Apple's Textbook Strategy

By Jason Griffey |

Apple has decided to attempt yet another media disruption, this time focusing on reinventing the textbook market. This move was foretold in the biography of Steve Jobs, where Walter Isaacson wrote about Jobs:

“He wanted to disrupt the textbook industry, and save the spines of spavined students bearing backpacks by creating electronic texts and curriculum material for the iPad."

The details of the announcement should definitely interest anyone in libraries, but especially school libraries (and, I think, academic libraries as well). The first announcement was the simple fact that Apple is getting into the electronic textbook market, providing tools for making electronic textbooks with rich media embedded and selling them in the iBooks store for the iPad. Apple also announced that they had signed three of the largest producers of textbooks in the US to be partners in the project; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, and Pearson.

There were three different software products announced as well: iBooks 2, iBooks Author, and iTuneU for iPad. iBooks 2 gives you access to the textbook store, as well as adding features like highlighting and note-taking, definitions, lesson reviews and study cards. The iTunes U app is a shortcut into the previously iTunes focused iTunes U portal for free curricular content from a number of colleges and universities across the world. iBooks Author is the most interesting of the products, as well as being the one that’s generated the most discussion, almost entirely because of its end-user license agreement.

iBooks Author allows for the creation of media-rich eBooks for the iBook Store, or exportable to PDF or TXT files without the fancy media embeds. Unfortunately for everyone, Apple chose to not support the emerging EPUB3 standard for import and export. This is an Apple-Only playground for the time being, with no import facilities at all. You start from a template, and build out an ebook using tools that are reminiscent of Apple’s own Keynote presentation’s by far the best interface I’ve seen for creating complicated ebooks. It’s a real shame that Apple chose to restrict the output to only working in iBooks...understandable from their point of view, but overall I think the wrong call.

The real controversy comes in the EULA for Author. Included in the agreement is a section that reads:

B. Distribution of your Work. As a condition of this License and provided you are in compliance with its terms, your Work may be distributed as follows:

(i) if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means;

(ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.

The commercial clause is the one that has most people worried, and seems to be unique in the world of EULAs. You’d be hard pressed to find another piece of software that limits your ability to sell the output of said program...they exist, but this is far more direct and draconian than any previous license that I’m aware of. For authors who want to use the tool, this locks them into distribution via the iBooks store, which means that libraries and librarians are going to be cut out of purchasing them for collections in any real way. On the other hand, it means that if libraries themselves want to use the tool to produce tools to help users and distribute them for free, they can easily and quickly do so with iBooks Author.

Apple is starting their textbook rollout with titles designed for high school (grades 9-12 in the US), which is surprising given the intense political and educational decision-making that goes into choosing public school textbooks in the US. I had expected them to start with College and University textbooks where the decision to use or not use is almost entirely up to the professor teaching the class. This is almost certainly just a preliminary trial, and I suppose if they hook the high schoolers then the expectation of iPad textbooks might trickle up to the world of higher education. 

These are far from a sure thing, but as the last 15 years shows us, it’s not a good bet to bet against Apple when it comes to selling things to consumers. Libraries should be ready to answer questions about these things over the next year or so as Apple tries to make textbooks into another conquest in their personal electronics and services empire.