Nature Publishing Group Officially Launches New Interactive Textbook

Last spring I wrote about Nature Publishing Group’s plan for a $49 electronic textbook packed with interactivity and unlimited content updates for life. The original publication date was scheduled for September 1, 2011, but for a variety of reasons the release was pushed back. Today marks the official launch of “Principles of Biology”.

This book is “born digital”, according to Vikram Savkar, SVP & Publishing Director at Nature Publishing Group, and is the first in a line of texts that NPG plans to release for the life and physical sciences. It’s not an e-book or fancy PDF, but a dynamic interactive website that can be customized by the instructor, contains built-in assessments that students can take, and works appropriately on any device that can access it: desktop, tablet, or phone.

In fact, Savkar’s group struggled with whether to even call this a “textbook”, or push for something more descriptive like “interactive textbook” or “i-text”. They finally settled on boring ol’ “textbook” because although they’ve updated the actual college text as a product, they have not (yet) changed how college texts are selected and sold. Professors and instructors generally select the texts for their class and although this book may have been born digital it’s a fair bet that most college instructors weren’t. These folks appreciate a little familiarity. At the end of the day, NPG has a product to sell, and they need to make sure it makes sense to their market.

Another example of how this new text straddles the old and new worlds: it has a beautiful cover page. This page serves absolutely no functional purpose, and is in fact a distraction to digital natives: it’s one extra click between you and the content you want! But the purchasing audience (again: instructors, not students) like the familiar connotations of the cover page.

After that, though, “Principles of Biology” is something new entirely. The instructor can modify the organization of the modules, or select to omit some modules altogether from the version used in their class. Diagrams and figures can come to life through animation. Examples can leverage drag-and-drop tools to interactively reinforce key concepts. And each student’s copy is personalized — for the life of the book — with assessments. The instructor can review each student’s assessments and get good insight into where a student might benefit from additional instruction.

The $49 purchase price is certainly a novelty in the realm of college textbooks, which normally sell for several times that amount. The dirty secret in college textbooks is that the average text is resold three times after the initial purchase. From the publisher’s point of view, this is three lost sales, so they inflate the retail price to try to make up for this. NPG’s book won’t be resold — it’s tied to an individual student — so they can keep the price low.

As great as “Principles of Biology” is right now, it’s not without some warts. Because it’s basically a really fancy website, it requires network access. There’s an Adobe Air application that allows desktops and laptops to access the book offline, but tablets and smartphones don’t yet have that option. Savkar assured me that there’s a plan in the works to remedy that situation, but it’s not ready for the product’s official launch.

Another flaw, at least right now, is that the page navigation controls are bloody small on a smartphone’s display. They’re also painfully small when using the Amazon Kindle Fire’s browser. Savkar agreed with me, and pointed out that updates get pushed to the product every second Tuesday. These updates include content and functionality, so it’s quite likely that a forthcoming update will improve pagination on smaller screen devices.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that in all other respects the book performed beautifully on the platforms with which I tried it: my Linux laptop, my iPhone, and my Fire. Animations play in the proper format for the device being used, and the content resizes nicely for the various sized screens. A lot of engineering and design effort has gone into the book, and the results show it.

NPG is taking a bit of a risk with this book, but they’re pretty confident that they’re on to a winner. A typical college textbook usually takes about five years to get to market. Savkar hopes to reduce this to 18 months for their texts. And their all-digital product avoids printing and distributions costs, which allows them to more easily enjoy a global focus. Savkar informed me that universities in Nicaragua and Portugal had just this week decided to use “Principles of Biology”.