One of the areas where ebooks and open source publishing have the potential to make a real difference is in the market for academic textbooks. Because textbook prices are traditionally very high, and because new editions are published frequently, it would seem that e-textbooks offer a chance for students to get much cheaper and more adaptable books. Publishers have been dragging their heels, happy with the status quo, but a new initiative in California looks like it could light the blue touch-paper and start a revolution.
On September 27th, Californian governor Jerry Brown signed off on a proposal for the state to fund fifty open source digital textbooks. That’s a huge deal, and one that could save students millions of dollars in California alone. Universities and colleges in California will have access to the open source library that’s being proposed, and this means they’ll no longer have to pay hundreds of dollars for the titles that used to be required.
It’s not hard to see why textbook publishers might not like this move. For some time, they’ve been able to charge top dollar for their titles, while the resale value is limited due to the continual updates that many books receive. Obviously there’s a need to fund textbook production, and expert writers don’t come cheap. But open source could be an innovative and disruptive development that spurs real improvements that benefit students. Whether traditional publishers can adapt to this new scenario is unclear, but history suggests there might be some tensions.