More IT means less paper

Last week while at an event hosted by Pearson Publishing, I had the good fortune of listening to Allen H. Kupetz, who spoke about his vision for less, including less paper. He describes this and other visions for less in his book, “The Future of Less”.

Also last week, I sat in on a presentation of highly-charged publishing marketers who were describing to me their approach to this solution, a kind of electronic book. In this fantasy world, essentially print books are converted from *.pdf to a format that can be viewed in any recent version of the Internet Explorer browser only—won’t work in Safari, won’t work in Firefox, won’t work on your iPod, or on your iPad, and it won’t work with the Jaws reader, for those with visual impairments. Cost will go down, but not enough to pique my interest.

I envision less paper-based books for our IT program at some time in the future. But I also envision an improvement over paper-based books. This is my call to action for book publishers, instructors, and students. I ask publishers to change their business model:

Stop selling us heavy wasteful books we don’t want and start selling us web content made for the web. Hybrid solutions that rely on converting *.pdf to e-books don’t have all the advantages of the web that we demand.

Ideally, the revenues retained by publishers will increase to cover increases in web functionality and content I will describe below. Meanwhile, the costs to the student will decrease, as they no longer pay for paper, printing, or shipping. (Sorry Lumber, Pulp, Paper, Ink, and Shipping Barons—you’re out)

Student savings are an important part of this, since we would no longer be selling them a physical book. Students take the advantages of the web for granted and are used to it being free. Therefore, I suggest we pay publishers on a per-seat basis for each student and we would work the revenue into our course fees. The money GEN would save on the logistics of distributing books would also decrease costs.

For their part, publishers would need to change their business model significantly, rewording contracts with authors as new editions are published, and easing away from paper, printing, and shipping distribution models.

My vision is less paper, less cost, but more accessible quality content. If publishers wrote content specifically for the web rather than for books, we can see the following positive changes:

1.            Begin a new era of providing instructional content to students over the web, without the need for books. Students are used to web browsers and they will read the content if it is there.

2.            Teach green: These websites should specifically demonstrate to students that they need not print the entire website. Some critical chapter summary information should be printable on a single page or two, since the students may be anxious about losing access to the site eventually.

3.            Leverage all the advantages of the text-based web. The time of converting *.pdf files to the web are at an end. That was just publisher-denial based upon old-school production models. New content should be written specifically for the web platform, not adapted from book *.pdf.

4.            Increase the value of this content by making it viewable in a wide number of browsers on a wide number of platforms, including popular impairment compensation software such as the Jaws reader (http://www.freedomscientific.com/products/fs/jaws-product-page.asp) .

5.            Web 2.0 features should also be realized. Students and instructors should be able to customize their view by adding and sharing notes, highlights, and so on.

6.            Incorporate media related to the book such as learning games, self-check quizzes, images, diagrams, and short movies. (try to avoid Flash though since the Mac iPad won’t play Flash)

7.            Decrease the cost to the students, by eliminating the cost of paper, printing, and shipping.

8.            Increase the publisher’s financial performance by paying for each student who takes a course. No more used book market. I understand that building and maintaining web content require costs. These costs should be lower than paper, printing, and shipping books, however. I believe students would welcome quality web content, with the overall costs still below what a print book costs.

9.            Organized content links to help our course developers integrate publisher content into our BlackBoard course shells in an efficient way. One way to do this is to have a secure log-in for developers to select and link to content, while making it difficult for hackers to find and make use of the content without paying for it.

10.          Every rule has exceptions: Granted we should still have a book purchase option for those students who really want or need a book, since progress is not worth losing customers over. The book purchased need not be exactly the same as the content we offer on the web, though, but it could be.

I call upon publishers, instructors and students to consider this the beginning of a conversation. The time is near to think no longer of books, but think to the future of less books.

I sincerely hope that marketing executives of our publishing partners read this and find this approach to be a viable model. I hope that instructors and students likewise see the value and the potential of this approach. Please join the conversation, by posting a response here. I look forward to your responses.

Thank you Allen H. Kupetz and Pearson Publishing for an excellent keynote speech last weekend.