite curious when I discovered he tried out the Amazon Kindle DX and blogged about his experiences.

It appears my assessment of Byrne as “thoughtful” may have been correct, as he goes into a lot of detail about features on the Kindle DX he liked and didn’t like so much. There are no extremes, either; he didn’t think the Kindle DX was the most incredible invention ever, and he didn’t think it was a piece of garbage. Byrne also seems to know quite a bit about other ereaders on the market, and he comments with authority about the available formats.

All in all, Byrne enjoyed using the Kindle DX. Things he didn’t particularly care for, such as the absence of a backlight or its inability to display newspaper or magazine photos well, were not deal breakers. In fact, he offered positive spins on these points: the sacrifice of a backlight means you get an impressive battery life, and if you load your Kindle DX primarily with text, who cares if the graphics don’t look red hot?

Byrne also imagines how the future of publishing will change as ereaders become more commonplace. For the Kindle DX, which offers a larger screen than the regular Kindle and is designed to accommodate textbooks, Byrne muses, “If those textbooks can be sold as weightless $10 downloads the students and their parents will cheer, and the chiropractors will cry.” Again, though, Byrne is positive. Though he believes publishers will grumble at the lower prices ebook readers will demand, he says publishers will benefit from the reduction in distribution costs.

Next Up: The Textbook Revolution

posted August 13, 2009

Posted by Erin Brown in textbook publishing


As the digital revolution sweeps through trade publishing, many students and teachers are clamoring for an end to the current textbook publishing paradigm.

Textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation since the mid-1980s, according to a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Today’s college student can expect to pay well over $100 for a chemistry, calculus, or economics textbook. As such, course materials account for about 40 percent of the total cost of attending community college. Exorbitant prices have led to rampant textbook piracy, which publishers attempt to combat by releasing a new edition of any given title every three years. New editions render the old ones useless and severely limit the option to buy cheaper, used textbooks.

In response to what many believe is an antiquated, inefficient, and unfair publishing model, the call for “open source” or “open content” digital textbooks is growing louder. (See Make Textbooks Affordable, a student-led coalition whose petition for open textbooks has gathered more than 2,000 signatures from college faculty nationwide.)

David Wiley, former Director of the Center for Open and Sustainable Learning, is widely credited with coining the phrase “open content” in the late 1990s. In essence, “open content” is free and open to modification (Wikipedia as case in point).

Wiley is now “Chief Openness Officer” at Flat World Knowledge, a start-up company that is pioneering the world’s first commercial model for open source textbooks. Founded by two veterans of traditional textbook publishing, Flat World is offering its expert-written, peer-reviewed textbooks online for free. Teachers can mix and match chapters, substitute their own examples, and customize the content in other ways. Flat World also provides social learning opportunities by enabling students to chat live with each other, form study groups, and take and share digital notes.

So where does the revenue come from? (Hint: it’s not from advertising.) Flat World anticipates that some students will simply use the free textbooks and pay nothing, but it’s also betting that many will pay for affordable convenience options, such as black-and-white softcover copies of the text for $29 (color for $59), audio books and book chapters, self-print pdf chapters ($1.99 each), study guides, and digital flash cards.

The Flat World vision is radical, but it also appears to make sense, if the company’s ability to raise $8 million in venture capital (as of March) is any indicator. In the current economic climate, I’m guessing that a lot of students, their families, and teachers are rooting for Flat World’s wild success.