Interview | Bryce Johnson: Going Digital with Café Scribe

Bryce Johnson is the director of eTextbook Solutions at Follett Digital Resources—and the creator of Café Scribe. Here, he offers an overview into Café Scribe and what he’s seeing in the electronic textbook market. Café Scribe is part of Follett Higher Education Group. Bryce joined Follett a couple years ago after Café Scribe was acquired by Follett; he is one of the cofounders of Café Scribe, which he began developing back in 2003. The idea started while he was attending graduate school at Berkeley, and continued to percolate while he was at Columbia University Business School. Bryce had worked for several Bay area tech startups but it was during his graduate studies when the iPod had just come out that he began to work in earnest to make the idea a reality. “It just seemed like it was a time and era for textbooks to reach students on a desktop and/or device,” says Bryce. “In my opinion, there should have been a device for students to consume their books in a similar manner like students consumed mp3s,” he says. He continued for several years building it up while other companies began to enter the same marketplace. Then, in 2008, Follett—one of the largest textbook distributors—acquired Fourteen40 (Bryce’s company, the makers of Café Scribe) and retained Bryce as a director.

Victor: Why did you create Café Scribe?

Bryce: The apparent motive was, I was a student carrying around a 35-pound backpack of textbooks [Ed. note: when you’re done reading this interview, check out this interesting side story], but I was used to the enterprise world where everything was going electronic.

There were three things that I thought about:

1. Weight: There’s got to be a lighter backpack out there! If I had everything and my laptop—because I was required to use a laptop, I thought: Why couldn’t I fit all my textbooks and my laptop?

2. Price: I was spending 1,000 bucks almost, per semester, for my textbooks. By delivering this all electronically, I could I reduce the price by 50 percent or more.

3. Ease: Is there an easier way to consume textbooks? We use Microsoft Word, we use our other digital applications. They make our worlds better, our lives easier. You can consume information in an easier way.

I looked at the students and did focus groups and probed other students’ minds to find out what would help them be more efficient in the education world, as well as more successful as they’re consuming their content.

Building in things like a social medium to share their notes effectively or subscribe to other students’ is a way to help them reach each other and to learn more efficiently.

As well as consuming the professors’ notes if the professor wanted to send his notes out, his or her notes out—they could do that in electronic form.

Those are the problems we were looking at, and that’s where it started.

Victor: What does the name mean?

Bryce: My wife and I were talking and kicking around things and she said, you know look around Berkeley, all the students go to cafes to study. It’s true, you know: all the cafes are filled with either professors or tutors meeting students or students meeting each other to study. She said cafes are really nice mediums to consume content. The scribe part was just the writing, you know, writing either the textbook or writing notes to the textbook. That’s how we came up with Café Scribe.

Victor: What is it, exactly?

Bryce: Café Scribe is an online marketplace where students get textbooks at a cheaper price in electronic form. It’s also a social network—a knowledge network—where students can share notes, build study groups and essentially I like to say it’s software created by students because I essentially hired a bunch of students and I was myself a student at the time, and also probed their minds. I did many focus groups across campus, surveys, trying to get at what was the most important things to build into it.

Victor: What does it do and what are the benefits?

Bryce: Mostly, it’s a platform, it’s an e-reader, the most basic core element is something you download to manage your textbooks. But the benefit is, it’s electronic, I can get it anywhere, on any laptop, any netbook, and soon any other device like an iPad or iPhone. It’s providing the students flexibility. I’m now in power to consume this on a lighter weight device anywhere rather than toting around your large backpack.

In terms of it being 50 percent less, the students are very aware of this, and it is very important for them, something that’s low priced, at a better price.

Third, overall, it’s improving the campus experience, helping students to become more efficient, whether that’s sharing their notes, being able to search the textbook and all the text, or across all their textbooks or searching in their notes or if it’s synthesizing all their notes that they’ve taken in the textbook into one little study guide which auto-summarizes all of their notes in an entire textbook.

Victor: How is Café Scribe unique from others in the same market? 

