A textbook need for disruption

Nicholas Carr has an insightful piece on WSJ.com today, in which he points out that, with electronic books, the option to revise and update continues past the initial publication. One observation in particular struck me:

Because e-readers gather enormously detailed information on the way people read, publishers may soon be awash in market research. They’ll know how quickly readers progress through different chapters, when they skip pages, and when they abandon a book.
The promise of stronger sales and profits will make it hard to resist tinkering with a book in response to such signals, adding a few choice words here, trimming a chapter there, maybe giving a key character a quick makeover.

This is something I suggested back when I was reviewing electronic textbook platforms, which could benefit immensely from this kind of feedback. I had in mind that publishers could use the data for marketing to faculty who adopt books:

This pays off for the textbook companies in another way, I’m sure, which is that they can track how thoroughly I’ve reviewed one of their titles. I don’t know for sure whether CourseSmart is providing tracking data back to the publisher, but I’m sure they will soon. It just makes sense to collect this information and use it to improve your sales approach and/or to improve the textbook.

But I could imagine the publisher using these data to refine or improve the text to improve learning outcomes, especially if they were also providing a course management platform that provided assessment. Ideally, the book would learn how to communicate better by taking into account its own performance.

How likely is this scenario? It’s almost unimagineable. Textbook publishers make their money by selling new editions. What would be their incentive to improve a “book” after its publication but before they could charge for a new copy? In my experience, almost nothing changes between editions of the books I adopt, yet I cannot officially adopt a previous edition through the campus bookstore because they can’t source the copies needed.

The efforts of the publishers to make electronic textbooks all seem crafted to maintain a business model anchored in the past and centered around physical books. The “electronic” versions they have released are more or less a facsimilie of the paper book — unchanging, rooted in the concept of the edition so important for the profits of a paper world.

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