When Irish Eyes Are Smiling: Schoolkids Get Free E-Readers

The country that gave the world U2, Guiness beer, and the shamrock also seems to be on the cutting edge of educational technology, according to a story in Thursday’s Irish Times:

A GROUP of 18 secondary school pupils yesterday became the first students worldwide to replace their academic books with electronic devices. The first year students of Caritas College girls’ school in Ballyfermot, Dublin, each received an electronic book, pre-loaded with the required textbooks, as well as 50 classic novels including Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice and Oliver Twist . The use of the electronic devices will mean a dramatic reduction in the weight of the pupils schoolbags, replacing more than 6kg (13.2lbs) of textbooks, workbooks, an English dictionary and a novel with a 400g (0.9lbs) e-book.  In addition, the students will no longer need copybooks to take notes, as they can write and doodle on the electronic pages, similar to a regular copybook.

The pilot program has apparently been launched by Dublin based educational publishers Gill & Macmillan. Their director of sales is quoted as saying: “Although we believe that the widespread adoption of e-readers is some time off, this project allows us to determine how well they work in the classroom, how the pupils interact with them and to examine their potential.”

The device being used for the pilot program is the Iliad, by iRex Technologies. It list for $599 U.S. and is generally regarded as the Mercedes of e-book readers. In addition to handling e-books (including PDFs), this device incorporates Wacom’s pen writing technology, allowing the user to write directly on the screen with a stylus. The mind boggles when imagining the scenario in which a student can carry all her books and notes in a 15 oz package that fits in her purse.

No doubt some critics will say that at this price, why not buy them all laptops, but you’d be hard pressed to find a laptop with handwriting recognition and touch screen technology incoroporated for $600. Besides, the electronic paper display is unbeatable for reading long passages of text. The iliad comes with built in wi-fi for downloading content wirelessly, as well as an optional ethernet hook-up, in contrast to the built in “Whispernet” feature of Amazon’s Kindle, which is based on Sprint’s high-speed mobile phone network.

This is a bold step for a publisher to take, assuming they are underwriting the full cost of the program. If this assumption is correct, this begs the question, (or several questions): Does Gill & Macmillan plan to migrate all its textbooks to an electronic medium? How is their economic model different from that of North American textbook publishers, who so far have shown little interest in adapting their content to an electronic format? And finally, could they please open a U.S. branch?

We will be following the progress of this experiment in digital publishing closely over the coming months. Stay tuned.

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Tarzan Economics: It’s a jungle out there…

There have been an increasing number of posts recently about the availability (or lack of) textbooks in Kindle or similar e-book format. Here’s a post that appeared this week on the Amazon customer forum:

I emailed Pearson, one of the largest publisher of textbooks in the world, asking why most of their books were not yet available for the kindle; this was their response:

David, thanks for your inquiry about whether we offer eBooks. As a matter of fact, Pearson was one of the early leaders among publishers to offer our textbooks in digital format, beginning in 2004. Today we have more than 1,000 titles available through Course Smart (www.coursesmart.com), which is online site where all of the leading publishers are offering their digital textbooks for sale. Students can save up to 50 percent off the price of the hardback edition of the textbook, and, as you note, there’s no heavy book to haul around, nor do you need to worry about selling it back at the end of the term. The ebooks have all of the content of the hardcover edition, with the same pagination, but allow you the ability to search the text using key words, highlight passages and make notes electronically. All you need is web access. Be sure to check out the site and see how it works.

Regarding the Kindle, some of our professional and technology books are available this way, but most textbooks are not, as the Kindle does not support text that is heavy with illustrations, which many textbooks are. But we’re monitoring developments closely.

David Hakensen
Pearson Education
Corporate Communications

A visit to the Coursesmart site confirms that indeed there is a wide selection of titles available for download to a PC. What the corporate spinmeister omitted from his response to the inquiry is that in spite of coughing up roughly half the cost of a new hardcover edition, you don’t actually own the book. It operates more like a subscription, and your right to use it expires in six months. That’s right, it evaporates, kind of like the morning dew under a warm sun. And if you hoped to stretch your textbook budget a little further by sharing your e-book with a classmate, forget it. That’s a violation of the Terms of Use. Also, better make sure it’s the right book for you, because you can’t get a refund of your subscription fee after two weeks, or if you’ve viewed more than 20% of the pages (See Terms of Service).