Bryce: We’re the one that offers a social network around the notes. You can go search for John Doe’s notes and you can subscribe to it. No one else has that network, That’s the biggest difference. In addition, our books, when you buy them, you download them, you own them, you retain them forever, as long as you have an ID on Café Scribe. Our competitors out there opted for a subscription model where you subscribe to the book for 90 days and then after that you don’t get access, so you lose access to your book, your notes and everything else.

We found that students like to—especially if they’ve declared a major and are buying books for their major—they want to hold onto those for their university experience and perhaps even when they go to graduate studies.

Finally, we’ve, we’re trying to do things that help the user and that are student focused, in terms of the user interface. For example, try now buy later—that’s something that students require.  We’re the only ones that offer it, the ability to go on Café Scribe, find any book and download it for seven days, to try it out to see if you really like electronic books before you decide you want to purchase it.  No one else offers a trial version of the book before they buy it.

Victor: Who do you consider to be your direct competitors?

Bryce: One of the more direct competitors is a company called Course Smart. Some of the media publishers created a platform where they could, essentially structured in the beginning so that teachers could sample textbooks before they decided to use it in their classroom, and that’s what Course Smart was about and they now are offering it to students as well.

Victor: Is this a “disruptive” technology changing the entire college textbook distribution paradigm? What are your thoughts on the transitioning nature of education, where technology is a major change agent? 

Bryce: You may recall back in the early to mid 1990s when AOL was merging and all these other online things were happening, that some of the premium analyst groups were predicting this electronic textbook transition. E-books were going to be a 5 billion-dollar industry by 2000.  When I started looking into this seriously around 2002, it was barely in the low millions in terms of revenue. It hadn’t even broken two digits, it hadn’t even broken $10,000,000 globally, in terms of e-books. That was in 2002.

It’s shifted. Students predominantly have laptops, we have handheld devices. They’re flocking to buy things like that. We have the media, we have a delivery mechanism that wasn’t available back in ’95. There weren’t the laptops at the low price point that you’re required have in the classroom. Having them in the classroom has shifted that. Also, students are increasingly used to using electronic media. They’re spending hours online. By the time my 11-year-old son goes to university, it’s going to be a changed environment. Everything he does is online. He grabs my Kindle when he can’t read his books—he’s used to doing things in electronic form. It’s definitely at a tipping point.

Victor: Getting back to the product: When was it developed and what’s something interesting or relevant about its development history? 

Bryce: We conducted research in 2004 and released it early on to some universities—Stanford, Berkeley, Brigham Young University. We did some pilot studies where we released just a small handful of classes or parts of classes. We’ve been talking to students all along the way, trying to build in those features that were important to them. We started out with a hardware device something like the Kindle DX that was developed by Phillips. In 2005, we launched with that at a couple campuses and students by and large came back and said we’re not interested in this device. It was black and white, not color. It had highlighting and annotating, but it was just too slow for them and the price point was around 600 bucks. They said, come to us when this is color, lighter, faster and around 200 bucks and we’ll be interested. So we’re now at a point where the iPad has, in my opinion, changed the game quite significantly. I think we’ll see more students in universities want to develop something like that.

Victor: Besides the Kindle and the iPad—which is in a class of its own—there’s also the Nook and so on.

Bryce: The Nook and the Sony Reader. There is a series of devices out there. Some cater better toward it than others. Having something that’s fast, color, allows highlighting and search will be important, and they need to give enough screen space, or real estate for a textbook like this. An e-textbook page is very different than a trade book, that can be rendered on a Kindle, for example.

In terms of the pedagogy that faculty are used to right now, and it’s going to change, but I think this is one of those changing elements that we’ll see in the next five years. A lot of the publishers have built in a pedagogy, the learning of how to do the layout of that page, there’s been a lot of thought in that area. It’s going to change. Now, it’s done in a format where you see in print more or less a lot of what it looks like digitally. I think you’ll see movement into an XML, more free flowing text form with the images and whatnot. But it’s going to be a slower process than most expect. There’s a lot—450 years—of textbook history behind what we’re trying to change.

Victor: What else do you see in the years ahead? 

