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IDPF to Hold Epub3 Textbook Publishing Workshop in Boston in September

6096437685_0f99caaf83[1]Do you know how I have been saying since May that Epub3 wasn’t ready? Even more proof of that premise crossed my desk this morning.

The IDPF sent out a press release this morning, pitching a workshop that they plan to hold in September. This is the second Epub3 booster event announced in as many weeks, and it focuses on getting textbook publishers to do something with Epub3:

The goal of this two-day IDPF workshop is to bring together major players of the global K-20 education publishing market – including publishers, educators, platform and solution providers, standardization organizations, content distributors, and accessibility organizations – to help advance the effective adoption and use of e-textbooks and other digital learning materials by improving interoperability and baseline capabilities via standardization. EDUPUB is hosted by Pearson Education, with organizational co-sponsors W3C and IMS Global Learning, and additional corporate sponsors including Aptara and SPi Global.

There are several things wrong with this, both in concept and execution.

Please note that I do not object to workshops like this; it’s the stand alone equivalent of the conference sessions that the IDPF devoted to pitching Epub3 back in May. It’s the kind of thing that one does to promote adoption. Of course, it’s also a sign that, 2 years after the Epub3 spec has been finalized, there’s still a need to push for adoption.

I also don’t see how this workshop will be able to accomplish its goal. I am not criticizing what the IDPF wants to do, but unfortunately I don’t think this workshop will be able to "advance the effective adoption and use of e-textbooks and other digital learning materials". Sure, this might get more textbooks on the market, but that doesn’t mean it will get more students to use them.

The BISG released a survey report earlier this month that showed only 7% of college had bought a digital textbook. Sure, more students than ever are using digital content for their classes but they are more likely to pirate it than to buy it for the simple reason that textbooks cost too much.

Right now the parties that are showing the greatest interest in digital textbook are the major textbook publishers, and given their known history of jacking up textbook prices I don’t exactly trust their motives.

P.S. As I pointed out last year, there are some worrying similarities between the hype between what is being said about digital textbooks now and how "No Child Left Behind" was promoted when it was new. One of the core components of  "No Child Left Behind" is standardized testing. Guess who gets paid to do most of the test processing?

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Ori Idan July 30, 2013 um 2:08 pm

EPUB3 is really not that new, and unfortunately not yet adopted as we would like it.
However this does not mean EPUB3 is not good enough.
EPUB3 is an open standard that leverages the strength of HTML5.
Because it is so advanced, it is not a simple click from InDesign or other publishing software, it requires a change in work methodologies used by publishers today.
This is the reason IDPF have to hold such workshops.
Since EPUB3 leverages the power of HTML5, some of the workshops are also done in cooperation with the W3C.

I believe it will take some time but EPUB3 will catch up.

Nate Hoffelder July 30, 2013 um 2:26 pm

"Because it is so advanced needlessly complicated, it is not a simple click from InDesign or other publishing software"

Fixed that for you.

Ori Idan July 30, 2013 um 2:57 pm

I agree it is complicated, however I do not think it is needlessly complicated.
Do you have a better way to offer that will address all the needs that EPUB3 is built to answer?
If you do, why not suggest them to the IDPF instead of just ranting about it.

Nate Hoffelder July 30, 2013 um 3:06 pm

I reject the premise of your question.

Can you justify why we need a single format with all the fooferaw when 80% of the market would have been satisfied with improved CSS, html and metadata? (Actually that 80% of the market doesn’t need anything new at all; I just happen to like the idea of making ebooks look prettier.)

And people have already made alternate suggestions. I would be surprised if the ideas were only shared with me and not publicly. I’ve asked around and gotten several ideas, and over the past year I heard a few others.

In case you’re wondering I am partial to the idea of paring Epub3 Lite back to what could be supported by Webkit (plus metadata). I think it could be an ideal first step in terms of ROI.

Ori Idan July 30, 2013 um 3:14 pm

EPUB3 has many features just like InDesign or other such applications have many features. You don’t have to use them all.
Note that most EPUB3 features I know where suggested by publishers or other IDPF members.
IDPF does not just invents complicated things. The IDPF is a consortium of companies that decides together on what to include and what not to include.
My company is also a member of the IDPF and we try to influence the standard.
This is how the standard is built, by companies who has their needs.