But if you’re a textbook publisher, you probably think you’ve found the Holy Grail. No printing, warehousing or shipping costs, no worries about second-hand texts putting downward pressure on your monopolistic prices, and you still get half of the MSRP! It’s “innovative” thinking like this that makes me think that it was the publishing industry that originally coined the term “DRM”, but that it’s really code for “Dated, Regressive Manipulation”. Their collective response to the challenge posed by the digital age has been to use the technology to protect their margins at all costs.

Don Tapscott puts it well in his book “Wikinomics”:
Publishers can’t reasonably adopt open approaches that would cannibalize existing revenues without a viable means to shore up their ailing income streams. Jim Griffin, the managing director of One House LLC calls it “Tarzan economics”. “We cling to the vine that holds us off the jungle floor, and we can’t let go of the one until we’ve got the next vine firmly in our hand”. The problem is that media incumbents are moving too slowly. They’re getting mired in the thick underbrush of thorny contractual agreements and outdated and costly infrastructures. The economic model is based on a business model suited for the era of analog publishing, not for a world of user-driven creation and distribution.
For an example of thinking outside the digital fortress built by the textbook publishers, have a look at the following post:
  • FlatWorld Knowledge – the publisher I’ve been waiting for?

  • David Wiley is part of a startup called FlatWorld Knowledge. Their aim is to release digital textbooks free of charge, with students paying for the print copy if they want. What is more interesting though is the way they take the notion of the text book and make it more of a social object. So the educator can edit the book for their class, the student can interact with other students around it, and people can sell related services and content. In fact, when you view their little cartoons it makes you realise just how limited the traditional text book model is in education. Why didn’t we do this years ago?
  • The Tarzans of the publishing industry may cling to any vine that keeps them aloft, but in their quest for the next branch to grab onto, they are ignoring the three forces that are completely altering the landscape they’ve existed in for centuries: Open-Source, Creative Commons Licensing, and, most importantly, Free. (Chris Anderson: Free: Why $0.00 is the Future Of Business, Wired, March 2008) (http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/magazine/16-03/ff_free)
  • Simply compare the state of a couple of other industries in the pre- and post-digital world: Kodak is a shell of the company it once was when film was the dominant photographic medium. And look at what happened to the telephone companies when long distance rates declined from a dollar a minute to zero. There will be the inevitable protectionist efforts, through vigorous enforcement of copyright law, and vain attempts to protect their content, but the outcome will be the same: new entrants, (like Flatworld Knowledge) unburdened by legacy cost structures, generating sustainable revenue from content that is free or close to it.

    HarperCollins’ Dips its toe in the Digital Pool

    As they say, everything old is new again. Remember back in the 80s, GM created the Saturn Car company, whihch was meant to be completely separate from and autonomous of its parent? This was ostensibly so it would not be contaminated by the practices that had brought GM’s market share hurtling towards the Yugo’s. It appears that HarperCollins is taking a similar approach in launching its yet unnamed imprint that promises to end the traditional practices of paying large advances and taking back returnsfrom booksellers. According to the story in today’s New York TImes,

    The new unit is HarperCollins’s effort to address what its executives see as some of the more vexing issues of the book industry. “The idea is, ‘Let’s take all the things that we think are wrong with this business and try to change them,’ ” said Robert Miller, 51. “It really seemed to require a start-up from scratch because it will be very experimental.” The new group will also release electronic books and digital audio editions of all its titles, said Jane Friedman, president and chief executive of HarperCollins, a unit of the News Corporation. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/04/business/04harper.html?em&ex=1207454400&en=2e85dd23a4442d80&ei=5087%0A

    If this new unit accomplishes nothing more than reducing the deplorable waste of resources caused by the pulping of returned books (about 30% – 40% of all titles), it will most likely be more sustainlable than the current antiquated practice. If it lets more authors share in a greater percentage of the profits, as well as giving readers more choice of format (ebooks, audio) even better. I hope the Kindle is part of their distribution strategy.

    “At this moment of real volatility in the book business, when we are all recognizing things that are difficult to contend with, like growing advances and returns and that people are reading more online, we want to give them information in any format that they want.”

    One Million Books available for Kindle??

