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Electronic Publishing >> Book 'Em

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, college and university students pursued learning through the use of bound volumes of printed material. They were called textbooks, and students lugged them all over campus in devices called backpacks. Some of the tomes contained literally thousands of pages, weighing in at up to five pounds apiece. Others, those of the paperback variety, were smaller, and lent themselves to marginalia, underlining, Post-it flags, and incessant highlighter use. For years, these textbooks were the soldiers of education, churning out knowledge from authors, through publishers, to students. Then, with the advent of the Internet, they went the way of the Dodo bird, and disappeared from the face of the earth…

Is this futuristic fantasy? Maybe, but current statistics indicate that the demise of textbooks might not be so far off. The Association of American University Presses ( recently reported overall sales in the textbook industry decreasing by 1.5 percent in 2003, after of a 0.3 percent drop in 2002 and a 2.6 percent drop in 2001. And as textbook sales decrease, textbook costs appear to be rising sharply. Another study, this one released by the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG; indicates that the average university student now pays upwards of $900 a year for textbooks, a 150 percent increase over the $650 that students paid in 1997 (see box, page 38).

It’s not surprising then, that as textbook sales continue to sag and their prices proceed to rise, colleges and universities increasingly are turning toward electronic publishing as an affordable alternative. Some schools—most, in fact—are at the very least introducing electronic documents into the previously print-based world of higher education, offering students certain articles and rare books to be viewed electronically, as supplements to the physical publications described in course syllabi. Other schools, trailblazers such as Villanova University (PA) and Boston College, have embraced the digital revolution more enthusiastically, launching programs that attempt to eliminate paper completely. Yet, in whichever manner colleges approach electronic publishing, one thing is certain: Textbooks no longer have a monopoly on the education market.

TRAILBLAZER BOSTON COLLEGE looks to the digital revolution for total paper obliteration.
Digitized Learning

Perhaps the most tried and tested form of electronic publishing still revolves around the Portable Document Format file, or PDF. This is the file format in Adobe ( Acrobat document exchange, the 10-year-old technology that has become the de facto standard for electronic documents on the Internet. According to Larry Fuller, Adobe’s senior manager of education marketing, most PDF files contain their own fonts and solve the problem of font incompatibility between source and target systems. They also support complicated page layouts common in PostScript printing. Colleges and universities were slow to adopt this technology in the 1990s, but today, it comprises the very core of digital learning at a variety of schools. Fuller says that in all, “hundreds of thousands” of PDFs are exchanged in academia every week.

Take the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School: There, Kendall Whitehouse, director of Advanced Technology Development, says business students no longer submit hard-copy term papers to professors, but load PDF versions to and from a secure server. A similar effort is underway at Villanova, where recently, professors in the school’s engineering department vowed to eliminate paper completely. Since September, Villanova has distributed local copies of Adobe Acrobat 6.0 to create and manage PDFs, and has equipped departmental offices and public computing sites with multi-functioning optical scanners to promote quick scan-to-PDF functionality. IT Manager Steve Brady says that when students are ready to turn in assignments, faculty members accept them digitally using course management software from WebCT (, Microsoft SharePoint (, and other services.

“The formerly paper-based evaluation process is being streamlined and digitized, increasing process organization and management overall,” says Brady. He adds that the school even has implemented a print-quota accounting system to “discourage unnecessary printing in the college computing centers,” and drive adherence to the new system.

Pricing Out

When will it end? That’s the question asked in a 2004 report on rising textbook prices from the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG;, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

The report, titled “Rip-off 101: How the Current Practices of the Publishing Industry Drive up the Cost of College Textbooks,” surveyed the most widely-taught books at colleges and universities in California and Oregon, and found that the average student pays $900 a year for textbooks, up 150 percent since 1997.

The study also alleged that textbook publishers artificially inflate the price of textbooks by adding bells and whistles to the current texts, and force cheaper used books off the market by producing expensive new editions that barely differ.

“It’s appalling that at a time when students are contending with rapidly rising college costs, textbook publishers are playing games to increase prices,” said Merriah Fairchild, the study’s author and a higher education advocate for CALPIRG.

