For most of the past six months, Vicky Shen, an editor at textbook publisher Pearson Education in Boston, has been living with a secret.
Just a few blocks away in the Back Bay, Bethlam Forsa, executive vice president of global product development at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Inc. was working on the same undercover project.
Both were preparing electronic editions for last week’s launch of an initiative from Apple Inc. to put textbooks on its iPad tablets. In a recent biography, the computer maker’s cofounder Steve Jobs said the textbook business was “ripe for destruction,’’ but it turns out Apple wants Pearson and Houghton to be partners, not casualties of technology.
“Apple knows that to make this textbook project work they need the publishers,’’ said Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge. “Apple learned that with iTunes and the recording companies.’’
Now Houghton and Pearson have dedicated teams working with Apple’s new software tools to create textbooks for the iPad, similar to how music companies agreed to let Apple digitize songs for iTunes. These are not the first digital products the publishers have created, but they’re the first that must reflect Apple’s signature style. “They will be more interactive, have more video, and be really, really easy to use,’’ said Forsa.
Between them, Houghton, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill Cos. in New York command 85 percent of the $3.2 billion core K-12 textbook market - serving 50 million students - in the United States, according to the website paidcontent.org, which covers digital media.
Just 46 cents of every $100 spent on overall K-12 education is spent on digital texts, according to a September federal report from the White House. How fast that share will grow is an open question, said Josef Blumenfeld, senior vice president of corporate affairs at Houghton.
One barrier: price. An entry-level iPad costs $499. “In the case of Apple and the iPad, for example, the cost is a very high hurdle for most schools to overcome,’’ Blumenfeld said. “We believe it is likely that there will be a hybrid print/digital model in most schools for years to come.’’
Melissa P. Dodd, chief information officer of the Boston public schools, said the city has at least three pilot iPad programs going in specialized areas. The Apple effort to partner with major textbook publishers “shows that Apple is thinking more broadly,’’ she said. “I think iPads have a lot of promise in the classroom.’’
Before Apple came along, Pearson Education, a division of global publishing giant Pearson PLC in London, already had hundreds of Web developers, user interface designers, and graphic artists producing digital textbooks and materials for a wide range of computers and smartphones. Now it has about 50 people, evenly divided between the Boston office and an office in Chandler, Ariz., specifically assigned to make new products to sell with Apple.
Mike Evans, publisher of literacy and mathematics at Pearson, said many features of the new Apple products will be familiar, but more elegant than in conventional digital textbooks. “We already have video and interactive graphics,’’ he said, but in the Apple books, “the navigation is very intuitive, and the integration of disparate elements is very smooth: Text and video and interactive graphics all work together on the same page.’’
In the company’s Boylston Street office, Pearson’s Shen browsed a soon-to-be-released digital geometry textbook on an Apple iPad, pinching and swiping graphics and pages. The Apple tools, she said, allow “a step up in student engagement. That’s Apple’s core competency.’’
Shen tapped a diagram of a cube, which launched a 3D image that she could rotate in all directions with her fingers. “Being able to do this within the page, that’s Apple,’’ she said.
Apple’s “reinvention’’ of the textbook industry consists of three initiatives: iBooks 2, an ebook reading application for the iPad; an ebook authoring tool called iBooks Author; and iTunes U, an expanded online commerce platform for digital textbooks and related educational materials. At last week’s launch event, Pearson showed three high school textbooks - biology, algebra 1, and environmental science - redesigned for the iPad. Coming soon: chemistry, geometry, and algebra 2.
Pearson is also releasing four titles from its illustrated reference publishing division, DK Publishing, covering such subjects as “My First ABC’’ and dinosaurs. The company’s first wave of Apple-style e-books will total approximately 7,000 pages of content, 1,000 “interactive widgets’’ like 3D animations, more than 100 videos, and some 5,000 test questions.
Houghton has yet to announce the titles it will make available on the Apple platform. Forsa said the publisher’s technology team, based in Dublin, is aiming to have products ready for the “start of next year’s school cycle.’’
Apple declined to comment for this story, but at last week’s launch, Philip Schiller, the company’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, said Pearson, Houghton, and McGraw-Hill are “amazing learning companies who have been great partners with us.’’
Long term, the textbook industry is in the midst of a digital transformation, according to Houghton’s Blumenfeld. “We are currently retooling in order to better serve the parent and other consumer market, as well as an increasingly global marketplace,’’ he said. “‘Digital’ is currently woven into everything that we create.’’
Pearson’s Forsa said that the initiative is part of a wider commitment to staying ahead of the transformation that’s taking place in the classroom.
“Everything will be highly interactive,’’ she said. “It’s no longer a question of if. It’s a question of when.’’