Nate Hoffelder July 30, 2013 um 4:41 pm

"You don’t have to use them all."

The platforms have to support the entire spec. If they don’t then the implementation is by definition non-standard, thus defeating the entire concept of an industry standard ebook format.

"IDPF does not just invents complicated things."

The Epub3 spec was finalized under the IDPF’s auspices, so whether the IDPF invented or a committee invented it is merely a matter of semantics.

And I have heard from people who have tried to build a reading engine for it. It is complicated – far more so than is needed to support much of the market.

Nate Hoffelder August 21, 2013 um 6:49 pm

If I thought there were anything worth saving in Epub3 or any reason for the general ebook market to adopt it then I would have offered suggestions. But IMO I think we’d be better off if Epub3 died a quick death.

As it stands, my contribution to the debate is to regularly point out that the emperor has no clothes. That’s what i have been doing since I reviewed the Sony Reader Android app in March.

Len Feldman July 30, 2013 um 3:15 pm

Publishers don’t need the IDPF’s help to figure out how to offer eTextbooks. The biggest higher-ed textbook publishers own one of the biggest eTextbook resellers, CourseSmart. The problem isn’t eBook formats, it’s pricing. When students buy a print textbook, they can buy it new or used (and keep it or sell it,) or rent it for the semester. When they buy an eTextbook, it can’t be resold and, in many cases, acts as a rental by being disabled at the end of the semester.

Publishers want to get rid of resale of used print books because they don’t see any revenue from the resales, only the original sale. What they really need to do is to sell eTextbooks at prices well below even print rental, for at least three years. Publishers would "take it in the shorts" financially for those three years, but at the end of that time, the majority of students will have switched over to eTextbooks, most of the inventory of used print textbooks will be out of date, and publishers will be able to slowly raise prices on eBooks in order to improve their profit margins.

Steve Scott July 31, 2013 um 4:27 pm

The problem is price, but the root cause is what publishers call sell-through.

Solve the economics of digital educational course materials and you have solved adoption. In higher education it is possible to do this with a business model that supports 100% students pay and liberal use policies, including lifetime access to digital materials. This is an ecosystem problem that cannot be solved with technology alone. Make it simpler, make it more complex, it won’t matter if you cling to the old consumer economy.

Schools spend millions maintaining subscriptions and purchasing content for their libraries on the premise that it should be openly available to students and faculty as a resource. This is optional content that is used to enhance research – all good. In contrast, the required content for their education is left up to students to find in a decentralized "wild west" of commercial and pirated options that ensure uneven access, degrade pedagogical value,… AND leak revenue for the creator.

Institutions & publishers with the will can solve this together.

Nate Hoffelder July 31, 2013 um 5:21 pm

"Solve the economics of digital educational course materials and you have solved adoption."

Except (almost) no one is actually trying to solve it. Publishers are looking for ways to keep their income up, not solve problems.

Even your platform, for example, is being used to prop up publisher’s incomes. Courseload has been used as part of
For example, during the last couple school years there were several pilots which I believe have a goal of testing campus-wide licenses for digital textbooks, including one massive pilot across 28 US universities.

That is a move to volume licenses, which will at first lower the cost but won’t actually solve the problem. All it will do is disconnect the pricing/payment feedback loop that we have right now with the "consumer economy", as you put it. Site licenses will replace student purchases with a license model similar to the way that libraries currently access journal articles.

Given the current rapacious behavior of Pearson and other journal publishers, it seems likely that textbook publishers would take the opportunity to exploit a market in which they now held the upper hand. That’s part of the reason why I don’t see how a site license is preferable to the current model.

P.S. I say almost because the only groups trying to solve the economics of digital course material are non-profits like CK-12 Foundation, various states Dept of Ed, and some startups.

Steve Scott July 31, 2013 um 6:09 pm

While my comments are not intended to sell anything, but to weigh in on the conversation at hand, I must clarify something here. You have made some conclusions that are inaccurate.

"…is being used to prop up publisher’s incomes" – not true. Courseload is content source independent and we include OER and faculty generated content in our platform without fees for content. We do not participate in the revenue stream for course materials precisely so we can remain neutral about content source and selection.