In particular, the study singled out publisher Thomson Learning for hiking textbook prices in the US, but charging less in other countries. One of the publisher’s books, Calculus: Early Transcendentals, sells for $125 to American students but can be had for $97 (US) in Canada and $65 (US) in the UK.

Thomson could not be reached for comment on the study, but other publishers defended their pricing strategies.

“We’ve been around for quite a while,” said David Serbun, corporate VP for Houghton Mifflin’s college division. “It costs money to do what we do, and someone has to pay for it.”

Other institutions are taking more flexible approaches to digital learning, incorporating digitized content into the world of textbooks and paper with the help of vendors new and old. For instance, in the vein of JSTOR (an online archive of more than 450 scholarly journals;, Learner’s Library (; a new for-profit Internet-based database from Knowledge Ventures; helps students at schools such as Santa Clara University (CA) and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University access more than 500 academic and business journals covering a wide range of subjects from 1998 to the present. Most of the content is available through a partnership with The Thomson Gale Group (, aggregator of titles including U.S. News & World Report, Mother Jones, and the African-American Review. To use the database, students enter natural language search phrases into an interface; down the line, professors can check student work for plagiarism with the help of the database’s Citation Check feature.

Learner’s isn’t the only player in this growing space; Pearson Education (, which distributes imprints such as Prentice Hall, Addison-Wesley, Allyn & Bacon, and Longman, recently jumped in with a digital offering of its own. The Pearson approach, in partnership with O’Reilly Media (, is SafariX Textbooks Online (, which allows students to purchase a print edition textbook, or purchase the same course-critical content by subscribing to a digital version delivered online. Pearson calls these digital versions WebBooks; the technology allows students to print pages, make annotations, take notes, search the full text, and add bookmarks to organize their studies. Today, the service boasts more than 300 titles, and professors at schools such as Northwestern University (IL) and Texas State University use it religiously.

Other publishers and university presses are getting in on the game, too. Houghton Mifflin, for instance, now publishes Web sites for each textbook to accompany and supplement all of its major offerings, according to David Serbun, corporate VP for the publisher’s college division ( Not to be outdone, Oxford University Press recently launched Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO;, a database of more than 750 core backlist monographs in religion, politics, philosophy, economics, and business. Following the model of the scientific journal article, the publisher created individual chapter abstracts and keywords for each book or monograph, offering researchers and students alike the ability to search through an entire database of what Evan Schnittman, VP and senior director of Rights and Business Development, calls “vetted” book scholarship.

“The way we’re doing things, form of delivery has become a preference and not a single choice,” says Schnittman, who teaches a publishing class at New York University in his spare time. “Now the big issue is for us to ask ourselves what it is people really want, and, how can we convince them that we, as a traditional publisher, can give them what it is they need?”

Institutionalizing Thought

Digitizing selected, pre-existing printed content is only one approach to electronic publishing; in some cases, efforts are underway to publish original content in the digital medium right away, eliminating the printed page all together. On the publishing side, Oxford is leading the way here, publishing some of its newest journals only in digital form online. On the academic side, thanks to technology from the content-digitizing vendor ProQuest Information and Learning (, a leader in this effort is Boston College, where efforts to pilot an institutional repository of intellectual property have dovetailed with the publication of Web-only journals and have gained astounding momentum in recent months.

Alongside other efforts such as the California Digital Libraries eScholarship initiative (CDL; is the BC repository, eScholarship ( eScholarship began back in 2002, when Bob Gerrity, head of systems at the school library, spearheaded a plan to replace the school’s tradition of microfilming dissertations with a push to publish them online. For $6,000, the school licensed Digital Commons software from Berkeley Electronic Press ( to digitize the documents and catalog them in an online database. By 2003, between doctoral dissertations and senior theses from the school’s undergraduate honors program, BC had amassed a few hundred original works. At the same time, Gerrity also used the same software to support the publication of Web-only journals, and spent weeks gauging faculty interest in editing them. In the end, two faculty members from the school’s Lynch School of Education stepped forward and hopped on board.

