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A SWAT for waiting a decade on digital textbooks

Submitted by on Friday, 12 June 2009 No Comment

It seems there are two development paces for digital textbooks in California:

There’s doomed-to-fail-fast for public schools that wants to kick off by this fall, and there’s pokey procrastination for colleges that wants to wait until this year’s second-graders are in the second semester of their freshman year.

The college version comes in Senate Bill 48, which is awaiting action in the Assembly. Given that tight deadline for providing electronic textbooks, the Assembly should go ahead and deal with more pressing matters – say, the state’s impending financial meltdown, for example – before it deals with textbooks.

The high-tech, low-hurry legislation is sponsored by Sen. Elaine Alquist of San Jose in the heart of the Silicon Valley. With a speedy rush to innovation like that, you’d think she represents the newspaper industry.

Her bill certainly allows textbook publishers plenty of time to get their acts together, giving them until January 2020 to provide electronic versions. And even then, there will be no guarantee that the books would be more affordable – a requirement that e-books be no more expensive than the print counterparts was stricken from the bill.

The cited fear in a committee analysis of the bill was that publishers would jack up the price of print editions to recoup costs of e-books, a piece of rhetoric that sounds like it’s coming straight from Textbook Publisher Central.

“Creating an electronic version of that textbook will cost thousands of dollars,” an analysis of the bill warns. Yes, but you’ll save thousands of dollars in printing costs – pages, bindings,  distribution systems and materials.

Granted, publishers will need employees with different skills to create electronic versions – people versed in digital production as opposed to people who know how to run printing presses – but it will take far fewer of the former than it currently does of the latter.

The chief weakness of the bill, though, is that it looks for a solution from an industry that has had decades to offer this innovation. Instead, textbook publishers have dragged their feet – this isn’t the first time a version of SB 48 has been offered – because they just didn’t understand that change was inevitable or because they were too comfortable with their current profit model.

An earlier version of the bill – SB 832 in 2007 – was vetoed because it didn’t “share the burden” of creating electronic textbooks. Alquist’s bill clearly speaks to the lack of progress in the two years since.

If the publishers won’t do it, colleges should. Princeton University and, yes, the University of California have been publishing textbooks on Kindle for almost a year.

Sen. Alquist, Stop Wasting America’s Time by letting publishers delay for a decade. The market won’t wait that long, and your bill will be obsolete long before it takes effect.

Know of someone who deserves a SWAT? Click here to make a nomination.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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