GLOBAL: China and India to dominate education e-books
China's digital publishing industry is booming with a mammoth US$12 billion output in 2009. It is propelled by large numbers of digital readers - over 40 companies are manufacturing e-readers in China, many of them offering similar functionality.
These companies are making a big push into the market or promoting their devices to publishers and content providers. Publishers in China have digitised a large amount of content to cater for their huge domestic audience.
The large storehouse of content is integrated with e-readers as free e-books, which helps to familiarise readers with screen reading. That is important because some in the industry believe that once students start to use e-readers, tempted by the free content, publishers can later charge for add-ons such as student assessment packages for course tutors.
Chinese textbook publishers are using the same standardised format, unlike the different standards hampering the e-book market elsewhere in the world, and they are delivering open access e-books to students through CERNET, China's Education and Research Network, accessed by most of the country's higher education institutions.
Although e-books are still in their infancy, the reading devices from China - some of them with multilingual functionality - are gaining popularity in Asia as the price per unit is very competitive. This will be important for the growing student market, which is price-sensitive but potentially very large.
Publishers and aggregators have started to source these cheaper e-readers and sell in local markets across the world. Their ePub compatibility gives them an advantage, so it is likely that Chinese devices will percolate to every corner of the world.
India's advantage is its ability to create digital content for a world audience. The technology and expertise for digitising in India is an attraction, with a strong talent pool that is digital-savvy but is also equipped with multimedia and animation skills -. The number of institutions in the country offering training in these skills has skyrocketed in recent years.
Many technology companies - big ones like Accenture, Tata Interactive, Aptara, and hundreds of startups and smaller players that have mushroomed in Pondicherry, Pune, Bangalore and the environs of New Delhi - are involved in digitising.
But rather than simply copying paper books, academic content from India is being produced with digital enhancements. Indian companies could transform this sector as many are already focusing on e-learning products and have resources in place to leapfrog from pre-press content specialists to full-scale digital publishing offering finished e-books in specific academic disciplines.
e-Books and higher education
e-Books for the higher education audience evolved with Project Gutenberg which provides free e-books and is the oldest digital library, now with 33,000 e-books in its collection. The initial focus was reference books and out of print titles. STM (science, technical and medical) and reference publishers initiated and digitised their current titles and backlists, with reference libraries an assured market for such endeavours.
Then online books available on a subscription basis, the '"cluster purchase'" of e-book collections and downloadable e-books entered the academic field, making access to e-books more convenient for researchers.
Another game changer in open access e-books is the free online textbook offerings of Flat World Knowledge, used by more than 40,000 students on more than 400 US college campuses. These compete with leading textbook publishers, but new options such as print-on-demand softcovers, audio books, chapters and self-print options are innovative.
e-Books are preferred by students because of the price advantage over the print version. On average, e-books are 50% to 60% cheaper than the print version. As textbook usage by students is generally limited to the period of their course, online textbooks sold on a subscription basis have started to gain some acceptance in the US.
Digital book rentals and chapter downloads are also being offered. In the United Kingdom Amil Tolia's start up Reference Tree is generating interest with its announcement that it will offer chapter-wise academic content online.
Universities understand the utility of using e-books as textbooks. Initiatives by the US-based company CourseSmart featuring the textbooks of major publishers have helped digital textbooks gain access across North America.
But a device that could transform the higher education space in the near future will be the Apple iPad. The launching of textbook apps could make the iPad a popular choice for students.
Digitised textbook content needs to be more widespread so that students have a digital option for every print textbook.
Winning over students
However, despite the publishing industry and aggregators' efforts to convert print buyers to digital, the average student still has an affinity for the printed book. Printed books outdo e-books in portability, ease of use, and as a gadget-free experience, while the price of e-readers is still considered high for the average student.
Adoption of digital books will increase proportionally with the decrease in price of e-readers. Devices from China and India are already being released with attractive price tags. The Bambook from Shanda Literature China and Wink from EC Media India are two attractively -priced products launched this year.
However the uptake rate of e-textbooks in emerging nations is currently bleak.
Korea has positioned itself as a leader in e-book usage and promotes their use, for example through the Korean Ministry of Education-sponsored Education & Research Information Service's (KERIS) eBook Consortium for Higher Education. KERIS has formed a consortium of over 70 universities to share access to more than 8,000 e-book titles. The Korean example can be emulated by many countries.
Authors, editors, instructional designers and multimedia specialists need to understand students' requirements in creating digital content. These include students' need to annotate e-books and provide interactive links.
Simply putting PDF content on a digital device does not do justice to digital media. Enhanced Editions and Vooks, which combine video, internet links and text, are demonstrating new ways to produce digital content.
eTextbooks can be well integrated into undergraduate courses. Engineering and the sciences need illustrations and detailed photographs. Digital editions can accommodate greater detail and clarity than print versions, while micro zooming options can benefit biology students.
While e-textbooks can integrate features impossible to offer in print versions, the cost of development would make their cost significantly higher than for printed books.
Meanwhile the multitude of file formats of e-books is still a challenge, although ePub is evolving as a more popular format, thanks to the efforts of the International Digital Publisher's Forum (IDPF) - the trade and standards organisation dedicated to the development and promotion of electronic publishing - which has adopted it.
Off-shoring digital development to countries such as India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka can keep the development cost lower. As with the success of eTutoring in off-shore tutoring, e-publishing for education too will have a larger presence in India as Indian education specialists can help develop good value e-textbooks. The technical expertise, adaptability of the work force to new technologies and cost savings give the country an advantage in off-shoring digital content development.
The Chinese invented paper in 105 AD and pioneered printing too. China is now positioned to make the world read digitally. Similarly, India's ancient writings and epics in Sanskrit are a treasure house of knowledge. These emerging countries now have the potential to contribute to learning in the digital way.
* Joseph Tryble is based in Trivandrum, India, as zonal sales manager for the global publishers Pearson Education. The views expressed here are his own.