NY Times asks: “R U Really Reading Online?”

Yesterday The Times ran an article on Page One that was the first of a series that will investigate how the internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read. The article features several families with children who prefer to read on the Web rather than with books, in contrast to their parents, who are characterized as old fogies who still read books and newspapers, and reminisce about Walter Cronkite and Ed Sullivan on TV. There’s the 15 year old Cleveland girl named Nadia who spends six hours a day online, at sites like fanfiction.net and quizilla.com, which are sites that offer users the chance to create their own stories.

Now she regularly reads stories that run as long as 45 Web pages. Many of them have elliptical plots and are sprinkled with spelling and grammatical errors.“So like in the book somebody could die,” she continued, “but you could make it so that person doesn’t die or make it so like somebody else dies who you don’t like.” Nadia said she wanted to major in English at college and someday hopes to be published. She does not see a problem with reading few books. “No one’s ever said you should read more books to get into college,” she said.

Right. And brain surgeons don’t really need to go to medical school.

There’s also the high school senior from Greenwich CT who surfs over 100 technology and political blogs and websites daily. His name is Zachary, and although he loves to be online, he also reads books (he just finished The Fountainhead). Zachary is entering Columbia University this fall. Maybe Nadia should, like send a text message to Zachary, and ask him, “Like Zach, what book did you read before you went to college? And if it’s more than fifty pages(omg!), could you, like put a summary of it on fanfiction or something?”

After a healthy dose of apocalyptic anecdotes heralding the decline of literary standards among the youth of today, the article goes on to cite two notable findings:

  • A recent study of more than 700 low-income, mostly Hispanic and black sixth through 10th graders in Detroit found that those students read more on the Web than in any other medium, though they also read books.
  • One early study showed that giving home Internet access to low-income students appeared to improve standardized reading test scores and school grades. “These were kids who would typically not be reading in their free time,” said Linda A. Jackson, a psychology professor at Michigan State who led the research. “Once they’re on the Internet, they’re reading.”

While the article makes no mention of e-readers, (like the Kindle) the above reference leads me to believe that if e-books and e-readers were to become standard issue for low income teens, the achievement gap between whites and low income minorities would begin to diminish. Kindles and their ilk are cheaper than (most) computers, and provide unrestricted access to the one component that is the most highly correlated with academic success: books. The ability to read newspapers, magazines and blogs, is an added bonus that provides access to current developments and diverse viewpoints. All this without the cost of broadband access nor the distractions of YouTube. Texting’s not so good on it either. FWIW.

Sony’s E-reader opens up, sort of

The buzz in the e-book world is all about Sony’s announcement this week of its forthcoming support for a more open standard of e-books, called “e-pub”:

From Gizmodo:

A firmware update scheduled to drop later this week will allow Sony Readers to use the .epub format, an open standard (with DRM support) that has the backing of several major book publishers. This means you’ll be able to get books from sources other than Sony’s own Connect store, which currently only has one third the titles of Amazon’s Kindle store. The Kindle, however, currently uses the Mobipocket format for its Kindle Store books, and does not yet support .epub.

More from PCWorld:

…EPUB. It is known more technically as “the International Digital Publishing Forum’s XML-based standard format for reflowable digital books and publications.” Many book publishers apparently are already publishing upcoming ebooks in this format and this is something Sony wants to capitalize on by making the Reader the first device of its type to support this. The Reader model PRS-505, starting next month, will be able to let users access ebooks in the EPUB format. It will also support, said Sony, Adobe ebooks with DRM protection as well as “the capability to reflow standard text-based Portable Document Format (PDF) eBooks for improved flexibility and readability.” These Adobe updates will be possible with the use of Adobe Digital Editions 1.5 software.

[For an earlier discussion of this standard, see my May 19 Post]

To paraphrase another, admittedly more significant milestone, that took place nearly forty years ago this week, “That’s one small step for a reader, one giant leap for e-books.”

Adopting an open format can only help accelerate the range of choices for readers, which in turn will help drive demand for more titles, and other documents that could be stored on an e-reader. Note that the E-pub standard allows for DRM to be applied after the conversion process, which makes it up to the publisher whether the content is protected or not.

It remains to be seen whether Amazon’s rumored Kindle 2.0 will support this standard. One piece of information was notably absent from all the hoopla around the Sony announcement this week. Sony recently made a major announcement about their corporate strategy and it contained the following quote:

Ensure that 90% of our electronics product categories are network-enabled and wireless-capable by the fiscal year ending March 31, 2011 (“FY2010”)

No mention this week about when the Sony Reader will have this capability. To my mind, this is the feature that most differentiates Sony’s reader from the Kindle. Despite Kindle’s less than elegant form factor and interface, the ability to download content wirelessly, at no extra cost, puts it miles ahead of anything else in the category. When does Sony plan to incorporate the wireless feature into their reader? (The PSP already has it, and so do a couple of their TVs.) Until they do, they will remain a distant second in the e-reader world, despite their adoption of a more open format of e-books.

