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Textbooks That Professors Can Rewrite Digitally

Readers can modify content on the Web, so why not in books?

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A psychology book as seen on DynamicBooks. Macmillan plans to start selling 100 titles in this fashion in August.

In a kind of Wikipedia of textbooks, Macmillan, one of the five largest publishers of trade books and textbooks, is introducing software called DynamicBooks, which will allow college instructors to edit digital editions of textbooks and customize them for their individual classes.

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.

While many publishers have offered customized print textbooks for years — allowing instructors to reorder chapters or insert third-party content from other publications or their own writing — DynamicBooks gives instructors the power to alter individual sentences and paragraphs without consulting the original authors or publisher.

“Basically they will go online, log on to the authoring tool, have the content right there and make whatever changes they want,” said Brian Napack, president of Macmillan. “And we don’t even look at it.”

In August, Macmillan plans to start selling 100 titles through DynamicBooks, including “Chemical Principles: The Quest for Insight,” by Peter Atkins and Loretta Jones; “Discovering the Universe,” by Neil F. Comins and William J. Kaufmann; and “Psychology,” by Daniel L. Schacter, Daniel T. Gilbert and Daniel M. Wegner. Mr. Napack said Macmillan was considering talking to other publishers to invite them to sell their books through DynamicBooks.

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Students will be able to buy the e-books at dynamicbooks.com, in college bookstores and through CourseSmart, a joint venture among five textbook publishers that sells electronic textbooks. The DynamicBooks editions — which can be reached online or downloaded — can be read on laptops and the iPhone from Apple. Clancy Marshall, general manager of DynamicBooks, said the company planned to negotiate agreements with Apple so the electronic books could be read on the iPad.

The modifiable e-book editions will be much cheaper than traditional print textbooks. “Psychology,” for example, which has a list price of $134.29 (available on Barnes & Noble’s Web site for $122.73), will sell for $48.76 in the DynamicBooks version. Macmillan is also offering print-on-demand versions of the customized books, which will be priced closer to traditional textbooks.

Fritz Foy, senior vice president for digital content at Macmillan, said the company expected e-book sales to replace the sales of used books. Part of the reason publishers charge high prices for traditional textbooks is that students usually resell them in the used market for several years before a new edition is released. DynamicBooks, Mr. Foy said, will be “semester and classroom specific,” and the lower price, he said, should attract students who might otherwise look for used or even pirated editions.

Instructors who have tested the DynamicBooks software say they like the idea of being able to fine-tune a textbook. “There’s almost always some piece here or some piece there that a faculty person would have rather done differently,” said Todd Ruskell, senior lecturer in physics at the Colorado School of Mines, who tested an electronic edition of “Physics for Scientists and Engineers” by Paul A. Tipler and Gene Mosca.

Frank Lyman, executive vice president of CourseSmart, said he expected that some professors would embrace the opportunity to customize e-books but that most would continue to rely on traditional textbooks.

“For many instructors, that’s very helpful to know it’s been through a process and represents a best practice in terms of a particular curriculum,” he said.

Even other publishers that allow instructors some level of customization hesitate about permitting changes at the sentence and paragraph level.

“There is a flow to books, and there’s voice to them,” said Don Kilburn, chief executive of Pearson Learning Solutions, which does allow instructors to change chapter orders and insert material from other sources. Mr. Kilburn said he had not been briefed on Macmillan’s plans.

Mr. Ruskell said he did not change much in the physics textbook he tested with DynamicBooks. “You don’t just want to say, ‘Oh, I don’t like this, I’m going to do this instead,’ ” he said. “You really want to think about it.”

Mr. Comins, an author of “Discovering the Universe,” a popular astronomy textbook, said the new e-book program was a way to speed up the process for incorporating suggestions that he often receives while revising new print editions. “I’ve learned as an author over the years that I am not perfect,” he said. “So if somebody in Iowa sees something in my book that they perceive is wrong, I am absolutely willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.”

On the other hand, if an instructor decided to rewrite paragraphs about the origins of the universe from a religious rather than an evolutionary perspective, he said, “I would absolutely, positively be livid.”

Ms. Clancy of Macmillan said the publisher reserved the right to “remove anything that is considered offensive or plagiarism,” and would rely on students, parents and other instructors to help monitor changes.

 

By MOTOKO RICH

Published: February 21, 2010

 

Courtesy: The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/business/media/22textbook.html

Filed under: Snippets

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