Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Textbooks on Kindle & Use by the Handicapped

Beginning this fall, some students at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland will be given large-screen Kindles with textbooks for chemistry, computer science and a freshman seminar already installed, said Lev Gonick, the school's chief information officer. The university plans to compare the experiences of students who get the Kindles and those who use traditional textbooks, he said.

Amazon has worked out a deal with several textbook publishers to make their materials available for the device, Gonick added. The new device will also feature a more fully functional Web browser. The Kindle's current model, which debuted in February, includes a Web browser that is classifi
ed as ‘experimental.’ Five other universities are involved in the Kindle project, according to people briefed on the matter.

A larger-screen Kindle would enable textbook publishers to better display the charts and graphs that aren't particularly well suited to the current device, which has a screen that measures just six inches diagonally. But digitizing academic books could also hurt the thriving market for used textbooks on college campuses. Of course, this would be even better news for Amazon and publishers, since now they only get one sale for a book that may be used by up to a dozen students because of this resale market. In theory, this would mean that prices might decline, since the publisher of that same book would get 12 sales instead of 1 and could pass on the savings to the
consumer while still retaining a tidy profit for themselves.

This chart from a college-bookstore association shows where all the money goes and also implies that 55.9 percent of textbook costs could be saved if they were delivered digitally, bypassing college bookstores. Amazon wants as much of that 55.9 percent as possible. That's a whole lot of profit for an industry estimated to be worth $8.6 billion.

But not all students are convinced reading textbooks on a Kindle would be a good idea. ‘I’d need five Kindles just to hold a single thought while writing essays,’ said Marius Johannessen, who is studying for his master’s in information systems at University of Agder. ‘Books work just fine.’ In other words, there is nothing like having half a dozen books splayed open on the table in front of you while you desperately write a paper.

Students pointed out plenty of other issues about the DX to Wired.com. For instance, students often loan textbooks to one another, and currently that’s not practical with a Kindle, as you’d have to loan your entire reader and library. Also, the beauty of paper textbooks is the ability to highlight sentences, underline keywords and keep all of them open at once. While the Kindle does have highlight and notes tools, the reader is sluggish with performance, and the keyboard is unnatural and clunky to type on.

I would imagine that the publishing industry will be closely following the experimentation at Case Western Reserve University very closely over the next year. If it is a success, Amazon may be able to get themselves into dozens of universities by the fall of 2010.

Someone tabulated 700 of the responses in that Amazon thread (that represents about 75 percent of all the posts) about what age buyers of the Kindle were and broke out the numbers. Here they are:

0 - 19: 5%
20 - 29: 10%
30 - 39: 15%
40 - 49: 19.5%
50 - 59: 23%
60 - 69: 19.5%
70 - 79: 6%
80+: 2%

We can't call this the most scientific poll ever taken, but it's probably a good indicator of the Kindle's age demographic. If you add it all up, over half the owners are over 50 and 70 percent are over 40.

If you look at the Amazon thread, a lot of senior folks bought the Kindle--and now the Kindle 2--partially because the digital reader is easier to handle than regular books for arthritis sufferers. It also helps that you can increase the font size, if you have trouble viewing small print in books.

Amazon is in a bit of battle with publishers who tend to think that e-book sales are cannibalizing their print books sales. However, comments from seniors saying they're able to read more now that they own Kindles helps Amazon's pseudo-statistical case that e-book purchases are incremental/additive, rather than cannibalistic of their print sales.

The Author’s Guild also has a big problem with a function on the Kindle 2 that allows a user to enable a Stephen Hawking-like voice to read the literature aloud. It claimed that the computer-generated voices, so-called ‘text-to-speech’ functions, are expected ‘to improve rapidly’ and undermine lucrative audio-book sales.

While this is still being debated, the people at Dvice use the Kindle and iPod Shuffle to illustrate the emotional content delivered by these voices.

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