Steve Jobs believed that textbook publishing was an “$8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction” and with the ever-growing distribution of tablets – particularly, of course, the iPad – into state schools, the time could be fast approaching when the swinging ball of digital content delivery smacks good and hard into the traditional textbook publishing establishment. On January 19th Apple announced a series of related initiatives designed to “modernise learning” (their words) based around the iPad tablet. Apple is hoping to “reinvent textbooks” and change the way we teach and learn with an updated iBooks 2 app. This works with interactive textbooks built with the iBooks Author desktop app, and an expansion of iTunes U that offers course materials and K-12 access. Effectively they are launching the equivalent of iTunes for textbooks with the kit to publish your own.
Like iTunes and the App Store, Apple appear to have no interest in creating the content themselves – simply in getting others to do the creative stuff, and then taking a slice of the pie for themselves as “resellers” of content. iTunes U hasn’t really taken off until now, but this could change everything (where have I heard that before?).
What is really significant is that potentially this opens the door for any number of indie publishers to create their own materials, and Apple is providing just to tools to do this. For relatively little investment, a school, an education ministry or even a group of teachers could become their own publisher, by-passing the major ELT publishers altogether – and on the way making a massive dent in publishing revenues. Couldn’t happen? No doubt Kodak executives were saying the same thing a dozen years ago when digital cameras started to first make real inroads into the film market. And all of a sudden Kodak is filing for bankruptcy, and new players like Panasonic and Sony are dominating the photography business.
So what can publishers do about this? An obvious place to head is down the digital road, and of course major publishers are now investing heavily in new digital divisions – though someone I was talking to today suggested that around 70% of editors working in publishing houses knew relatively little about digital publishing (we have a course for that!!!)
But I think publishers will also have to change the way they do business, offering not just content but services – such as teacher-training, course design, maybe editorial and design support. They may also want to consider offering language teaching themselves, as Pearson has already done with Live Mocha and its acquisition of Wall Street. After all, no need to set up a bricks-and mortar school – as is a growing trend in the US, a call centre would do the job. Interesting times indeed.