A Professor and Author’s Perspective on the Impact of Apple’s iBooks Textbooks

A familiar conversation that takes place every semester surrounds the hot topic of textbook costs. The longest lines on campus are at the bookstore where countless students are buying books required for their classes. It’s not uncommon to overhear them declare the unfairness of a $200 textbook for a business class or about the class that requires multiple books.

With Apple’s announcement this week of its new iBook textbook program I felt a mix of interest, excitement, and apprehension. These are not uncommon feelings for professors and I had a chance to watch a colleague download and open his first new “textbook”.

Apart from the initial crash of iBook when he tried to open the text for the first time, the essential sentiment was expressed as the following:

“Oh, okay. Here we go.
A introduction video… fair enough.
So you can swipe through everything. That’s nice.
Ooh, an embedded video and you can pinch the photos to zoom.
*clicks on a word*
Oh, you can have it define a word.
Okay, this is cool.”

For a serious science professor I felt his response was quite positive! With absolutely no training you can jump into a textbook and start learning. I don’t think anyone is going to deny that this technology is amazing but the real question I have is about the economics of the textbook marketplace.


  • Textbooks can cost up to $14.99
  • Apple gets 30% of sales
  • Books created using iBook Author can only be sold through Apple

I know for a fact that students will like $15 textbooks. Students will also love the interactivity of the Multi-touch iBook format. As an author of several books used in college courses I am also excited about the price and format.

Not every author contract is the same, but in my field of audio technology the books generally sell for $30-40 while the author gets only 10%. For every book that sells I receive $4. The other 90% is used for the editorial and marketing process. If I could personally complete the layout and formatting myself (to the publisher spec) I could likely negotiate a better percentage but the amount of work is daunting!

The percentage for sales of the Kindle versions of my books (or even hard copy from Amazon) is even lower. However, if I write a book and self publish through Apple then I have the potential to earn up to $10 per book! If my book were to cost $100 then I would still only make $10. Students pay less and authors are paid more. What’s the catch?

For many years the publishers have acted as a critical phase of review. How can you be sure that an iBook has information that is correct and relevant? Textbooks typically go through a rigorous process of development that can take teams of people and years to complete. This relationship with authors and publishers is likely to remain critical now that Apple is in the equation.

The three sources of books which you are going to see in the coming months will be from major publishers as they ink deals with Apple (authors will see less than 70% in these cases since the publisher will require compensation), aggregate publisher partners which will also require a fee but will play much less of a role in the editorial process, and self-published texts which will be the best deal for authors but have very little content regulation.

No matter how you look at this situation the enormous business of educational textbooks is going to change. Unfortunately until the relatively expensive iPad has a cheaper counterpart or these textbooks are easily viewable on laptops and non-iOS phones, then adoption is going to be an uphill struggle.

About Sam: Teacher, writer, composer, and family man. Maker of delicious Halušky. Contact me via Twitter: @Sam_Denver

  • Anonymous

    Very inciteful comments. I believe the issue with viewing hardware options will be addressed. Many people feel that a smaller iPad is on the way, though I personally think the current format is more optimum for textbooks. Another strong possibility is for the current iPad to remain in production as a value alternative after the next version is released.

    Regarding bringing textbook readability to Mac laptops, that seems to me to be a no-brainer. My guess is the reason it isn’t an option already is either the OS X app wasn’t ready at launch time or Apple may be waiting for a back-to-school announcement. Either way, allowing textbooks to be used on OS X only helps Apple as consumers have the choice to opt for a more-expensive laptop over an iPad.

    The idea of “regular authors” being able to self-publish sounds enticing, but I don’t see schools taking self-published authors as seriously, perhaps for the very reason you mention regarding texts being properly reviewed and edited.

    • http://twitter.com/Sam_Denver Sam McGuire

      Good comments! The other thing I have been thinking about is the overall cost of textbooks while a student for four years. If you could get all of your books for $14.99 (which is extremely optimistic) then the savings would easily make an iPad affordable. If you can only buy one or two iBook textbooks then it would be harder to justify an iPad solely for this use. Of course mix this with Angry Birds and the FaceBook app and the purchase is completely justified!