By Andy Mukherjee
April 24 (Bloomberg) -- A 200-year-old American publisher is
completing the circle of knowledge.
Peter Booth Wiley, chairman of the Hoboken, New Jersey-based
John Wiley & Sons Inc., has academics in India developing a new
series of customized, electronic books that may one day become
remedial text in U.S. universities.
Outsourcing isn't new to the global publishing industry.
In 1976, long before Bangalore became the world's
outsourcing capital, Harold Macmillan, the former British prime
minister, used the southern Indian city to offer Macmillan
Publishers Ltd.'s typesetting services to others.
However, it's only now that the content -- especially in
culturally neutral fields like science and technology -- is going
global, reflecting the new economic reality.
It isn't that U.S. or U.K. professors' royalties are under
threat. As long as demographics in India and China remain
favorable and quick economic growth keeps boosting returns on
higher education in these two nations, the textbook market in
Asia will continue to expand rapidly, driving global growth.
Books used in postgraduate research and teaching will be
dominated by content created in the developed world, thanks to
its entrenched leadership position in technological innovation.
At the undergraduate level, however, hard distinctions
between producing and consuming economies will disappear.
In India's case, because the medium for scientific education
is English, a chunk of what's being produced for the home market
is also readily exportable.
This wasn't always so.
From Importer to Exporter
Back in the 1950s and the 1960s, the flow of scientific
knowledge between the West and India was strictly unidirectional.
Popular American books such as ``College Chemistry'' by
Nobel laureate Linus Pauling were republished in India -- at one-
fifth of their original price -- under a U.S. aid program called
British titles came to India under the English Language Book
Society program. The ELBS books, which cost a third of the
original, had ``Low-Priced Edition'' emblazoned across the cover.
Prentice Hall's incredibly cheap Eastern Economy Edition in
those days was nothing more than black-and-white photographic
reproduction of American titles.
Of course, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union,
too, was a big force in the cheap textbook game as it sought out
friends in the Third World. And apart from everything else,
Soviet books were printed on amazingly good-quality paper.
The efficacy of foreign aid to developing countries is a
debatable subject today. But there isn't a doubt that cheap
Western textbooks -- not to mention the first IBM computer that
arrived in an Indian university in a bullock cart -- triggered a
transformation of the economy.
``When a generation of engineers was educated in India, it
was educated on our books,'' Wiley said in an interview in
Singapore. ``And you see now what that generation has done.''
India's prowess in computer-software services and generic
drug discovery is well-documented. Earlier this month, the
journal Nature Biotechnology reported that India will also be a
large player in research and manufacturing of biotech medicines.
None of this would have been possible without investments in
Knowledge Gaps Narrow
The narrowing of India's education deficit -- to a point
where knowledge can begin to flow both in and out -- can be seen
from the sales pattern of academic publishers.
India today represents Wiley's fastest-growing market,
expanding at an annual 25 percent pace. That compares with a two-
year average growth rate of 4 percent in Wiley's U.S. sales,
according to my Bloomberg. India is also emerging as a key center
for developing educational content.
``It's no longer just the West educating the rest,'' Wiley
said. ``It's all of us educating each of us together. The
knowledge revolution is fascinating to me because it is
multicentric and global.''
Oxford University Press, which has been publishing textbooks
in India since 1912, is already playing a role in taking Indian-
based academic authors overseas.
Homegrown Indian companies, such as New Delhi-based Narosa
Publishing House, are also working with professors at the Indian
Institutes of Technology and other top local universities to
create scientific content for a global audience.
Wiley's new series of textbooks will be delivered
electronically -- as PDF files. They will be tested initially at
second-rung engineering universities in India before being taken
to China. If the experiment succeeds, the U.S. market may be the
next destination, Wiley said.
Each of these books, tailored to meet very specific learning
requirements, could potentially replace bulky standard textbooks.
The final cost to the student would be less than $10.
Textbooks and supplies cost as much as $900, or 26 percent
of the tuition and fees at a four-year public institution in the
U.S., according to data reported in a July 2005 study by the U.S.
Government Accountability Office.
If low-income students in the U.S. are one day able to
benefit from Indian-created books, just as generations of Indians
have from American content, it will be a victory for
globalization. The circle of knowledge will be complete.
(Andy Mukherjee is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions
expressed are his own.)