    Since many readers are under the impression that the only content that can be obtained in Kindle format is that which is purchased from Amazon, the thread from the Kindle discussion board below sheds some light on the subject. The original post was made on Dec 20, and there’s been a fair number of replies since then, but the basic premise remains: Amazon is only one source for content, and the majority of non-Amazon content is free, or close to it. Link to original post:


    T. Beck says:  
    Some have expressed a lack of content for the Kindle, here is what I have tried, and works (make sure you check the footnotes at the bottom):

    http://www.amazon.com 95,000 or so titles, instant download, easy.

    http://www.gutenberg.org 20,000 or so titles – mostly classics or things that no longer have copywrite. Multiple languages. Three are links to other sites that boast a total of 100k titles. ***, ****

    http://www.worldlibrary.net 400,000 titles – classics, modern, government, multiple languages, all the ones I tried were free. Requires $8.95 yearly subscription fee, consider it the cost of a library card.*, ***, ****

    http://www.fictionwise.com offers both unencrypted and encrypted .mobi files. Full range of reading and many free books as well. *, **, ****

    http://www.mobipocket.com lots of titles, most you can find on amazon.com in the Kindle section for less.

    http://www.webscriptions.net This is Baen books and mostly SiFi. None are encrypted, many are free, and can be transferred directly to your Kindle. Choose Kindle compatible for the download. ****

    http://www.wowio.com uses .pdf format. **, You will need to register and can download up to three books a day, free. Only available to people in the US, due to copyright and licensing restrictions.

    http://www.fictionpress.com 900,000 Mostly original works, as in unknown, normally unpublished authors. Some good, some not, take your chances, you may discover the next JK Rowling. Displays in text. Cut, paste and email to yourself, or save in .txt file and upload.

    http://www.manybooks.net 20,000 titles or so. Has a Kindle format. ***, ****

    http://www.mnybks.net – an extension of Manybooks above, but if you access it through the basic WebBrowser in Kindle, you can download directly to your Kindle, the way you would an Amazon book. Choose the Mobipocket format.

    http://www.feedbooks.com Share books, self published books and a make it yourself newspaper. With a little manipulation of the tools below, you can get your own newspaper, you could probably even directly email it to your Kindle in the morning if you allow that site to send you stuff. You will need to register, but there is no cost. There is now a “Kindle Download Guide” from http://www.feedbooks.com includes links to many classics, including many in foreign languages.

    http://www.ccel.org Christian centered works. Available in pdf, word, and text, all readily transferable to your Kindle.

    * They save as .pdf files that you can email to your Kindle. It sees the .pdf as a file of words, not pictures of words, so it can be resized and adjusted just as any other ebook. Download the book to your PC, and email that file to your Kendle, or freekendle@kendle and load through the USB cable if you want to save the 10 cent conversion charge.

    ** For the encrypted ones in .mobi, a tool can be used to allow the kindle to see it. This tool does not make a copy of the book, merely adds a flag so that the Kendle can display it (it would be hard to call this a violation of copywrite or use conditions since both formats are amazon’s). The tool and directions on how to use it are at: http://igorsk.blogspot.com/2007/12/mobipocket-books-on-kindle.html

    *** Site runs on donations

    **** Can be downloaded directly to your Kindle when it is plugged in as an external storeage device, simply specify the Kindle folder when selecting where to put your book.

    Cracks in the (UK’s) Publishing Industry’s Armor…

    There are some signs that the publishing industry is slowly beginning to get one foot out of the 19th century and into the 21st century. In an item under the headline “Fiction for Free from Penguin”, theBookseller.com reports:

    Penguin is to offer free downloads of the first chapter of every fiction title it publishes.The publisher has been trialling its “Penguin Tasters”, making PDF downloads available from selected novels via its website, for the past six months. It currently has the first chapters of over 50 titles available for download onto computer screens, iPhones, Palms and Blackberrys. The publisher says the decision to include all fiction in the scheme as of next week is “a 21st century version of what Allen Lane set out to do when he started Penguin-making good quality contemporary fiction available to everyone”.


    In a similar vein, the same site posted this item:

    Random House chair and c.e.o. Gail Rebuck last night welcomed digitisation as a liberating force for books—but said it was inevitable that it would transform the book publishing industry. Rebuck compared current digital developments to the advent of moveable type in the 15th century, and argued that book publishing faces a time of great challenge but also “unprecedented opportunity” which will free the book to reach new audiences in new ways. Rebuck warned against complacency around e-books, describing them as a phenomenon that traditional publishers must take seriously. She also stressed the need for vigilance over copyright, not just in the interests of publishers but most especially for writers. However, she said that ultimately it did not matter if, in 2050, a writer is read in a traditional paperback or a hand-held device. “As a publisher, I am happy to supply either to customers, and the essence of what I am selling will be the same, whatever the technology transmitting it. I think there is an irreducible quality to reading that means the book will never die.”

