Marine biology students at Duke University will soon have a new e-textbook developed in-house. Called Cachalot (H/T The Scientist), the text was written by Duke University faculty member David Johnston, and focuses on large marine life (also called megafauna). The book/app is open source and available for free; but you can get it only for the iPad at present. They are working on versions for other platforms, which I think is a key to successful e-textbooks.
Besides the text, Cachalot will provide note-taking ability, search function, relevant National Geographic video, and Twitter integration. Johnston developed the textbook/app with the assistance of Duke computer science graduate students, and spent all of $5,000 on the project (probably doesn’t count the student labor, but hey, welcome to graduate school).
E-textbooks are still pretty new. Open source e-textbooks are newer still. With Apple finally getting into the textbook game, things are likely to change again. (That said, I expect it will be years before the rapid change capabilities in open source textbooks will vex textbook review boards.)
Smaller books like Cachalot could be a real area for innovation, should there be enough resources to support their initial creation. Textbooks have a demand, but few of them will be best-sellers. As many people are likely to get involved in creating e-textbooks to serve a need as to get rich. But the do-it-yourself aspect of Cachalot suggests both groups could be successful. I’ll be cheering on the former, the latter don’t need the encouragement.