Starting on Aug. 1, DynamicBooks (http://dynamicbooks.com), a new subsidiary of Macmillan Publishers (www.macmillan.com), will launch an interactive publishing platform built around a set of digital textbooks. Using the software, faculty will be able to edit and delete text and add content, including multimedia and web links. Changes from the original text will be clearly indicated and credited. The initial offerings will include at least 20, and possibly as many as 100, textbooks available for purchase from the DynamicBooks website or at some campus bookstores. Prices will be slashed in comparison with the print versions. The "back-end" technology supporting the program is the VitalSource Bookshelf (http://vitalsource.com/software/bookshelf) from Ingram Content Group (www.ingramcontent.com). Ingram's contribution to the project also includes its Lightning Source print-on-demand (POD) service. DynamicBooks also offers to open up its platform to other publishers outside Macmillan.
DynamicBooks expects instructors to attach a wide range of content, including podcasts, video clips, animation, equation editors, graphing tools, and their own original content. Any content edited by instructors will be highlighted to distinguish it from the original text. It will also carry attribution notifications since the instructors will retain copyright to any original content and additions. According to Clancy Marshall, general manager of DynamicBooks, "DynamicBooks works on any computer. It has an app for entering notes and highlighting for access on the iPhone. We're working on new devices, though not the Kindle. That's a very different device and we're not focusing on it right now because not a lot of students use it."
According to Marshall, DynamicBooks will also incorporate major social networking features. "We are working on setting them up now. We're looking at blogs for authors and Facebook. Right now it's still in the planning stages. Some authors have some exciting ideas about communicating with instructors."
Students will be able to purchase full-featured digital texts for download, which they, in turn, can annotate or highlight as well as search for terms and print pages. Online access and an iPhone app will complete the DynamicBook package. Printed, bound versions will be available in black-and-white or full color. The printed version may include images and links to websites with multimedia content, but, obviously, no video or audio. Retailers such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Follett will supply the POD print copies. Professors will have the needed ISBNs, according to Marshall.
Marshall described the POD product. "The printed version has no animation, just a link to animation, but if there's an embedded image, we would show that. There's just a link for audio too. The individual instructor decides whether to link or embed. DynamicBooks does not manage the process. Some content would already be available in the DynamicBook, for example, podcasts embedded and then hosted on the publishers' servers, not ours."
Most of the initial textbooks offered will come from two Macmillan subsidiaries-Bedford, Freeman, and Worth Publishers, the main textbook publishing arm, and Hayden-McNeil Publishers. The 20 textbooks starting off the program cover science and math with more titles flowing in fields such as psychology, economics, and statistics. Costs for the digital DynamicBooks will run 40%-50% less than the same print textbooks. Buyers will use access cards that can be sold at campus bookstores. When asked about campuswide licenses, Marshall responded, "We haven't really discussed those at this point. There has been some interest and questions expressed. We will definitely explore that in the future."
Faculty who make major revisions and contributions to the textbooks will be candidates for receiving a royalty fee of $1 for each sale to students in a class. DynamicBooks is developing a list of criteria to identify what constitutes a significant contribution. The royalty paid to instructors, according to a DynamicBooks representative, is not added to the price of the text. Instructors also have the option to waive the royalty or to pass it on to their departments.
As to the prospect of other publishers joining the DynamicBooks platform, Marshall indicated there had been a "tremendous amount of interest" and from large publishers primarily. Some of the interest may stem from familiarity with VitalSource Bookshelf, the back-end software support from VitalSource Technologies (http://vitalsource.com), the Ingram Content Group's subsidiary. The choice was not accidental. According to Marshall, "When we decided to build DynamicBooks, we looked at a lot of platforms and felt this one offered the best for students. We have a great relationship with them. The student can use DynamicBooks and other books that belong to the VitalSource Bookshelf. There are multiple libraries from different publishers. However, the editing tool the instructor uses to make changes in a DynamicBook is completely unique to DynamicBooks, while the student copy is very much from VitalSource Bookshelf."
Other publishers besides Macmillan have launched their own curricular tools. McGraw-Hill offers Connect; John Wiley & Sons supplies WileyPLUS; Elsevier has launched Pageburst. Marshall described these as "more course management systems that included homework and uploaded syllabi like Blackboard." She points out that DynamicBooks are "strictly digital textbooks, so we could be embedded into those services." However, the Connect service (http://connect.mcgraw-hill.com) seems to handle much of the kind of material that one would expect instructors to add to DynamicBooks (extra content, testing, course assignment connections, etc.), and it allows augmentation of ConnectPlus eBooks over a broad range of subjects in six categories: Business and Economics; Career; Humanities and Social Sciences; Biological Sciences and Nutrition; Physical and Earth Sciences; and Engineering. The WileyPLUS service offers online courses for instructors to assign students along with course input from the instructor.
Reporting on the announcement brought up a number of problems that this product's success could create. What if some professors revised a textbook in ways to which the original author had strong objections, e.g., removing or inserting "intelligent design" sections? While DynamicBooks promises to guard against the addition of scurrilous and off-color entries, it doesn't plan to filter any subject-focused content.
Speaking of the original textbook authors, will they find themselves responsible for a social networked community inputting frequent changes and revisions on a book they thought they had finished? Some authors undoubtedly would look forward to the interactions; others might not. And as to the price discussions, one problem this might solve-at least for publishers-is students reselling used textbooks. The frequent changes and revisions in DynamicBooks, especially if reinforced by a professor motivated by $1 a pop per student sale, might make cheap used textbooks a thing of the past.
These are all issues to watch for DynamicBooks and other etextbook projects. One point that has bothered people about ebooks in general will not occur with DynamicBooks. As Marshall pointed out, since the books are downloadable, they will never "time out" or expire after a specific time span.
One issue remains however: copyright concerns. Digital textbooks entangled in a process of constant revision create a "layered copyright" environment. Set aside the problems when faculty lacking the information professional's knowledge and attention to copyright start to enter content for which they lack the rights or permissions. How do they use or control the content for which they do have copyright? What happens when it gets swept into the next revision? What happens when they try to write their own textbooks using material that started in a DynamicBook? Marshall could not comment on the legal issues at this time, but she assured me that she would get back to me when they finished talking to the lawyers.
I asked Kenneth Crews, director of the Copyright Advisory Office (CAO) at Columbia University, about the confusion that might arise. He was distinctly unsurprised. "So what's new?" said Crews. "These group projects are always a mess. In fact, we've been struggling with copyright for 200 years and it's all a mess. Technology has just made the creation more feasible and more visible. There is no answer out there waiting for clearing up the confusion." Crews' advice to etextbook publishers building interactive platforms such as DynamicBooks was to consult with counsel. He expects that counsel would advise them to assess the project and the people involved and analyze the risk, the legal exposure, if something went wrong. The best he thought that anyone could do was to arrive at an acceptable risk.
Oh, one more piece of advice from Crews: Publishers should make sure they have a budget line for legal services.