A Textbook Case of Digital Disruption

In the era of tablets, smartphones, and general integration of electronics into everyday life, it should come as no surprise that textbooks are going digital. However, the transition from paper to screen is in its infancy, and the field is wide open to produce stock market winners and losers. Let's look at the current state of play.

Killing trees
Old-fashioned, paper-based textbooks present a variety of problems and benefits, depending on your point of view.

  • They're expensive. Really expensive. And they are aimed at a customer base that subsists upon ramen noodles.

  • They're big and heavy, and take up lots of space.

  • They cannot be updated or modified without issuing a whole new edition. (Problem for students, windfall for publishers.)

  • They are the perfect product for secondary markets, where students can buy used books for far less than list price, and resell them at the end of the semester. (Problem for publishers, big savings for students.)

So go digital. Simple, right?
While a switch to digital might seem obvious and straightforward, it's not. Thus far, there is significant variety in platforms, business and pricing models, and delivery mechanisms. There is also the question of whether e-textbook providers generate their own content or act as distributors for existing content. In a field that will require collaboration with major universities, standardization is probably an inevitable outcome.

Let's look at some of the current e-textbook providers and how they compare on key points.




Own Content?



Web, iPad

30% to 50% off print pricing


Embeds interactive tools into existing e-books in more intuitive way.


iPad (plans for Web, Android)

Chapter-based pricing, full books from $60

Sort of

Works with authors to recreate existing print book in app environment with added features.


PC, Mac, iPad; Internet

$20 to $120


Emphasizes portability, adds some interactive features, significant rental component.

Flat World Knowledge

All major devices

$20 per e-book + digital learning supplements


Allows user customization, publishes own, peer-reviewed texts, open licensing.


All major devices, Internet

Up to 60% discount to print versions


Focuses on the platform, seamlessly integrating publishers and institutional users.


All major devices, Internet

Enrollment fee; e-books 60% to 70% cheaper than print


Aggregates and distributes all types of digital course materials from multiple sources.

Nature Publishing Group

Online (device- and platform- independent)

$49 (single book roll-out so far)


Provides dynamic content, constantly updated with latest info.

Apple (NYS: AAPL)

Apple devices

$15 per book

Some of it

Offers visual, interactive learning tools through well-established channels.

Barnes & Noble (NYS: BKS)

Nook, some on Android, iPhone

Up to 50% off print books


Mostly offering content tied to Nook, but also developing some for broader platforms.

Amazon.com (NAS: AMZN)

Kindle, any device capable of running Kindle software

Rentals up to 80% off list price of print


Mostly offering content tied to Kindle, but developing for other platforms as well.

Sources: Individual company websites; USA Today; Washington Post; Wired.com; Chronicle.com; CNN; New York Times; PCMag.com; Forbes; Edtechdigest.wordpress.com.

Let's look a bit more closely at two of those columns. As you can see, pricing schemes are all over the map. Some are pursuing a per-book pricing system, much like paper publishers. Others have chosen a razor-and-blades model. Inkling is trying the course-packet model, offering individual chapters for sale.

The bottom line is that e-textbooks appear poised to save students money in the long run, no matter what the pricing scheme, while still eliminating the trade in used books that cuts publishers out entirely. Importantly, recent studies show that these savings have not yet materialized. Because adoption has been patchy, and publishers have not yet fully committed to cheaper pricing on e-textbooks, study participants realized only modest savings. The trend is heading in the right direction, though, and e-textbook prices continue to fall. As this space matures, I expect it to yield significant benefits to students while preserving publishers' access to all trades.

The question of content ownership is also important. Ultimately, it raises the same debate that we see with Netflix in the television and movie space: Is distribution the magic bullet, or do market winners have to own their content? If the latter, to what extent must content be wholly reinvented? How critical is the platform?

As you can see from this snapshot, companies are trying a variety of approaches, and it is not clear which model(s) will win.

Who benefits?
In my next article, "E-Textbooks and the Textual Revolution," I'll investigate who might benefit from these developments, and discuss what factors investors ought to consider.

If you want to read about other companies that are benefiting from the switch to digital, have a look at our free report: "3 Hidden Winners of the iPhone, iPad, and Android Revolution."

At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributor Sara E. Wright owns no shares in any of the companies mentioned above, but she sure did pour a lot of hard-earned money into their success when she was in college. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Amazon.com. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple and Amazon.com, and have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple.The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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