Developing a Disruptive Product

One of the world's oldest publishing companies brought in a ringer to revolutionize the way the company does business. The result? The first fully-interactive textbook.

Nature Publishing Group, which publishes several highly regarded scientific journals and textbooks, was founded in England in 1869, eight years before electric lights illuminated the streets of London. Now, 140 years later, with the help of Harvard Classics scholar Vikram Savkar, the company is beginning to disrupt the traditional textbook model that it helped to create. This month at California State University, the company released Principles of Biology, an interactive, constantly updating biology textbook that retails for less than $50. Like most digital textbooks, the software is accessible on laptops and tablets, but unlike most digital textbooks, it's not just a scan of a .pdf. The company calls it a "digital reinvention of the textbook," meaning that students can interact with the material; they can literally match amino acids and corresponding DNA with their fingers.'s Eric Markowitz spoke with Vikram Savkar about what it takes to create a culture of innovation in an old-school company.

Tell us a little about the vibe within Nature Education.
It has a start-up feel. We move fast. We try to innovate and create products and business models that more traditional players can't do, but at the same time we stick to the rigorous editorial practices that this company has built up over the past 140 years. We have the brand recognition of Nature, so when we approach the market with a new product, they welcome it because they know it comes from an organization that they're already familiar with.

What's the story behind your new product?
We're calling it an interactive textbook. That means something very specific. That means that yes, it's born digital, but it's not an e-book, because most e-books are just repurposed versions of print books—that is, you take a print book, you plop it online, you add a bit of annotation and highlights and then call it an e-book. And that's fine as a transitional strategy, but the market is really looking for a new generation of textbooks that are designed to take advantage of the digital age, and take advantage of some of the things that only digital can do. That's what Principles of Biology does.

What are some examples of how this is different from traditional e-books?
We look for any opportunity to teach students science not through words and figures, but through the kinds of things that only digital can do, like interactive activities where students can actually manipulate scientific objects and match amino acids with DNA. It means that we've integrated assessment along the way, so there's chances to self-test—and test—in order help the instructor figure out what each student needs help with.

What kind of culture did you need to create in order to innovate?
We built a culture in which we push ourselves to constantly rethink products from the ground up. We don't accept received wisdom. We always ask "What does the market need?" and at the same time "What do we believe that we're in a position to provide the market?" Which is important, of course, because we have our own vision and our own values and we always work from those just as much as what we hear from customers. And lastly, we ask what are the capabilities today, and how can we take advantage of them.

So, what did the market need?
Science textbooks are usually $175 or more, and the market has always pushed back on that for years. Instead of putting a physical textbook in the bookstore, we put an access card; the students, then, put in the code and get access to the product. We are retailing the product for $49, which is a new level of pricing for science textbooks. There's a very clear demand for something for affordable, and that’s what we're doing. And since we're doing this digitally, we’re able to do it.

Do you ever encounter resistance from the old-guard that wants nothing to do with digital?
There is some resistance, there's no question. There is a segment of the market that think that traditional textbooks are OK. I think that's fine. It works for them. We built this product for the 80 percent of the market that's actively looking for forward-looking solutions

Who are the types of people you hire to create this kind of culture?
When you're trying to innovate, people work very, very hard. They push themselves. It doesn't appeal to everybody. The people who are here are the ones who like to feel that at the end of the year, they've really broken ground. It's the type of personality we hire in. And maybe it's a bit of a cliché, but the best person I’m looking for doesn't necessarily have an MBA. I'm looking for people who have demonstrated over the course of their career that they can make things happen.

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