July 26, 2013 Last Updated 3:39 pm

Some notes on Google's textbook initiative

Google made a bit of a splash in the education community this week when it announced its own textbook initiative. Google said they had reached a deal with all five major textbook publishers including Cengage, Wiley, Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Macmillan to bring discounted digital textbooks to its to Google Play Books.

elC9dc5FMnsC“You can purchase textbooks at full price or rent them for six months at up to 80% off. You can use all of the features of Google Play Books like search, bookmarks, highlights, notes, dictionary, Wikipedia lookups and night mode. And they are available across platforms on web and mobile,” Google’s Android Press wrote online.

The part that some in the media the education field latched on to was the mention of up to 80% off. But with only a few titles mentioned so far, most would be wise to wait and see what actually gets unveiled.

The eBooks in question all appear to be Kindle Editions, rather than the kinds of interactive textbooks Apple is promoting. Quantitative Human Physiology by Joseph J Feher, one of the books mentioned in the statement, is incredibly expensive in both hardcover and Kindle editions ($103 for print, $96 for the Kindle Edition). But Amazon is willing to rent you the book for $66. It’s that rental option that many students opt for, meaning less sales for the publishers.

To combat that, publishers are apparently willing to enter into a deal where the eBook version will be more heavily discounted, but where they can guarantee themselves a sale. (TechCrunch says the books will be discounted 80 percent, but is not at all what Google said.)

With tuition still climbing, students need to be frugal, and professors understand this. Many are being very careful to require expensive textbooks when there are other alternatives available. Textbook publishers are clearly concerned about what the future holds though I am somewhat skeptical about whether this move actually represents anything other than Google doing exactly what Amazon is already doing.

For instance, of the titles Google mentioned, half would be available for rent, half for sale. Of those for rent, Amazon is already significantly discounting the price. If Google does get a sweetheart deal for the publishers there is a damn good change Amazon will simply discount further in order to compete.

Then the question becomes would a student rather rent a hardcover textbook at a discount, or a digital version that has to be read through the Google Play Books app? We’ll see in August exactly what Google unveils.

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