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E-textbooks zip into college market

| Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011

A new generation of electronic textbooks enables college students with tablet computers to interact with history, science and other subjects, and connect with students anywhere in the world studying the same book — for a lot less money than a paper textbook.

Inkling, a San Francisco company unlike many e-book publishers that simply digitize paper books, is rebuilding college texts from the ground up. The texts include embedded sound and video, links to primary sources, search capabilities and a memo function that doubles as a social media network, allowing students to communicate with experts and text authors, as well as professors and students around the world who are studying the text.

"I was surprised by how much I liked it," said Cathy Giunta, who taught a marketing class at Seton Hill University last fall with an iPad e-textbook from Inkling. "It made classes far more interactive and collaborative. And the students really felt it was an effective use of their time."

Inkling founder and CEO Matt MacInnis said the concept has broad applications across many disciplines.

"A student who is studying history can hear Harry Truman give a speech or watch Nixon resign ... If you're studying chemistry, we render molecules in 3D," he said.

Seton Hill, a small liberal arts school in Greensburg, became something of a mecca for tech teaching aids when the school issued iPads to all incoming students last year.

Now, as millions of students return to school, the privately held Inkling wants to give the multi-billion dollar textbook market a run for its money with a product that takes the heft and about 40 percent of the cost out of 5-pound textbooks that can carry price tags upward of $200.

MacInnis said Inkling can deliver texts a chapter at a time for a few dollars.

"The No. 1 selling biology text is McGraw's Brooker Biology. It retails for $203 in print. The Inkling version is $139 for all 60 chapters, or $2.99 a chapter," MacInnis said.

Nicole Allen, of the Student Public Interest Research Group, said a new analysis by the group found textbook prices had increased 22 percent over the past four years, four times the average rate of inflation.

Allen said 70 percent of college students who participated in a recent survey by her group, said they couldn't afford to purchase all of the books their professors assigned.

This fall, 50 schools, including Brown University's medical school, will be tapping a catalog of 50 Inkling texts. MacInnis said the company should have 100 titles in its catalog by year's end.

iPad owners can download a free Inkling app from the iTunes store and then sample a free chapter from each text.

Although e-textbooks have been around for several years and sometimes offer savings up to 60 percent, they still make up only a small portion of the market.

"It's a huge topic in the marketplace. ... A lot of companies like ours are waiting for the tipping point," said Elio DiStaola, director of campus relations for Follett, a company that manages 940 college bookstores nationwide.

Mark Vehec, who teaches advertising at Carlow University in Oakland, suspects part of it may be generational.

Vehec teaches two advertising classes: a day class made up of traditional students and an evening section made up largely of adults. Although the publisher's list price for the e-text is $82.80, compared with $217 for the textbook, older students seem to prefer the book, he said.

"I don't have nearly as many adult students interested in (the e-text) as I do traditional students," Vehec said. He predicted sales will increase when publishers move to editions that are more than mere electronic scans of paper texts.

Both Follett and Barnes & Noble, which operates more than 600 college bookstores, have come up with their own free downloadable apps that allow students to make notes and print from the traditional e-texts.

DiStaola said students downloaded 150,000 to 200,000 copies of CafeScribe, an app that has been available since 2008.

Jade Roth, vice president of textbooks and digital strategy for Barnes & Noble, said the company, which has offered e-texts since 2003, has seen digital textbook or e-text business increase every year. Students have downloaded more than 1 million copies of the company's Nook app that works with Mac and PC since last August, Roth said. The app allows users to highlight and print from the e-texts.

Roth said price rather than functionality has driven business in e-texts.

"Campbell Biology is a core text that is used all over the place in freshman and sophomore biology. New, (the paper version) is $200. The Nook study edition is $130," Roth said.

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