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NOOKstudy—Barnes & Noble Breaks into the Lucrative Elearning Textbook Market
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Posted On July 22, 2010
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NOOKstudy, announced July 12, is Barnes & Noble's (BN) bold new effort to gain a foothold in the nascent etextbook market. The product was pre-released to a small group of college campuses this summer. BN expects the general release of the product for free, open use in August-to coincide with the beginning of the new school year. The software application promises to enable students "to manage all their digital content-etextbooks, class materials, and notes-on the computing device they rely on most, their PC or Mac."

Two days after this announcement came word of another significant alliance for BN. Blackboard and BN will collaborate on a system of flexible access to etextbooks and other courseware within Blackboard Learn. This move is intended to integrate BN more centrally into the learning platforms of online courseware of higher education and potentially K-12 and other learning markets-a multi-billion dollar industry today, and growing.

Barnes & Noble bills itself as "the world's largest bookseller and the nation's highest rated bookselling brand." Today, the company includes 775 retail bookstores and 636 campus bookstores serving more than 4 million students and 250,000 faculty members across the country.

According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, 49% of all book purchases in 2000 were done online. In 2007 (the latest available data) this increased to 61%. Today's bookselling powerhouses, BN, Borders, and Amazon, are each pursuing both online sales and ebooks.

Not to be left out of this mix is Google Editions, the long-promised venture with the American Booksellers Association (the trade group for U.S. independent bookstores), intended to make Google the primary source of finding and purchasing ebooks on the internet. Although the launch date for this collaboration has been moving, most expect the service to launch by early fall.

A longtime pioneer in the college bookselling industry, founder, and current chairman Leonard Riggio entered the bookselling industry by establishing Student Book Exchange in Greenwich Village in 1965. He purchased BN in 1971 and began building a chain that now has operations in both academe and storefronts in every state in the U.S. In 1998 BN dipped its toes into the digital marketplace with an investment in the Rocket eBook reader. This failure caused a refocusing of the corporation on superstores and other areas, leaving innovation in online bookselling to the upstart Amazon. Today, however, the company is clearly positioning itself to reclaim lost territory.

NOOKstudy-A Free, Platform-Independent Solution

 No advanced copy of NOOKstudy was available for review. However, the product's PR promises a variety of important features:

  • Integration: NOOKstudy organizes your etextbooks, class handouts, course syllabi, lecture notes, and other electronic materials, making them easily and quickly accessible on your existing computer set-up.
  • Organization: Course materials are presented and organized for easy, quick access to what you need, when you need it.
  • Multitasking: Opening multiple textbooks at the same time or have pages from different books open simultaneously.
  • Zooming: The ability to zero in on full-color diagrams or other elements in the material.
  • Intelligent bookmarking: Automatically returning you to the last page you were reading.
  • Instant access to key publishers and titles: Downloads of more than 1 million ebooks and etextbooks through BN or other sources.
  • Notetaking, tagging, web-linking: Making notes directly in your etextbooks and tagging content using easy-to-search terms; highlighting and annotating important passages; marking questions for in-class discussion or even integrating information found in a web search.
  • Integrated search capability: Easy searching through the entire text of a book or your own notes. Searching websites, such as Google and Dictionary.com, to look up definitions, formulas, or other information from NOOKstudy.

Tracey Weber, BN's executive vice president for textbooks and digital education, notes that "NOOKstudy is a big win for college students. It will not only lighten their backpacks, but also help them save money and study more efficiently." The company reports that the system is currently being tested at Pennsylvania State University, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Queensboro Community College, Rochester Institute of Technology, and William & Mary.

 "Students can download their textbooks on up to two devices and literally carry all of their textbooks with them," notes William & Mary's Carolyn Davis. "We also feel that the interactive feature of using this software will be appealing to students and faculty. It will be interesting to see how successful it will be. We have our fingers crossed!"