Ars Technica asks: “What about the kids?”

In an opinion piece posted July 20 on Ars Technica, Don Reisinger continues to feed the rumor mill about new versions of the Kindle coming this fall and next year (first reported by Crunchgear on July 15). It’s interesting how a story based on an unnamed source (a search on the string ” Kindle 2.0 Coming Around October 2008″ returns over 68000 hits) can instantly become fact as its frequency of cites climbs).

After addressing a few of the current version’s shortcomings, Reisinger goes on to discuss the college textbook market:

So far, Amazon has yet to capitalize on the $5.5 billion textbook market, even though its Kindle seems tailor-made for such a move. Considering the fact that most students are forced to pay at least $100 for a textbook that they need to lug around campus, the future revenue possibilities of offering textbooks at a deeply discounted price to be run on the Kindle are simply huge. Amazon must be aware of that fact, because just a few weeks ago the company announced that it has inked a deal with Princeton to start selling all of its textbooks on the Kindle store for use on the device. The University joined Yale, Berkeley, and Oxford in its support for the Kindle. But Amazon can’t just stop there. In the next iteration of the device, Amazon needs to actively seek out textbook manufacturers and entice them to offer their books in the Kindle store. Upon doing so, Amazon will immediately put its reader in the hands of millions of college students whose parents don’t mind spending $359 on a device that’s specifically designed to stop them from text messaging and keep them studying.

In the immortal words of Smokey Robinson, I Second that Emotion. But as the folks from Amazon go about researching the consumer side of the market, they might want to check out some of the comments posted to the following item on Gizmodo:

…allowing students to bypass the used book store and directly download their textbooks onto their Kindles. You’ll save a few bucks for the digital version, plus shipping costs and shipping time. And if you figure out a way to hack it, that’s like, free textbooks dude. Whoa. We see this extended to concerned parents of elementary school kids who’ve been complaining about how many textbooks they have to lug from home to school and back.

Some (edited for language) comments follow:

This is great. Several years ago, I had the idea of buying my textbooks, scanning them onto my 12″ Powerbook and then returning them for a full refund. The scanning ended up being too tedious and I gave up. ******* expensive textbooks.

The thing that pissed me off in highschool about the books was that we didnt use them every day, and were expected to have them, and the year would go by and we’d ignore 80% of each book. books are just crappy, heavy, portable chunks of outdated wikipedia

Or here’s another novel idea. Publishers, sell books by the chapter as well as the entire book a la iTunes with music. That way, not only would we save money, we’ll only see the chapters that we’ll actually use.

This is the only reason I would ever get a Kindle, and if I could get the ebooks for less than $140 a pop. it sure would beat lugging a bunch of books around.

Yeah, all the textbook makers are really happy about it – the pricing’s gonna be $20 cheaper (off a $200 textbook), but it also means everyone who buys one, buys it. No abilty to sell it back or buy a used copy.Used bookstores are a godsend for students, as is selling back your old textbooks. Naturally, all publishers are irked by this. Countermeasure one is the new edition every term, thus making resale of old texts less than worthwhile (except if you have an enlightened prof who supports old editions).But digital books? Perfect! No resale value, no used bookstore to compete with…

Does “Reading First” put reading last?

Several weeks ago the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to eliminate funding for the Reading First program, the groundbreaking but controversial Bush administration program that has given states $1 billion a year since 2002 to teach low-income elementary schoolers to read. A House committee also had voted to eliminate funding; if money is not restored before the federal budget is approved in the fall, the program could end. More about the program and the vote can be found in the July 1 USA Today

Any federally funded program targeting low income families is likely to be the target of criticism and the source of much debate on its effectiveness in addressing the problem. But I believe the comments of one sixth grade language arts teacher in Texas carry more weight than all the studies and reports cited in this legislative quagmire. Donalyn Miller is the author of the blog “The Book Whisperer“, and she makes the following observation:

The children cannot wait. They do not have more time. Students, who entered kindergarten in 2000, the year the National Reading Panel report came out, are in high school now. While Washington policymakers fumble to figure out what is best practice in getting children to read and crafting program after program claiming to have the answers, these children are graduating and breathing a sigh of relief that they never have to read a book again. …The only groups served by current trends to produce more and more programs for teaching reading are the publishing and testing companies who make billions of dollars from their programs and tests. …Meanwhile, the people who have the best ability in actually getting children to read—children’s book authors, parents, librarians, and teachers get the least credit (monetarily or otherwise). No hidden agenda exists with this group; they just want children to read…..When you take a forklift and shovel off the programs, underneath it all is a child reading a book….

Her concluding remark:

We don’t need another reading program; we need to go back to the first reading program—connecting children with books. This should always be our bottom line.

Enough said. (But not enough heard; the education industry lobbyists seem to drown people like Mrs. Miller’s voice out).

