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About that Impending Amazon-Apple Digital Textbook War

11793949843_f97daae161_m[1]The launch of Amazon’s new Kindle Textbook Creator a couple weeks ago has caused a flurry of speculation about what this could mean for digital textbooks.

Many have mistakenly looked at the vaguely similar uses for iBooks Author and Kindle Textbook Creator and concluded that a great textbook war is about to commence.

I don’t see that happening.

While the edtech market is going through a period of upheaval and that is affecting digital textbooks, I think it’s wrong to frame the upheaval in terms of digital textbooks, as Flavorwire does here:

Enter Amazon. It announced this week that it will launch a new arm of its Kindle Direct Publishing service, one that will “help educators and authors easily prepare, publish, and promote eTextbooks and other educational content for students to access on a broad range of devices.” Amazon’s new service, which will also help “turn PDFs of their textbooks and course materials into Kindle books,” is meant to compete directly with Apple’s iBooks Author platform. Now, in other words, we have two behemoths competing to allow for the publication of textbooks outside the purview of Big Publishing.

After having read the Flavorwire piece a couple times, I believe there are a number of flawed assumptions.

To start with, anyone who foresees an impending textbook war between Amazon and Apple mistakenly assumes that Apple gives a toss about content sales. As I pointed out in July 2013, Apple’s profit is in hardware, not content.

This is where Apple makes its money:


Case in point: The LA school district’s 2013 plan to give iPads to every student actually paired iPads with Pearson curricula, and not content produced through iBooks Author and sold in iBooks. Apple’s profit was in the iPads; Pearson was making bank off of the curricula.

Speaking of hardware sales, that brings me to the next point which Flavorwire missed.

Apple can’t fight, much less win, a digital textbook war because they’re already losing the hardware battle. Apple’s ebookstore is irrevocably tied to Apple hardware, which means that the digital textbooks sold there cannot be read on Windows or Android devices, or Chromebooks.

Guess which devices are outselling iPads in schools?

Windows PCs still make up the bulk of the devices going into computer labs, obviously, but for the past couple quarters Chromebooks have also been outselling iPads in the 1:1 device category.


I first noticed the trend in July 2014, and analysts reached a similar conclusion in December 2014: Chromebooks are outselling iPads in the academic market. While this trend might not continue, it has to reverse before you can make a plausible claim that Apple could win a digital textbook war.

Speaking of "war", exactly whose content would Amazon and Apple be fighting with?

As Flavorwire pointed out, there’s a lot of money in textbooks. But what they missed was that little of that money is spent through retail ebookstores like iBooks and Kindle; in fact, as Kno (bankrupt), Coursesmart (failed), and Inkling (pivoted to serving publishers) have shown us, there’s not enough of a retail digital textbook market to support even small startups.

Sure, money is being spent on textbooks, it’s just that much of it is spent by school districts. And that is why the major textbook publishers spend 15% (or more) of a textbook’s sale price on marketing; they want to keep it that way.

And the major players in the edtech device market, Apple and Google (and to a smaller extent Dell, Samsung, HP, et al), are fine with that.

All of the companies besides Google are in it for hardware sales, while Google is interested in, well, I don’t understand what Google wants. They keep releasing free services and apps (Classroom, Apps for Education, etc), and encouraging hardware partners to sell relatively cheap laptops  and tablets.

If anything, folks, the major war right now in edtech is being fought between Apple and Google, and textbooks are only a tangential front.

The war is actually being fought for platform dominance, and so long as Google’s platform pairs platform-agnostic services with cheap hardware while Apple’s platform pairs expensive hardware with services which are exclusive to Apple hardware, Google is going to win.

images by flickingerbradkjarrettLeshaines123

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fjtorres January 31, 2015 um 9:19 pm

Amazon isn’t really angling for the textbook business.
Oh, they’ll be happy if the grab a chunk of it, but for now their target looks go be courseware–class notes and professor supplied content–rather than publisher textbooks. One advantage of that is they get to stay safely out of the hardware fight.

Nate Hoffelder, The Digital Reader January 31, 2015 um 9:29 pm

Yep. The content you mention would work great as the PDF-ish format made by Kindle Textbook Creator.

asotir February 1, 2015 um 9:23 am

UMass Amherst just announced a few weeks ago that they were dropping their (Barnes n Noble?) college bookstore for a bookstore run and stocked by Amazon. The announcement stressed that it should result in savings of expenses by the students buying the textbooks.

This then *might* tie in with Amazon textbook creation tools. It might also encourage faculty to author textbooks for their courses on Kindle, using KDP or this new textbook creation, omitting onerous DRM so that the students could copy, share, markup, take notes and highlight, their etexts.

A college bookstore when I was going to school, sold a lot more *stuff* than just the required textbooks, and Amazon likely looks to gorge on some of that spending too.

To me, this looked like a new front in the campaign by Amazon to disrupt publishers' fat monopoly feasts. But I wonder how well it will work, and how many other schools will be tempted to switch to Amazon bookstores?

More bad news all around for Barnes n Noble of course.

Nate Hoffelder, The Digital Reader February 1, 2015 um 9:29 am

So far as I can tell, the physical bookstore is still run by Follett (link). Amazon is just taking over the textbook concession.

Edit: Here is a critical analysis of the news:

About that Impending Amazon-Apple Digital Textbook War | The Passive Voice | A Lawyer's Thoughts on Authors, Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing February 1, 2015 um 10:00 am

[…] Link to the rest at Ink, Bits & Pixels […]

fjtorres February 1, 2015 um 1:31 pm

Good one.

But I wonder about this:

"The college separated the sale of merchandise and apparel from the sale of textbooks. Students will not be forced to pay steep prices for books to support the sale of other materials on campus."

I always thought the logo branded t-shirts and mugs and school supplies were a profit center all their own.

Where Does Apple Go from Here? | Digital Book World February 2, 2015 um 8:13 am

[…] iBooks Author in Amazon’s Crosshairs? Not So Fast (Ink, Bits & Pixels) Amazon’s new Kindle Textbook Creator has been seen as a direct lunge at Apple’s digital textbook business through iBooks Author. But that may be overstating the case. One observer argues Apple’s primary focus in the education market is hardware, where it’s being outgunned by Google. […]

Kindle Textbook Creator Now Lets You Embed Audio & Video | Ink, Bits, & Pixels April 16, 2015 um 7:36 pm

[…] Kindle Textbook Creator launched in January many bloggers thought that this was the start of a textbook war between Amazon and Apple. I still don't see that particular conflict happening, for obvious reasons, but Amazon is clearly […]

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