A Significant Move By a Retailing Giant

"The fact that this is being offered for free is significant," says University of Minnesota Press director and editor-in-chief Douglas Armato. "Amazon's Kindle hasn't been able to move into the laptop domain, which is significant in terms of acceptance, especially for higher ed. The Kindle device suffers from the size of the display and lack of color-which are both significant for the academic marketplace. However, Kindle has an incredible title base today."

Most analysts agree that the final, successful ebook product won't involve proprietary readers or materials and will have to offer significant advantages and reasonable pricing for a global audience in order to fight off the enduring benefits of the printed book. Outsell's Kate Worlock believes that "the real excitement in this market comes, I think, from the potential of moving outside the concept of the textbook. It is services like Pearson's MyLab or WileyPLUS which show real developmental flair and effective usage of the digital medium. Just putting books on a screen doesn't cut the mustard."

"So far you could say academe has been underwhelmed. Students have been slower to adopt than the general public," Armato notes. "The acceptance of etextbooks has been very marginal-3-5% up until now. There is the issue of publishers' costs, author issues in terms of compensation for works, and students are imbedded with the ability to sell used books. All of this inertia works against the new technology."

 In the past 3 years, the prices of a Kindle and Sony Reader have been cut in half from $400 to $200. The displays, storage, and other features have improved significantly as well. Other options for accessing books and other materials electronically have also grown-from PDA and cellphones to netbooks and iPads. Efforts that would require an open (non-proprietary) solution have grown as well.

Downloading of free etexts is growing rapidly. The University of Virginia Library's Electronic Text Center, for example, records millions of downloads of its free books and materials. Many courses already use free versions of materials-from Open Access, author's posted copies, etc. -in their coursepacks. The issue isn't acceptance of electronic versions as much as the quality, access, and pricing for them. If what you are being offered isn't as good as what you already have, there is little incentive to change.

BN seems to be using well the lessons the corporation has learned over the years in its experiences with academic users. "NOOKstudy is a revolutionary approach to learning that offers students access to the reading and organizational tools they need, across all content sources and formats, enabling them to study smarter, not harder," notes Weber. "It may not be the right learning tool for every student or every class but it does offer to be another affordable alternative to our students."

"Now that the genie is out of the bottle, everyone will quickly duplicate this functionality. The eBook market is too competitive for any of the vendors to allow another to get a step ahead if they can possibly catch up. I imagine Amazon will offer similar functionality for the Kindle by August," reports Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, editor-in-chief of the Practical Technology blog. "I see this as giving BN a very brief lead. If it works well, then they may maintain momentum for two or three quarters. After that, everyone will have caught up."

"Amazon and Apple don't appear to be interested in this elearning marketplace," Armato continues. "Google's Google Editions brings them closer to the academic market, but they aren't targeting texts. However, Google Editions could really shake things up as well. Maybe it will be Barnes & Noble that really moves that segment along."

Senior IBISWorld analyst George Van Horn notes that BN "is obviously expanding the NOOK brand in order to appeal to multiple audiences-NOOKstudy for learning and NOOK ereader for entertainment readers. There should be some deferred benefits from a successful NOOKstudy that will help BN's online bookstore, yet the benefits will occur over time, not immediately."

"The Next Web" blogger Alex Wilhelm believes that "BN wants to get ahead in this market, their future depends on it, so they are building a new product and revenue stream that will boost their vanilla ebook efforts."

Just as the music industry found itself completely reinvented by the onset of internet-based distribution and sales channels, the book publishing industry finds itself on the verge of a major distribution revolution as well.

"Barnes & Noble is the company to watch," Armato concludes. "They have the most content-especially their backlists-for the academic market. The next 18 months are key to the development of this marketplace. The question is who will be able to capitalize on this opportunity? It takes high capital to invest in this area: Google, Amazon, and Apple have been the leaders in this area. Barnes & Noble is clearly joining this troika."


Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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