    And in a hint that the Kindle and Sony’s reader are coming to the UK, theBookseller reports:

    The two biggest publishers in Britain are to offer dozens of likely bestsellers to read on a hand-held screen this autumn in a sign that, after many false dawns, the electronic “ebook” may finally have arrived, reports the Sunday Times. Two rival devices due to come on sale in Britain over the next few months – Sony’s Reader and Amazon’s Kindle. Random House and Hachette, which together control just over 30% of the British book market, are to offer downloadable versions of titles by authors ranging from Delia Smith to Ian McEwan and Michael Parkinson. Every other major publisher is drawing up plans to follow suit, pitching the books at just below the price of a hardback, according to the piece.

    But in this article describing Penguin’s decision to sell its audiobooks DRM-free, it’s apparent that the suits at the big publishing houses are starting to pay some attention to the digital revolution. Quoted in the Guardian, the CEO of Pearson, Marjorie Scardino, said last week:

    “I don’t think we can be worried about every incursion from electronic selling and electronic use. We have got to think about what the future is going to be and look at how to experiment with it”. Scardino admitted that another potential electronic version of literature – digital books or e-books – has yet to take off because there is still no attractive digital book-reading device. Last year Amazon tried to revitalise the market with the Kindle, but Scardino reckons it “is not quite there yet, and I think we are still waiting for that piece of kit. It’s like downloadable music – iTunes came first but without the iPod I think that would not have really mattered.”

    OK, it’s time for a short history lesson here. The iPod was introduced in 2001, although there were other MP3 players on the market at that time. Music sales peaked at $16.7B in 2000 and fell by over 30% by 2006. Whether or not Amazon’s Kindle will turn out to be the iPod of ebooks is unknown at this stage, but one thing is clear: the traditional model of publishing using dead trees and glue is going to crumble over time. Ever hear of of a company called Harms, Witmark & Remick? They were the largest sheet music publisher in the US in the early 20th century. In 1929, they were bought by a “new media” company, Warner Brothers, because the introduction of the grammophone led to a decline in sheet music sales. Can you spell Deja Vu?

    Textbook Publishers: Prepare for a Flat World- This is huge…

    Today, I learned about an organization that promises to do for (or to) the textbook publishing industry what MP3s and iTunes have done to the traditional music business: create disruption and disintermediation. The organization is called CK-12, a non-profit organization launched in 2006, and it aims to reduce the cost of textbook materials for the K-12 market both in the US and worldwide. Using an open-source, collaborative, and web-based compilation model that can be manifested as an adaptive textbook – termed the “FlexBook”, CK-12 intends to pioneer the generation and distribution of high quality educational web texts. Given the pedigree of the founder – Vinod Khosla (co-founder of Sun, partner in Kleiner Perkins, founder of Khosla Ventures, net worth $1.5B) along with his wife, Neeru, there is a high likelihood that his prediction that the publishing business will become obsolete will come true. The exerpt from the website below explains the rationale for his mission:

    Why do we need FlexBooks?

    Today, textbooks that are used in K-12 system are limiting, expensive and are difficult to update. Because of this, K-12 teachers find it hard to introduce new concepts and cater to different needs. What we need is a more flexible and less expensive system to create and distribute books and online content. FlexBooks, by their very nature, satisfies this need. They contain high quality online content, and are easy to create, update and print. They provide a new system that will follow an open source philosophy to place content on-line that can be “mixed, modified and printed“.


    I would add to that last line, “or downloaded to the Kindle, or other e-book reader”. Why be limited to a PC, or continue to rely on dead trees, when printing is not even necessary? When you think about the marriage of these two developments,  the possibilities for ubiquitous, customized learning resources become staggering. Truly, “Any Book, Any Kid, Any Time.” For a video of a presentation by the founders watch this:

    Take That, Steve Jobs! Future of Publishing In Past

    By now most people who follow technology have heard about Steve Jobs famous dismissal of the Kindle, quoted below:

    Today he had a wide range of observations on the industry, including the Amazon Kindle book reader, which he said would go nowhere largely because Americans have stopped reading.

    “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

    Full article here:


    But, he doesn’t seem to be aware of the other 60%, who apparently do read:

    But here’s one very important statistic: According to Nielsen, books remain the number one selling item on the Internet. 875 million consumers have shopped online; 41% of them have bought books. While online hasn’t been as kind to magazines, the boon to book sales can be summed up in one word: Amazon (AMZN). Meanwhile, company executives continue to insist that supplies of Kindle — the iPod of books — are far outpacing demand. Sure, no one’s actually seen one of these high-tech devices in real life, but numbers don’t lie.

    The above passage is excerpted from an article appearing on the site Minyanville, “A Creative Education and Entertainment Community”. You can find the complete article here:


    The piece concludes with a somewhat ominous comparison:

    Are we ready to give up the great tangible quality of our books? What’s that you say? CD? Never heard of it.