Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Wiley Tests e-Texts in Texas

by Edward Nawotka -- Publishers Weekly, 1/19/2009

When Kevin Hegarty, v-p and CFO of the University of Texas at Austin, went looking for a publisher to supply e-textbooks for classes at the school, he was surprised by lack of enthusiasm. “We visited with publishers and they all said they were willing to pioneer on this, but the only one that came to the table with a serious deal was Wiley,” Hegarty said. “Of course, now, since the deal was announced, Pearson is chomping at the bit. McGraw-Hill is chomping at the bit.”

When classes start January 20, about 1,300 students for six different classes will be given Wiley e-textbooks—what Hegarty called “essentially enhanced PDFs.” UT has licensed the books to test how functional e-textbooks are for faculty and students. “The real question in my mind is whether the tools of digitization have progressed far enough that faculty will find it useful,” said Hegarty. He added, “As you might guess, the professors in math, engineering and accounting were the most interested.” A team of learning psychologists has been hired to track the experiment and assess its result.

Hegarty said Texas is paying $25 to $45 per book and negotiated roughly a 50% discount on full price of the textbooks. (The school also has the right to print any textbook at a cost of 1.5 cents per page for students who request a physical copy.) “There was just too much work going into this for a 10% discount,” he said. While he appreciates the cost savings, he thinks they could and should be reduced by as much as 70%–80% of current levels. If the e-book test is embraced, said Hegarty, the university might wrap the cost of the books into the class itself.

One critic of the plan is Michael Granof, chairman of the University Co-op, the University of Texas's textbook store, and a professor of accounting at the UT graduate schools of business and public policy. “There's no reason for a university to get involved with licensing,” he said. “If a publisher has an e-book available, the instructor can put the link to the book on the course Web site and the student can click the link and buy the book from the Co-op, just as they would for any other book they bought.”

He predicted that if the university takes over responsibility for supplying textbooks in digital form to students, it will undermine the viability of the bookstore. “The Co-op is a not-for-profit—meaning 100% of our profits go to the university,” said Granof.

Based on the Co-op's firsthand experience selling e-books, Granof believes he can predict the outcome of UT's experiment: in the 2008 fall semester, the Co-op sold a total of 55 e-books, though they were available for 198 courses taken by a total of 15,000 students.“E-books are definitely coming, but when they are going to get here, I'm not sure,” said Granof.

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