Bryce: I think you’ll see things get de-fragmented. You’ve got a textbook. There has to be 30 chapters. But, if we can change that up—where you sell by chapter—and these chapters have not only just printed text—but they have integrated media, flash files, animations, videos or audio files—well, again—that’s something that we have to get that material and integrate that into what’s best the student.

Victor: What prompted you to take that approach versus going the hardware route? 

Bryce: The primary reason was early studies and early prototypes and launches into the market. This was in 2004, 2005, 2006. Students at that point said, just give it to me on a laptop, that way I can copy and paste what I think is important in my word document that I am writing a report on, or I can create auto-summaries and just copy paste what is in word for my study aide.

It’s like the laptop has become a killer device, a multipurpose device, as opposed to a single purpose reading device that was really expensive for a student—especially in the junior colleges,

So many of the 890 schools that Follett services with bookstores similar to the school or junior colleges—students are having a hard time even affording a netbook at a $200 range.

We can run on a netbook and that’s a multipurpose device you know they can use. Remember, there’s a good percentage of the U.S. college population that go to junior colleges as a springboard into a university. That price point is very important. We’re trying to keep the cost down. Those are some of the things that played into that.

For those clamoring for the iPad, we want to be there. That’s part of our road map. Our plan is to provide applications on mediums like the iPad so that those who want it can get the right technology.

Victor: How much does it cost and what are the options?

Bryce: For a student, the software is free—you can download the Café Scribe for free to your desktop and consume a textbook. You can try the book for seven days for free and then if you were to purchase it, a typical $100 textbook would probably be priced in the $48.00 range and it’s yours to have.

Victor: Are you targeting students or entire colleges—how are you doing it?

Bryce: That’s a very good clarification. There’s a couple different models that Follett has with Café Scribe. One is institution deployment, so if you look at DeVry University, DeVry has about 100,000 students that are consuming this from an online perspective. Their online students are not going to a campus per se. That’s an institutional deployment. Or, National University of California for the whole Bay Area—that’s another institutional deployment where students go online and they could order a print book or they, I would say the majority—99 percent of them just download the book and use it online.

The other option is the standard student can go into the bookstore, see if he can buy a used book, buy a new boo,k or buy a digital book. He can pick up a card, go to the cash register, use his student aid—and this is an important factor, as a third of students in the U.S. use student aid. A number of competitors don’t have the ability to use student aid by going online. They’re going to the bookstore to use the student aid and then they go home and download it to their laptop and at the same price point, 50 percent off.

Victor: What are some examples of this in action?

Bryce: Have a look at to see how students and professors are using it.

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for and who is it not for?

Bryce: Good question. The primary consumer we’ve aimed to make sure that this is good for is the student. We want this to be something where students can create with custom highlighting pens and annotation pens, they can create as many as they want. I’ve seen students create up to 50 colors for their pens. That’s an example where other applications only allow you to have a yellow and a green but you can’t tag them. We allow you to say my green pen is for everything for the test, my blue pen is the paper I’m writing and you can click a button and get a summary of all your blue pen highlights and annotations and export those. That’s a highlight of how we make it key for the student.

The second audience has been the professor. How can we make sure the professor can effectively work with the student—because, professors are sort of like doctors you know? You go to a doctor and they they say, go get this drug for your disease. Well, that person’s going to do it, most likely.  It’s usually the same case with a professor. They say, this is the book I want you to read, this is how I want you to consume it. The student will do that.

So, we want to make sure that professors can use this software, that it’s easy for them, that they can adopt it.

We’re doing things to help make it easier for them like integrating it into existing systems that are on campuses like Blackboard or Angel software to help them manage the systems that are out there.

So the professor says, let’s include a link to chapter four, and see this in the syllabi and you can click on that and it launches [garbled] the page, they can see what they’re supposed to read the from professor, he can link to a specific section of a book if he likes or a paragraph on that page.

Those are things that we try to cater certain features toward the faculty.

I don’t think it’s ready for a K- 12 market yet. We have a lot of traction and a lot of inquiries from K-12, where faculty want to use it in the classroom, especially in private institutions. We’re getting there, we need to make some modifications to the software so that there’s some private and security capabilities so that, when you start dealing with people under the age of 18 you need to have things built into your software that’s geared toward that if that makes sense.

