Chicken/Egg dilemma: Textbook publishers rejected by the digital world?

In an article appearing in the March 10 issue of  the Michigan State U student paper, the author quotes a couple of publishing industry executives with diverging observations on the future of e-textbooks on college campuses:

Some of the weight of textbooks and course packets could be lifted off the backs of students if some textbook publishers have their way. Electronic or digital books, known as eBooks, could eradicate the need for students to carry around textbooks and, in turn, put texts into a slim device or laptop computer. Tom Stanton, director of communications for McGraw-Hill Education, said his company offers more than 1,000 digital textbooks — most at half the cost of traditional print counterparts. “Today’s eBooks offer a variety of features that enhance the learning experience,” he said. “For example, many of our eBooks are fully interactive, with audio, video, full search and note-taking capabilities.” Despite the extra features of digital books, they are not being adopted everywhere. Evan Schnittman, vice president of business development for Oxford University Press, said the textbook world has tried to reach out to the digital age, but has been rejected. The resistance is partially attributed to professors choosing books, Schnittman said, but it could be because of publishers trying to pass off eBooks on a group without a standard eBook reader.  “Textbooks have been a real challenge as an industry,” Schnittman said. “You would think that the most wired group in the world (students), would be the first to adapt (to eBooks).”   He said e-readers available now aren’t as multifunctional as publishers would like. “There’s no interactivity,” Schnittman said. “If you highlight a word, you can’t get a definition or get a video explaining the subject.”

It seems from these comments that the lack of a standard reader provides the publishers with a convenient explanation justifying their reluctance to migrate to a digital world. Why should they do anything to hasten the arrival of a day when their monopolistic pricing practices are threatened by the open-source community? (or at least the world of digital content, which generally carries lower margins than hard copies.) One is reminded of the effect the development of the standard gauge in the railroad industry had on interstate commerce back in the middle of the 19th century (which is when the current publishing industry got its start). Prior to a common railroad gauge being adopted by the dozens of different railway companies around the country, goods could only be moved a short distance before they needed to be transferred to a different size freight car. Once the standard gauge was adopted, a single freight car could be transported across the continent without its contents having to be transferred, thus bringing shipping costs down.  The development of the standard gauge railroad is recognized as one of the catalysts underlying the USA’s rise to the world’s largest economy by the end of the 19th century.

Maybe Amazon should be giving Kindles away to every high school and college student for the next five years…(or at least do volume license deals with every college in the nation). Why let the publishers dictate, (or inhibit) the standard? Let the market speak!