Is The $10 Digital Textbook for Real?

Affordable digital textbooks are a hugely important part of the future of education. Campus and Technology (“Developing a $10 Digital Textbook”) had an attention-grabbing story about a fantastic project at Purdue University with Skyepack to move away from the standard $160-per-textbook-per-semester pattern:

“Upon hearing about Faris’s concerns, the university approached her about writing a custom e-text for the course through its digital textbook development pilot program. The book, A Concise Guide to Interviewing, would cost only $10; students would have unlimited access to it after the end of the semester; and they would continue to receive any updates she made to the book.”


I’d honestly not heard of Skyepack before — but they seem to be doing a lot of things right. The part that I am an especially big fan of is their approach to a digital textbook solution that is not tied to a specific closed ecosystem:

“According to Bowen, many of the digital publishing tools available on the market today — most notably iBooks Author — are focused on very specific ecosystems. ‘Now iBooks Author is a tool that allows people to simply craft material in a number of different ways, but to get the most out of it everybody has to have an iPad,’ said Bowen. ‘Plus you have to have OSX machines or Macs to craft the content or craft the iBook in the first place.’

The Skyepack development team wanted to support multiple platforms using common standards such as HTML5, so authors could develop their content in other tools and Skyepack could import that content and format it for distribution on multiple device platforms.”

Not only that, I think Skyepack is really on to something in how to think about disaggregating the traditional notion of the textbook:

“The ‘pack’ part of Skyepack is the platform’s name for topical collections of material, similar to a chapter of a book. ‘Think of it as a collection of content interactions that surround a particular topic,’ said Bowen. ‘Rather than crafting the entire book, the instructor creates packs, so they can craft the e-text in an iterative or progressive fashion over time.’”

Purdue’s pilot digital textbook program (check out their website: Affordable Textbooks at Purdue) is extremely interesting and worth keeping an eye on. If it continues to succeed, this could be a model that we see more and more at higher education institutions soon.

The $10 Textbook idea has been kicking around for awhile (see also, Gigaom: “Scribd and the new era of the $10 textbook”) but it is still far from a reality. The law professor perspective on the self-publishing revenue model is worth a read, too:

digital textbooks vs. print textbooks

“Compared to 99 cent or free eBooks, a $10 downloadable book may sound expensive. But, compared to the typical law school dead-trees casebook, $10 is a ridiculous bargain. Many print casebooks of comparable size cost $150 or more. … While we could easily justify a higher price than $10, we’re not exactly philanthropists. Here’s how I see the math: a $150 casebook may have a $110 price wholesale (or less). At 10% royalties to the authors, Rebecca and I would share $11. At the $10 download price, Scribd takes $2.25 a download, leaving us author royalties of $7.75. So discounting the retail price 93% perhaps reduces our royalties by less than 30%. Let’s hear it for disintermediation! Plus, just like any demand curve, the lower price point should lead to higher sales, which may, in fact, make our approach profit-maximizing.”

I’ve been long intrigued by the concept of the open digital textbook. And while there have been some promising forays (see also, The Atlantic: “California Takes a Big Step Forward: Free, Digital, Open-Source Textbooks”), the future of digital textbooks itself continues to be something of an open book.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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