By Edward Nawotka
The age of the digital textbook is upon us and they are going global. One company at the forefront of management and distribution of e-textbooks is Ingram Content Group’s VitalSource Technologies, which has seen its user base triple over the last twelve months. The 14-year-old company, headquartered in Raleigh, North Carolina provides a multi-language digital platform for the education market currently being used by more than million students and half a million faculty on 6,000 campuses across 180 countries throughout the world. The company currently offers 80,000 titles, the vast majority of which are in English, though there are titles available in a total of 17 languages overall.
“We currently offer titles from some of the world’s largest education publishers, including Pearson, Cengage, Macmillan, John Wiley and Sons, McGraw-Hill, Wolters Kluwer, Oxford University Press, and Elsevier, for which we hold a global distribution agreement,” said VitalSource president Kent Freeman.
Freeman emphasized that the advantages of digital textbooks to students and faculty are manifold, not the least of which is the ability to access the content online and offline, both on the computer or in the case of VitalSource, on Apple iOS devices (the launch of Android access is imminent).
“With VitalSource, our particular strength is in a curriculum type delivery,” said Freeman. “Say you’re a dental student — which is where our company got its start — or a business student, an area where we’re really picking up. You can get all of your textbooks for the entire course, say 60 to 80 books, on day one. This allows you to search for an answer to question across the entire range of textbooks, putting it into context for both the present and future course of study.”
That being said, Freeman is keen to emphasize that the company is not a business-to-consumer company or a publisher. “Fundamentally we’re a platform provider, we’re not originating content” he said. “We provide backend support to both the institutions and the publishers; we become the system of record for the publishers to invoice, we help with training. In some cases, we provide a white label digital solution, like we’ve done with Elsevier’s Evolve Select and Page Burst platform for health sciences.”
Increasingly, these white box digital solutions entail moving beyond the “paper-under-glass” approach of merely converting a book to one that includes more and more “rich media.” To this end, in June VitalSource acquired Boston-based VPG Integrated Media, a developer of enhanced e-texbook applications, to assist them in offering increasingly interactive and visual textbooks.
The move added an additional 45 people to the VitalSource team, taking it to a total 80; Freeman anticipates VitalSource will have a total 100 people by the end of the year.
“Our strongest presence is, naturally, in North America, where we also operate in K-12 in addition to higher education,” said Freeman, “but we’re experiencing tremendous growth across Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe — especially Spain and Germany.”
Internationally, one of the company’s most recent moves was in Brazil, where in June it announced the launch of Minha Biblioteca (My Library) a new company to offer digital catalogs to university libraries, in partnership with four major Brazilian STM publishing houses — Grupo A, GEN, Saraiva and Atlas.
“There is no other project on this scale in Brazil,” said Freeman, “Initially, we’re targeting about 4,000 titles to get the program started, with a focus on Portuguese content. We believe there is a big growth opportunity in Brazil, with the combination of a strong economy and the growth in the number of students who are able to take advantage of higher education. It’s a natural fit for us and, geographically, digital lends itself to broader distribution.”
In North America, the trend towards digital is picking up in the education sector and is particularly strong among institutions catering to students looking for value, be they distance learning schools, for-profit institutions, or traditional two-and-four year degree programs.
As proof of this trend, just last week, Chegg — a top North American physical textbook rental company — began offering VitalSource’s database of e-books to its customers, and DeVry University named VitalSource to manage it’s e-textbook program — all in anticipation of increased demand from students and faculty this fall.
“We’ve been there with the institutions that want to make the transition from print to digital,” said Freeman. “They may be seen as early adopters, but as we can see from our own data and the growing number of people interacting with our content — online usage has grown tenfold and we had a hundred-fold increase in the number of notes and highlights in our books over last year — there’s no doubt about it, digital textbooks are going mainstream.”