“We pay millions of dollars a year for subscriptions to scholarly journals that publish research produced by our own faculty!” he fumes. “There had to be a different way to approach the whole system.”

Development was slow at first, but the repository and eJournal efforts gradually took hold. Then, last summer, Berkeley partnered with ProQuest, and the technology behind BC’s offering became stronger overnight. ProQuest’s involvement enabled BC to add metadata to information, enabling students to search by subject, keyword, or publication year. Todd Fegan, VP of Publishing and Higher Education at ProQuest, added that his company also has introduced author profiles to the system, which enable BC students to get a complete sense of the number of works a particular author has published, and how much of the 'euvre exists in digital form on the Internet at large.

Though the eScholarship effort still technically is in pilot phase (the program is available to only 10 percent of the campus at this point), BC has added brand-new content virtually every week for the last 12 months. Today, the repository boasts 1,340 manuscripts in all: 900 dissertations and 440 working papers, articles, and lecture notes. The electronic journal portion of the eScholarship endeavor is growing as well; late last year, an education professor unveiled the online-only version of the Journal for Exceptional Children, and Gerrity says other journals should be rolled out in early 2005. With the expanded solution, BC now pays ProQuest $35,000 per year, but the school receives an unlimited amount of database storage for that fee. Starting in June, Gerrity says he plans to take full advantage of the option for limitless growth, rolling out the repository to the campus at large.

“We want to set up the framework for the entire campus,” he says proudly. “As more and more original content is put [into the repository], we expect more and more departments and faculty will manage their own space and build their own collections, making our online entity as vibrant as our real [archived] one.”

Access for All

In his ideal world, Gerrity ultimately sees BC’s repository federating with repositories at other institutions, giving students the ability to search tens of thousands of digital dissertations from the comfort of their dorm room, all for free. He’s not alone: Across academia, a number of other organizations, the Digital Library Federation ( for one, are pushing for the very same thing. At the heart of the effort is an initiative called Open Access, launched at a 2001 meeting of the Open Society Initiative in Budapest to deliver scholarly content in ways that enable users to access it with any form of technology, from any place, at any time. The initiative calls for the free availability of all peer-reviewed journal articles, and also includes any unreviewed pre-prints that scholars might wish to put online for comment, or to alert colleagues to important research findings.

By “open access” to this literature, the initiative seeks to permit users to “read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access” to the Internet itself. The technology to enable this goal is extensible Markup Language (XML), a form of content coding that is accessible by any device: personal computers, laptops, PDAs, and even some cellular phones. In 2004, publishing consortiums such as BioMed Central (, which publishes more than 100 scholarly journals that cover biology and medicine, are bringing Open Access to life. This year, provided they can iron out a revenue model around copyrights, other publishers such as Oxford and Houghton may follow suit, too.

“Open Access is certainly something we’re looking into,” says Serbun, the VP of Houghton. “The issue for us is money; there is a cost that g'es into authoring, developing, revising, and reviewing the content that somewhere, at some point, someone has to bear.”

Already, though, it seems that a handful of vendors and organizations have made strides toward reconciling the tenets of Open Access with the value of the copyright-protected word. The digital book vendor OverDrive (, for instance, provides an XML-based distribution engine for 300-plus commercial academic publishing services, including eBookExpress ( and CEO Steve Potash explains that while some of the digital works in OverDrive databases exist in the public domain, the company generates the larger part of its revenue by selling digital permission keys that enable users to unlock encrypted, copyright-protected documents for a predetermined period of time.

OverDrive also participates in a larger organization called the Open eBook Forum (, an international trade and standards body for electronic publishing. Run by Executive Director Nick Bogaty, the 'eBF charts sales of eBooks, as well as the market performance of digital publications in general. The group tallied eBook sales of $3.23 million for the first quarter of 2004, a 28 percent jump from the same time a year ago. While these figures are merely a blip on the radar screen of the multibillion-dollar book publishing industry, they indicate that once publishers are ready to pump the market with digital content, students and other readers may respond more favorably than skeptics would like to think.

“Whatever happens in the textbook space, the sky’s the limit for electronic publishing,” says Potash. “It’s up to us to make something wonderful happen.”

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