Textbook Industry: Game Over or Game On?

Apple made its expected announcement that it is venturing into the textbook market. A combination of factors makes the situation ripe for Apple. First, Apple has demonstrated capability in simplifying the user experience to consume music and entertainment via iPods, iPhones, and iPads. Customer expectations would be that Apple will deliver a similar experience through the planned iBooks 2 platform. Second, customer dissatisfaction abounds in the textbook industry. While iBooks 2 will target K through 12 textbooks it seems inevitable that solutions for the higher education market will follow.

Should the textbook industry be hiding under a rock? Some cynics would say that publishers are already there, and that is why Apple is rising with a challenge. Years of maintaining status quo by publishers along with advances in technology have attracted Apple and other firms to explore how to innovate in the textbook industry. It would be unfair to suggest that traditional publishers have not attempted to innovate in response to changes in technology and students’ book consumption preferences, for they have made strides in responding to students’ needs. But, there is a great deal of work that remains if publishers want to be competitive in an environment in which new entrants are intent on changing how students buy and read textbooks.

Firms have two response options when disruptive innovations make their way into an industry: 1) Game Over or 2) Game On. The Game Over response may not be an immediate surrender. Rather, it can be a gradual decline in a prolonged battle to maintain relevance (see Kodak). In this case, textbook publishers are too heavily invested to cede control to Apple or anyone else. The response has to be Game On.

As a college professor and textbook author, I have great concerns about the costs students must bear to gain access to important learning resources, costs that are in addition to constantly increasing tuition. We cannot price students out of the opportunity to prepare to compete in the job marketplace. The innovation gauntlet has been thrown down for textbook publishers- Game On!

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