Wednesday 17 February 2010

Peter Atkins on textbooks, eBooks, and interactivity.

Nature recently published an interview with Peter Atkins (probably subscribers only) on textbook writing. Atkins' Physical Chemistry and Molecular Quantum Mechanics are deserved classics in their field, and I greatly enjoyed his Four Laws that Drive the Universe, a slim text which discussed thermodynamics from first principles, although I sometimes find his explanations a little opaque.

I was especially interested by his frank comments on the writing cycle, where major textbooks are rewritten into a new edition every three or four years. Atkins implies that this arises from second hand book sales, which completely overwhelm sales of new books around the three year mark. This is presumably as undergraduates finish up and ditch their old texts. If a new edition of the book is released, it is adopted by lecturers, page and chapter references change, there's a disincentive to buy the used texts, and sales go back up. This could be viewed quite cynically. Atkins points out that he insists on completely overhauling his books with each new edition, which is certainly true from my own experience with his work, but perhaps not all authors are so dilligent.

Atkins proposes the following:

If the second-hand market could be eliminated, books would last longer than 3 years and could be cheaper. There is a way — to produce electronic books [e-books] and kill them after a year.

Atkins is proposing one-year "book rentals", but he needn't go that far. eBooks simply cannot be sold second hand at the moment, so let's set rentals aside for the moment and look at the general case in which books can't be resold. These comments are remarkably similar to those made in the fiction and videogame publishing over the past few years. They're all markets with strong second hand sales, and correspondingly there's a great pressure on publishers to make as much money as possible during the brief window in which the item is popular, either by making a massive commercial blockbuster or charging a lot per copy. By eliminating second-hand sales, the product will sell more, can stay on sale longer, and thus each copy can be cheaper.[1]

Non-transferrability raises subtle issues. If I can purchase Physical Chemistry for £50, and resell it at £20 in a few years' time, then the book has only cost me £30. Similarly an undergraduate can purchase a relatively specialised text which they may only need for a semester or a year, on the understanding that they can sell it on if it's no longer needed. Losing the right of resale should act to push down the price students are willing to pay for the electronic versions of textbooks.

For very specialist texts, and other scenarios in which an outright purchase of a textbook isn't financially justifiable, students fall back on university libraries. Atkins' textbook rental idea could have a niche here as a middle-ground between outright ownership of the textbook and the inconvenience of borrowing. The libraries themselves are soon to get an alternative. Springer is trialling a service in which PDF text books can be downloaded for free using an institution's site licence, much as scientific journal articles already are. With essentially infinite copies of books available to check out, and no shelf space limitation, catalogues could be larger and students have easier access, again much like scientific journals.

It's unlikely that many publishers will embrace these ideas as strongly as Springer has. Libraries are as much a threat to textbook sales as the second hand market, but that's mitigated by inconvenience (the limited number of books and copies they can carry, time limits, etc.), such that there's an equilibrium between book sales and book borrowing. If the convenience is increased markedly, that equilibrium shifts markedly. An "infinite library" from which anyone could check out any book at any time, although attractive in principle, would make electronic or hardcopy textbook purchases a less attractive, driving down sales, so the site licence fee would be large to compensate. Compromises will be necessary, such as limiting the licence to works which are no longer selling well or are out of print.[2]

Returning to the article, Atkins is clearly considering the potential in interactive texts, such as those headed for the iPad:

To produce an e-book you have to be more of an impresario than an author. You have the pictures, the unfolding of different depths of information. It's an extraordinarily demanding task.

I've got to say that, for all my conjecture above, I'm ambivalent about the idea of multimedia or electronic textbooks. They seem an obvious step forward. Chemistry is visual, structural, and three dimensional so visual aids one can toy around with are a boon. I've got a fifth edition of McMurry's Organic Chemistry here which packs a plethora of paired 3D structure images and stereoscope. My model kit is never far away. I use generate intricate visualisations of data. I prefer to discuss my results by talking around charts.

However, in practice I just don't like using computer resources to learn. I've used wholly-hypertext learning materials before, incorporating java applets, videos, and so on, and I can't say the interactivity was worth the cost in concentration from eye-strain after looking at the computer screen for an hour. Most of the CD-ROM and online suppliments that came with my textbooks have never been used. Perhaps it's just the inconvenient bulk of computer, or the display, and the tablet computer and e-paper and reflective LCDs will clear all this up, but I'm going to take some convincing.

Lastly I'd like to engage in a little futurism. Atkins suggests that an electronic textbook could stay on sale longer than three years per edition due to a change in the market. If it were to remain on sale for ten years, say, it would require updates, which could easily be pushed through electronically. Perhaps we can expect an application- or OS-like system where major updates (i.e. new editions) must be paid for while minor corrections and expansions are free. Extrapolating, if the book were to stay on sale indefinitely, we would require that lecturers have a DOI or URL-like identifier to allow for permanent references to content that had moved significantly around the book with major updates. Outright purchase a textbook seems nonsensical in such a scenario, and my mind boggles at how one would integrate a hardcopy version of the textbook.

[1]Electronic distribution has its own advantages in prolonging sales which I won't get into here.
[2]Out in the non-academic world, Sony's Daily Reader allows the owner to check out books from a local library. However the library must first licence a number of virtual copies of the book, to check out one at a time from nonexistent bookshelves. A simple, obvious, and rather dubious solution.

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