"…have a goal of testing campus-wide licenses for digital textbooks" – also not true. The best materials win based on cost and learning outcomes. There is no incentive to select one content source over another. We are the only completely neutral course-based delivery platform.

Count us among the "some startups" category as we are among those committed to solving the economics of digital course materials by connecting all content sources to courses without favor.

Nate Hoffelder July 31, 2013 um 6:44 pm

Please pardon my ignorance but I have only heard of Courseload when mentioned in partnership with textbook publishers (and sometimes FlatWorld Knowledge). I frankly don’t trust their motives (hence the "prop up their income"), so naturally I assumed they wanted some type of involuntary payment.

If not a site license then perhaps some type of compulsory license as part of the course fees? I have heard this idea before, though perhaps it was a pilot that was completely unrelated to Courseload.

And I do realize that Courseload is a neutral platform, which is why I went back and tried to phrase the comment to reflect that. That’s also why I added the postscript.

Nate Hoffelder July 31, 2013 um 5:32 pm

And one more thing:

The other major problem with the economics of digital educational course materials is actually the used paper textbook market.

When i was in school my textbook costs rarely exceeded 20% of the retail price. I usually sold my textbook and recouped my costs. Unless the cost of digital textbooks are going to drop to 20% then they will continue to be uneconomical when compared to paper textbooks.

And since digital textbooks are seen by some publishers as a solution to the problem of the used textbook market, I do not see them as being very interested in solving the economics of digital educational course materials.

Steve Scott July 31, 2013 um 6:24 pm

You hit the nail on the head. The interest that publishers will have in solving the equation is access to this segment of the market. If textbooks (and other digital course materials) no longer must be break-even in the first 9 months because of the erosion of piracy and used books, the publishers can reduce their costs dramatically and they will be happy to do so.

The industry is trying to calculate the actual sell-through of paper and it’s dismal. That is why the costs are so high. It’s a combination of captive market (not enough sources) and secondary market (used books, black and gray market alternatives). Solve those and the incentives are in place for self-interest to be aligned – a well functioning ecosystem.

As for the format itself – I think it is an important thing to get right and your points are well made about areas for improvement. But the root cause of failure to thrive thus far is economic not technical. EPUB3’s can’t be more expensive to produce than the myriad of different outputs all starting with "File/New/Page". But I digress…

Nate Hoffelder July 31, 2013 um 6:00 pm

And I’m still not done:

The more arcane aspects of Epub3 are expensive to produce and make the resulting ebooks large and thus distribute. Arguably those 2 facts render Epub3 as a non-solution to the economics problem.

Steve Scott August 2, 2013 um 9:08 am

Higher education is exploring multiple avenues to contain costs and increase learning outcomes. This is becoming fundamental to their missions.

When lower-cost content options with comparable quality are available, they will drive the pricing models of competitive content. So how do you make these choices readily available? First is through a means of distribution that enables more choice. Before the internet, the means of distribution was limited to paper and cardboard and intellectual content creators worked with publishers to market their wares. In the digital world, content creation and distribution capabilities are open to all would-be authors, including those whose only prior choice was to work with a publisher. Publishers will have to compete on price and quality with writers who choose to market thier own content as well as purveyors of open-source content. If publisher prices remain too high, more alternatives will emerge. This is a key difference from the library license experience you noted.

The second way is for institutions to apply demand aggregation efforts to content. When individual professors make purchasing decisions on their own and in a vacuum, students pay more. When institutions leverage the purchasing power of all of their constituents, prices come down. Many institutions have seen success in negotiating hardware and software discounts for students and faculty. Why not content? When an institution can guarantee that all students acquire assigned content, you can get to the lowest prices. This is because the used book market, rentals and piracy are foreclosed, and, with an increase in volume, publishers can profitably work with substantial price decreases. As an example, dig into the content pricing that large proprietary institutions like the University of Phoenix have been able to negotiate. Properly set up, this approach can be a win for both the creators and the users.

In sum, demand aggregation is a powerful force in commerce and it favors the consumer as long as the cost savings is passed along in some way. That could be with fees, included in tuition, or through the bookstore.

But demand aggregation does not mean lack of choice. In fact, it is through a multiplicity of choices that the economy thrives. A guided education requires that the course material choice be left with the educator, not the student, while still offering student choice in the areas of accessibility, devices, and adaptive learning options.

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