The A La Carte Age of Textbooks

Apple’s textbook announcement from a couple months ago turned out to be a big bust. The new era of textbooks will not be about making the biggest, fanciest, or flashiest work around. This is the era of customizability.

Look at the textbooks on your bookshelf. They likely cost you $50 or more. But, honestly, how many of them have you read cover to cover? Probably not very many, if any at all. For the most part, these thousand page behemoths are useful for three or four chapters. Yet, when you purchase the book, you also must buy another twenty irrelevant chapters. And that sucks.

Now that we have a digital platform to work with, it is time to change the philosophy of textbooks. Yes, we can all keep publishing our thousand page behemoths. But we should also publish every chapter individually. Thus, students who purchase our textbooks buy exactly what they need and nothing more.

This model is impossible for the mass-produced paper model. A twenty chapter textbook would turn into 21 versions—one for each chapter and an all-inclusive edition. Publishers simply cannot anticipate consumer demands and produce the appropriate quantity of each version. So we are stuck with one pricy version.

Digital publishing does not face such constraints. For example, I have written three chapters of my Game Theory 101 textbook. The first chapter, Game Theory 101: The Basics is available all by its lonesome. (It’s also been Amazon’s best selling game theory book every month since July 2011—the month of its release.) So is the second chapter: Game Theory 101: Extensive Form. And the third chapter: Game Theory 101: Advanced Strategic Form Games. Students can purchase exactly what they need and nothing more. Or, they can purchase everything for a discounted price. The important thing is that the decision is in their hands, not the publisher’s.

If anything, Apple’s textbook announcement seemed to go in the opposite direction. iBooks still lives in a world that thinks ISBNs are necessary. I’m not sure what purpose an ISBN serves in 2012 when I can simply Google a title and find the book that way.

Actually, I take it back. I know exactly what purpose ISBNs serve: bureaucracy! A single ISBN costs $125. You can purchase 10 for $250, or $25 a piece. Regardless, ISBNs make a la carte textbooks unnecessarily expensive, as the publisher has to purchase a unique ISBN for each individual version. So Apple is going to be sitting this revolution out until it kills its ridiculous ISBN policy.

Death to the ISBN! Viva la a la carte!

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