This blog is one of the best I have seen addressing the issue of how to instill a love of reading among young people today. Highly recommended reading.

College Textbook Economics 101: Pay, or Pirate and Party?

With a new semester starting in a little over a month, the media is full of coverage of the cost of textbooks, and what publishers, colleges and students are doing about it. As you might expect, the solutions and strategies vary depending on which segment of the market they are coming from.

The first article comes from Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, which describes a move by publishers and colleges to create custom editions of textbooks, that carry a higher retail price, along with some legally questionable restrictions:

The University of Alabama, for instance, requires freshman composition students at its main campus to buy a $59.35 writing textbook titled “A Writer’s Reference,” by Diana Hacker. The spiral-bound book is nearly identical to the same “A Writer’s Reference” that goes for $30 in the used-book market and costs about $54 new. The only difference in the Alabama version: a 32-page section describing the school’s writing program — which is available for free on the university’s Web site. This version also has the University of Alabama’s name printed across the top of the front cover, and a notice on the back that reads: “This book may not be bought or sold used.” Custom textbooks like this one are proliferating on U.S. college campuses, guaranteeing hefty sales for publishers — and payments to colleges that are generally undisclosed to students. For publishers, the custom market is a way to thwart used-book sales, which cut deeply into their profits. Though used books have been around for decades, they have become a much bigger industry threat in the Internet age. Web sites for used books, such as Amazon.com and eBay, have transformed fragmented, campus-by-campus dealings in old texts into a national market, where discounts of 50% off the new-book price are common. Because of their limited audience, custom books are difficult to resell — and they sometimes aren’t eligible for authorized campus book-buyback programs.

Whenever apparently nefarious and price-gouging business deals are exposed, one can usually predict two parallel backlash reactions. One is a rapid response, the other slow and bureaucratic. In this case, the first is a reaction by students, the primary consumers and victims of this so-called conspiracy. The other is by the government, which is compelled to at least appear to be doing something, despite the massive publishing industry’s lobbying efforts in the nation’s capital. (From the WSJ article: In recent years, 34 states have proposed or passed legislation to control textbook costs, including measures to prohibit inducements to professors for adopting textbooks, according to a May 2007 congressional study. A bill pending in Congress would require more disclosure of textbook pricing, in part by requiring publishers to sell textbooks separately from the bundles of extras with which they are now often packaged.)

Students, as might be expected when they are feeling exploited, are responding with typical home grown, grass roots solutions. There’s the website: www.maketexbooksaffordable.org, which purports to fight textbook ripoffs, and has apparently collected signatures from over 1200 faculty members supporting their efforts. There is also the predictable market response to this cozy and collusive cartel, which is leading to the growth of the “open textbook movement”, covered yesterday by USA Today. One of the early players in this market is Flatworld Knowledge, which was founded in 2007 by a couple of publishing industry veterans, who recognized that the world was ready for a new publishing paradigm, and that it wasn’t likely to emerge from the established players.

It will come as no surprise, that, if there is an opportunity to get something for free, students do not feel compelled to wait for either the government or the forces of creative destruction to come to their rescue. And just as the recording industry saw its fortunes begin to shift on college campuses a decade ago, the textbook business is beginning to experience a similar threat from file sharing sites. The primary obstacle to massive pirating is of course the difficulty of converting the content from the printed page to a digital format. This step was relatively straightforward with CDs; it’s considerably more complicated to rip a book. As Ars Technica puts it” In contrast to ripping an MP3, scanning a textbook is a major task that requires a significant personal involvement, placing it beyond the attention span of many college students.

The best known textbook filesharing site Textbook Torrents, (catchphrase: “because you can’t torrent beer”) and its administrators clearly view themselves as providing a public good. The site’s rules page exhorts users who’ve saved money by downloading texts there to go out and spend the equivalent money on a scanner. “Scan as many of your other textbooks as you can, and put them up here for others to benefit from,” it reads. “There aren’t very many scanned texts out there, so let’s change that.” Anyone who manages to find all their books through the site are encouraged to go out and buy a text simply to contribute it to TT’s collection. [As of this date’s posting, the site is “currently temporarily unavailable”].

I predict an outcome similar to Napster for sites like Textbook Torrent. Due to their blatant copyright infringement practices, they are low hanging fruit for the enforcement arm of the publishing industry, and they will be sued into oblivion. Given a choice between “Free and Illegal” or “Free and Legal” most students would opt for the latter. This is where sites like Flatworld Knowledge can take advantage of the rapidly evolving dynamics of the textbook publishing industry (both legal and financial). They will succeed if they can adapt their marketing strategies to the channels that are already part of students; DNA. That means Facebook, the most popular site on college campuses after the filesharing sites. A search on FB Apps Directory for “Textbook” yields over two dozen apps (including one called “Free the Textbook”, by, you guessed it, Flatworld Knowledge”), but none currently have more than a handful of users. That will likely change by Labor Day, as students begin to return to classes.