Gauteng MEC for Education Panyaza Lesufi, in one of the classrooms at Boitumelo Secondary School in Tembisa which are part of The Big Switch On pilot paperless project. Picture: Matthews Baloyi
Gauteng MEC for Education Panyaza Lesufi, in one of the classrooms at Boitumelo Secondary School in Tembisa which are part of The Big Switch On pilot paperless project. Picture: Matthews Baloyi

Game-changing arrival of e-books

By THABO LESHILO Time of article published Jan 18, 2015

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Johannesburg - The nascent move towards e-learning is pushing publishers in the country’s R2-billion-a-year-plus academic textbook market to adapt to new ways of doing business – and causing misery among book retailers.

Michael Goodman, group content manager at educational publishers Via Afrika, says although it is still early days publishers are already gearing themselves to adapt to the changes.

Sales of e-textbooks amounted to only R277 000 in 2012, and continue to grow. His company has accepted the inevitability of change and is adapting accordingly. When the move towards digital started at some schools three years ago, his company sold only 1 000 copies of e-textbooks. This year, the number shot up to 65 000 copies.

“Any publisher who is still doing only paper textbooks in South Africa is misguided. Education is changing. Digital is the way things are going.”

Although the demand is growing, the number of e-textbooks sold is still minuscule in comparison with the millions of physical textbooks sold. However, there’s a definite shift towards digital. “The action by the Gauteng education MEC is a clear indicator,” he said.

Goodman believes paper text books won’t disappear completely, however. Publishers needed to ensure they can supply both physical and digital formats.

Whether e-books are priced cheaper than paper books is the individual publisher’s choice. Via Afrika was able to sell e-textbooks cheaper because of the huge savings in paper, ink and transportation. The company’s e-textbooks sell for R70 for the intermediate phase, R105 for the senior phase and R120 for Further Education and Training colleges. High school textbooks usually sell for about R200 each.

Goodman says there is no uniformity in the industry, with some publishers simply selling books in PDF format and calling them e-books. “Technically, it’s an e-book but not quite so. It lacks the interactivity element, which is key, and makes it an engaging document.”

Some e-books cannot be downloaded and require ongoing internet connectivity, though Goodman’s company’s products can be downloaded on tablets and used anywhere, without internet access.

Goodman would not predict when e-books would finally surpass normal textbook sales, but expected paper textbooks to remain in use for a considerable time until more provinces made the switch to digital. “It’s a long haul.”

Although he expected the e-textbook market to continue growing exponentially, he expects it to remain relatively small for now. He described the move in Gauteng since the arrival of Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi as having been dramatic and unexpected, catching many publishers by surprise.

The move towards digital textbooks has been bad news for Julie Harbour, who has run a small book supplies business from home for 16 years. Her orders plummeted by almost half this month, from supplying 70 parents per grade to 30 per grade this month. “It has effectively halved my business over the last three months.”

She is extremely worried, as her business is her bread and butter. She thinks she’ll still be able to hold on to a few old-fashioned parents who still believe in books and appreciate the personal service she provides. Harbour said another problem came from non-educational companies buying the rights to books and pushing small players out of the market. “We are very small and cannot compete against them,” she lamented.

However, the Publishers Association of SA (Pasa) appeared unperturbed by the changes and does not believe it heralds the demise of publishers. “Publishers are content producers. The only difference with e-learning will be that content will be conveyed electronically instead of in books,” said its executive director, Mpuka Radinku.

Several big publishers have researched and produced e-content over the past 10 years, so they would be up to the challenge posed by the move to digital. Radinku said he expected most small publishers might struggle.

The publishing industry, he said, was waiting for the Department of Basic Education to outline how it needed e-content to be packaged for schools for the industry to become actively involved in the move towards e-learning.

He said a Pasa survey had shown “a very small increase of 7 percent of overall e-books sales in 2012. However, this is largely in trade and academic markets and not schools.”

He too believes e-books will ultimately dominate, though indications are it will be some time before sales surpass those of books. “So the future of publishers is to continue to be specialised content producers who can migrate to any platform – be it smartphones, laptops or physical books,” said Radinku.

The Sunday Independent

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