Did Macmillan finally get e-textbooks right?

Just when I was about to lose faith in the emergence of real, useful, interactive textbooks with smart DRM, Macmillan may have just come along to save the day. ZDNet's Larry Dignan posted the highlights of Macmillan's new "DynamicBooks" this morning; I, for one, am just happy that their partnership with Apple is actually bearing fruit (pun definitely intended).

Just when I was about to lose faith in the emergence of real, useful, interactive textbooks with smart DRM, Macmillan may have just come along to save the day. ZDNet's Larry Dignan posted the highlights of Macmillan's new "DynamicBooks" this morning; I, for one, am just happy that their partnership with Apple is actually bearing fruit (pun definitely intended).

Although I've been a big supporter of the EPUB standard for electronic books for some time, one of the more exciting aspects of this story is the VitalSource Bookshelf platform that Macmillan chose to adopt for their DynamicBooks software. Obviously, the ability of a professor to customize a textbook before the ebook is distributed to students is quite useful and a step in the right direction, although the open-source fanboi lurking beneath my mild-mannered exterior still prefers the concept of a Flexbook. However, the VitalSource Bookshelf format provides a richness that EPUB just can't match yet.

EPUB is very well-suited to reading experiences that need dynamic resizing and is a great candidate for a variety of e-readers (and e-reader software on computers). However, VitalSource not only supports the embedding of a variety of media, but also supports social components like shared highlighting and notes. While EPUB is extensible with XML, a lot of the functionality promised by interactive textbooks is already built in and ready to go with VitalSource Bookshelf.

The format is also essential to the customization features available to instructors. As the New York Times reports,

Professors will be able to reorganize or delete chapters; upload course syllabuses, notes, videos, pictures and graphs; and perhaps most notably, rewrite or delete individual paragraphs, equations or illustrations.

Similarly, the software (and Macmillan) takes a fairly sensible approach to DRM. While instructors can modify the texts without permission or review from the publisher, the books are also portable from device to device. It isn't clear how this will play out in the secondary book market or in K12 settings where books may be reused for many years, but the door is certainly open for new paradigms in electronic textbook use and distribution.

The downside to all of this remains the lack of a standardized platform for electronic textbooks. Those e-textbooks that do exist are often in PDF, which cannot be accessed by VitalSource-based software. EPUB shows a great deal of promise, but countless competitors exist. What we need, of course, is one e-book platform to rule them all. Even Calibre can't handle VitalSource books. However, until the Lord of the E-Books emerges, VitalSource has a lot to offer. In the meantime, the partnership between Macmillan and Apple over iPad content may very well help to drive adoption of VitalSource Bookshelf.

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