As e-readers and electronic booksellers reshape the publishing industry, companies like Amazon and Apple are seeking entrée into a new and potentially lucrative swath of the market: textbooks. And now, apparently, they’re getting encouragement from lawmakers.
Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York has called for public schools to give their students e-readers, like the Kindle or the Nook from Barnes & Noble, rather than stacks of voluminous textbooks, which are heavy, expensive and often years out of date. The switch would, of course, be a boon to electronic publishers, which have moved aggressively in recent months to enter the $9.9 billion textbook industry.
“Our children today have almost an expectation that they’re going to have these tools of modern technology from the very earliest ages,” Weiner said in an interview. “And here we are, we’re giving them something that basically even adults believe is increasingly anachronistic, which is a big old textbook.”
Weiner said he was inspired, in part, by a recent dinner with his onetime political nemesis, Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg was rather famously one of the first public figures to purchase Apple’s new tablet computer, the iPad, and the device can be glimpsed at the billionaire mayor’s side at most of his public appearances.
“Quite literally, I sat down to dinner with him, he had it on the table,” Weiner said of Bloomberg. “He was listing for me all the ways that it has made his life better,” Weiner added, “and a lot of them were basically him learning: learning about a stop he’s about to go to, getting texts of things he’s about to read, being able to follow up on things as he gets them.”
According to Weiner, Bloomberg added: “I probably need one less person around me because I’ve got this thing.”
By Weiner’s calculation, the use of digital textbooks could also save cash-strapped public schools hundreds of thousands of dollars, by eliminating bulk textbook purchases, which cost about $137 per pupil in Weiner’s home city of New York. Some amount of negotiation with electronic publishers would probably be necessary, Weiner added. And he cautioned that the market probably has not yet reached the “price point” where the procurement of e-readers would be cheaper than bulk textbook purchases.
However, electronic booksellers would probably have incentive to offer discounts to bulk buyers like public school systems, Weiner added, especially if they intend to thrive in the increasingly competitive digital publishing market. Providing a way into textbook sales through public elementary and secondary education would also give electronic publishers a leg up in pursuing other corners of the market, such as colleges and universities.
“There was a tense stand-off in the publishing industry about how publishers were going to handle the emergence of e-readers, and they eventually decided, ‘I got to be on the bandwagon, so I’m not under that bandwagon,’” Weiner said. “So they struck deals.”
An added benefit of the introduction of electronic textbooks into schools might also be the ability to seal off public classrooms from the influence of politics, Weiner acknowledged. Earlier this year, for example, the Texas Board of Education set off a national firestorm when several of its members sought to alter the state’s public school curriculum to reflect conservative orthodoxy on issues like economics and religion.
Organizations like the National Council for History Education and the American Civil Liberties Union feared the changes would affect textbooks in states across the country. Texas makes such large textbook purchases, they said, that publishers would have to tailor their products to meet the curriculum standards set forth by the Texas board. Making textbooks digital, Weiner acknowledged, might obviate that one-size-fits-all approach.
“What this would allow is an acceleration of something we already have going on in education, which is giving teachers much more flexibility and ability to deal with their class and individual students and where they are on the page, so to speak,” Weiner said. “Just like the internet has been a democratizing force, I think that this would be a democratizing force that would empower teachers more than it would school boards.”