Amazon continues to push the envelope … while pushing books right off the table.

Amazon Kindle continues to push the envelope in book publishingIt’s hard to deny that the growth and success of Amazon has had a huge impact on the book industry. The liquidation of Borders Books is just the latest evidence of that.

But other market moves by Amazon demonstrate that the company has set its sights on far more than just owning the traditional retail book and recorded music segments. The introduction of the Kindle e-reader and release of subsequent newer, cheaper models proves that Amazon seeks to dominate the “information” space no matter what form it takes.

Two recent developments show how this is continuing to happen. First, the company announced that it is launching a new public-library feature that gives the Kindle the same library-borrowing abilities as competing e-reader devices like the Nook offer.

Public libraries have taken notice of the announcement, because Kindle so dominates the e-reader market. According to Forrester Research, an estimated 7.5 million Kindles are being used in America; that’s about two-thirds of all e-readers in the country.

Already, large public library systems such as those in Chicago and New York offer free digital-book lending. A trip to the library is not needed. Instead, patrons simply use their library card ID numbers to download books from the library’s website.

As with conventional “paper and glue” books (I love that new term!), there are “lending periods” for e-books usually ranging 2-3 weeks. Libraries purchase the e-books from publishers as they do bound books, and only one borrower can check out an e-title at a time.

How are Amazon’s latest e-lending developments affecting book publishers? For one thing, e-books never wear out, which means publishers (and authors) can’t benefit from reorders of popular titles due to book wear. Partially for this reason, several major publishers such as Simon & Schuster and Macmillan don’t sell their digital works to libraries … yet.

Adam Rothberg, senior vice president and director of corporate communications at Simon & Schuster, commented, “We value libraries for their work of encouraging literacy and the habit of reading, but we haven’t yet found a business model we’re comfortable with.”

Another publisher, HarperCollins, decided to set a checkout limit for each title of 26 times, after which a library would need to repurchase the book in order to continue lending it out.

Not surprisingly, that policy has been greeted with hoots and catcalls by the library industry.

Regardless of the selling policies under consideration, one wonders how much longer the major publishers can continue to hold out, as the entry of market-dominant Kindle should significantly raise consumer demand for library e-titles.

And in another move that is sure to shake up another segment of the book world – educational textbooks – Amazon announced several weeks ago that it has opened up a “textbook store” for the Kindle platform. That store is already offering thousands of textbook titles for rental, with many more in the offing.

Here’s how it works: Amazon will allow buyers to acquire textbooks at a deep-discount off of the standard print pricing. The charge will be based on the amount of time the student plans to hold the book – with a minimum rental period of 30 days (which can be extended, if desired).

And to further sweeten the pot, borrowers will be able to access any “notes” and “highlights” they’ve made to their texts even after they’ve “returned” the textbooks.

I’ve blogged before about the college textbook publishing segment — a niche some see as an unholy alliance between book publishers and college bookstores that more resembles a “racket” than a fair business model.

Charging ridiculously high textbook prices along with releasing suspiciously frequent “updated” new editions that change perhaps 2% or less of a book’s content have been all too common.

Moves by Amazon – along with similar programs introduced by smaller providers like Chegg, Inkling and Kno – may finally usher in an end to the indefensibly high prices of textbooks that have long been the bane of students (and their parents). And no one is mourning that.

College Textbooks: It’s Time to Throw the Book at Them

college textbooksConsidering that the digital revolution has dramatically improved access to information pretty much across the board, while also lowering the price of delivering the content to consumers, doesn’t it seem like college textbook publishing has been operating in something of a time warp?

Anyone with kids enrolled in college in recent years (present company included) has likely been confronted by obscenely high bills for textbooks. In fact, stats reported by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group reveal that college students spend an average of ~$900 per year on textbooks. When you consider that some courses don’t even have textbooks, the average cost for those classes that do is even higher than the overall figures would suggest.

What gives here? You can blame a number of factors. High among them are publishers that issue new editions of the same textbook every year or so; never mind the fact that 95%+ of the material is identical to prior editions. And so, perfectly good textbooks that could be used by different students over multiple years are instead relegated to the trash or a box in the basement. Or they languish, unwanted, at the book nook at the local thrift store.

And how about publishing books using expensive and high-margin hardcover binding when soft-cover would be more than adequate? That’s a common publisher ploy.

Finally, let’s not forget the “unholy alliance” between college bookstores and book publishers to try to corner as much of the college textbook business as possible. After all, those textbook sales represent a major contributor to college store profits.

Thankfully, recent developments suggest that real alternatives for students (and their beleaguered parents) have now emerged. Some of these resources are web sites like eBay’s Half.com where students can purchase books for substantially less than the published price. Or Chegg, where students can rent the books and return them following their use. Of course, this is assuming you know the correct ISBN number of the books in question and can be sure you’re ordering the correct edition. Often, that’s not an easy feat at all based on how hard some school stores try to hide the ISBN information from purchasers.

The ISBN information will also serve you in good stead when searching for used textbooks on sites like Amazon where the ISBN numbers are included in book listings.

But beyond simply finding sites to purchase books at a cheaper price, there are new digital alternatives that are also cropping up. CourseSmart provides digital versions of textbooks that are viewable online or can be downloaded. Not only is the cost much less, but students can choose to print out texts chapter by chapter or simply keep their textbooks on their computer, leaving more space in their backpacks for more important things like electronic gadgets, food and bottled water. For now, most of the CourseSmart choices are from major publishers like McGraw-Hill and Wiley, but these offerings are sure to expand in coming years.

Another interesting development is engaging the course instructors themselves in developing custom reading materials. That’s what Flat World Knowledge is doing: It’s an open-source textbook provider that offers online books through a web-based reader, free of charge. Professors can get in on the action by customizing what’s offered to their own specific course by rearranging book chapters and removing or adding text. Not only does it make their course syllabus more user-friendly for students, it’s a labor saver for the instructors as well.

How does Flat World make money doing this? Students can pay for “premium” upgrades such as PDF printing, audio files, and interactive quizzes that are offered along with the free basic text information.

As to which of these new services will turn out to be tomorrow’s standard way of acquiring course instruction materials … who knows? But one thing’s for certain: the cost of buying textbooks won’t be nearly the monetary challenge it’s been for students and parents up til now.