App of the Month

eBooks are one of the great equalizers in the publishing world. Because of the new distribution models that come along with digital copies, more and more independent publishers are entering the marketplace. However, one of the problems facing the small independent publisher is how to create high-quality eBooks without spending the thousands of dollars needed for the high-end graphic design software.

This is where Calibre comes in. The free, downloadable program found at calibre-ebook.com allows independent publishers (or anyone really) to create high-quality eBooks in a multitude of formats. These can then be exported and uploaded to the traditional eBook distribution portals much easier.

From Calibre’s website: “The conversion engine has lots of powerful features. It can rescale all font sizes, ensuring the output e-book is readable no matter what font sizes the input document uses. It can automatically detect/create book structure, like chapters and Table of Contents. It can insert the book metadata into a "Book Jacket" at the start of the book.”

It’s a powerful program, and one of the best parts is that it doesn’t cost a penny to download and use. I’d highly suggest donating something to the organization who manages the website though, as this is a fabulous program and a good stand-in for the higher-priced graphic design programs.

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Tech Desk

From the Tech Desk

Apple and Educational Publishing

One of the very first computers I can remember using was an Apple II in the computer lab of my elementary school in Central New York State. I’ve got fond memories of the programs on that computer, and to this day believe you haven’t really played Oregon Trail unless it was on an Apple II in the early 1990s. As an aside, I still have some files saved on 5.25 floppy disks sitting in a box somewhere; good lord knows if I’ll ever recover them. It’s because of this early experience with Apple products that I received the news of the company’s foray into educational publishing with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Before I get into my reasoning, let’s get a few facts (and an anecdote or two) out of the way first.

College textbooks are expensive. Exorbitantly so in some cases, particularly for a product that you might only use for three months of your entire life. During my college years, I can recall easily spending above $200 each semester on my textbooks. Given that some classes required two to three texts, and in the case of one literature class seven books, the cost adds up fast. This is true especially of students who have to take out loans or borrow money from their parents in order to fund their education. Could they work full- or part-time to supplement this cost? Of course. But even then you have to weigh study time -- a full-time job by itself -- against how much time you can spend working to earn money to fund your education.

Several friends of mine in the science disciplines had it even worse. A coworker told me her youngest son, currently studying engineering, regularly spends about $350 to $500 per semester on textbooks. In some cases he can’t even use these books again because a paragraph changed on page 250, or some similar silly reason. A quick survey on Twitter -- yes I use Twitter for research -- brought up one person who spent $1,200 on textbooks in one semester because she took three Art History courses that were period surveys. Other people told me of spending between $350 and $550 on for all their required textbooks. I asked my social media network for their highest single-semester textbook bill as a very unscientific survey sample, but the numbers were still staggering. These are science textbooks, multiple novels for an English class, the aforementioned Art History textbooks, and much more. This price gouging of college students and their parents needs to stop, and right away, especially if education is supposed to be a silver bullet to improve one’s quality of life.

My excitement then at seeing Apple enter the educational publishing market comes from remembered sticker-shock at the high pricepoint of college textbooks. The single worst part about educational publishing thus far, at least with college textbooks, has been that there’s no competition on pricing. Especially given the reasoning of a book changing in some infinitesimal way and thus being rendered useless to the professor teaching the class.

And forget about selling your books back to the school at the end of the semester. If the teacher isn’t using that edition next semester, the school bookstore won’t take it back. The consumer is then left with $250 worth of doorstops, or couch legs, or seats for your 3-year-old to use while sitting at the table. Even in the case of a successful sell-back, you’d be lucky to get 40% of your purchase price back. There are outlets such as Half.com and other websites which allow you to sell your textbooks direct to other students, but that’s still a net loss on something you spent hundreds of dollars on. No matter which way you slice it, it’s a losing proposition.

There are few organizations with the clout necessary to make a change in educational publishing. Apple is one of them, and it’s appropriate because of the history Apple has with computers in the classroom. I can recall Apples in my elementary school computer lab, but PCs didn’t come around until maybe middle school. Apple’s long history in the educational market means then they’ve got a better bead on it than perhaps Sony does. Just a theory though.

I said trepidation was my other emotion upon hearing the news of Apple getting into textbooks and this is why: When Apple makes inroads into an industry, it tends to fundamentally change the way business is done. For the consumer this is a very good thing, but ever since I became a publisher myself I’ve taken a hard look at shake-ups in the publishing world. Some companies are going to resist Apple’s movement into college textbooks; those companies will inevitably go out of business if they refuse to work with Apple on this. It’s an “adapt or die” situation to be honest, and I predict Apple’s involvement in the textbook market will drive a number of publishers out of business.

I’ve also read some comments about the pricepoint of an iPad being a barrier for some students/parents. This is a non sequitur, especially when one considers the price tags that students can expect for college textbooks now. A single iPad may cost $700, but the difference is it can be used for many different things. A semester of college textbooks that costs $700, on the other hand, can’t be used for more than 3 months. The other difference with an iPad is, depending on how Apple makes iBooks 2 (their educational textbook software) work, you could simply update a textbook with new chapters as each becomes available, thus having decreasing costs as time goes on.

Besides the obvious benefits to consumers -- cost savings, less weight to carry, and the ability to easily update files -- the iBooks 2 system could also allow professors to pick and choose pieces for their courses. Say a literature professor wants to use Chapters 3, 7, 10, and 14 out of a Norton anthology. They could instruct their students to only purchase those chapters from the book rather than the full text, which with a paper version they’d be forced to do.

So while my trepidation stems from seeing people potentially lose their jobs in the publishing industry, especially given the way the U.S. economy is today, in the end Apple’s foray into textbook publishing can only make things better for everyone involved. Fewer sheets of paper are needed, students have to carry less things, and professors have the potential for greater flexibility with their course textbooks.

Seems like my excitement won out, huh?

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Matthew Delman spent his formative years making up science fiction stories using Hot Wheels cars as stand-ins. In addition to writing on such varied topics as education and business, Matthew is also the founder of independent publishing company Doctor Fantastique Books and its flagship magazine Doctor Fantastique's Show of Wonders. His writing has appeared in The Gloucester Daily Times (Gloucester, Mass.), The Salem News (Salem, Mass.), and on ScienceFiction.com among other media outlets.


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Previous From the Tech Desk articles:
 

Penguin Group and the latest digital distribution silliness

The Idiocy of Digital Rights Management

BiblioCrunch makes eBooks easy for independent publishers

Is Booktrack’s idea of putting soundtracks on novels a good one?

Is the Vook the future of reading?

The Worrisome Nature of Spam in the Kindle Store

Is Print-on-Demand really a game changer?

Has the eBook Agency Model Harmed Sales?


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