For example, we want kids that might type in a swear word broadcast across the school, that swear word or link to a questionable website.

We need to make it so faculty can create an atmosphere where they’re sharing enough that the students, students can share with their faculty but they’re not students sharing with other students for example, in a K-12 school.  But I think we’re getting there.

Victor: Now on to a broader topic—what are your thoughts on education these days?

Bryce: It’s shifting. There are a number of things shifting. One, you’re seeing a lot more adjunct professors, you know they have another daytime job and their coming in and may not have tenure they may not have been around the university for a long time but they wanted to get in and they want to hit the ground running and they want to have tools that enable them to be more effective in the classroom.

And so looking out towards, what are the electronic tools I have at my disposal to help me become successful?

That’s a shift that’s changing more and more—adjunct professors don’t necessarily have all day to build the materials and have that. It doesn’t mean they’re bad professors, they’re still really good professors—it’s just they’re in a different atmosphere. So that a lot of professors that taught me and you, may be retiring here in the near future. You’re getting younger and younger people entering into that field with a mental model or set of tools that they want to use that are electronic in form. So, there’s a shift that’s happening. They’re more comfortable than your 65 year-old professor. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing—it’s just a different atmosphere. That’s a general shift that I’ve seen in education. That’s the first thing that comes to mind, in terms of a broad brush stroke.

Victor: Okay—and how does Café Scribe address some of those concerns about education?

Bryce: We want to be there for the professor, to make sure were helping them so that they can get the tools that they need faster and to know how use them easily and help them educate their students. It’s all about the person taking the course learning the material so they can get out into the professional private sector and be successful.

That’s really the end goal and Café Scribe has worked, we’re trying to build something, we’re trying to constantly probe the professors and students to make sure that we can build something that helps the student be more successful.

So what are the elements that we need to build in to help them learn the materials and consume it though it might be that there are different ways that people learn, we know that.

Some people learn by listening, some people by watching, some people by reading, that’s where the model is going to shift, where it’s not just a textbook, it’s not a cut and dry picture on a page.

It’s going to be interactive and I could totally see 10 years from now.

I don’t know if you know Clayton Christiansen, he’s MBA professor at Harvard, he talks about the next wave of education and I really subscribe to this.

It’s going to be where I’m consuming material and as I consume it, it adjusts to me, so if I’m a learner that learns based on typing things its going to change based on how I learn and is going to feed me questions based on my aptitude.

You see this with the standardized tests that are out there that you take and you answer questions and based on how you answer it it’s either going to give you a harder one or an easier one based on that first question. That’s where education is going.

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Café Scribe?

Bryce: The value of Café Scribe is personalization and interaction for students. We’re going from a very static environment where the textbook sits on the students desk or on a professor’s desk, the professor might annotate something, have that annotation, but it’s hard for him to communicate his thoughts and what he’s writing in the margin.

We’re now moving into an environment where I can engage a student in a different way, I can write a note, like a professor did, he was showcasing this for bunch of other professors three days  ago and I was watching him do this.

He said, ‘You know, I use Café Scribe by going to the textbook prior to the semester and writing this is going to be on the test, highly likely that you’ll see this on a quiz and I drop those little things in the margins which you can do in electronic form. And I sent that out to the students once they start. The students who took the time to read, they’ll see the answers, they’ll know what I’m going to ask. I don’t do it for all the questions on the test, but I am now engaging them in a different way. They’re reading, they’re more engaged in what they’re supposed to read than they were before. Before, I would say, ‘Read the material’ —but I had no idea if they were going to read the material. Now I know who’s reading the materials because they know.’

And he said, ‘And then, I can interact with them in a different way than I have, because I can publish my notes. It may not be that I’m telling them answers—but I can now publish them. I think it’s interesting, this theory of relativity is interesting. And why it’s interesting. And I can customize that textbook in a way that I’ve never been able to do.’

So I would say customization and interaction are the two key points that we bring to the table.

Victor: Any other area that we didn’t cover, that you’d like to mention? 

Bryce: One key element that we didn’t mention, another differentiator—no one else is doing—we have a platform that professors out there or institutions can come to us. We don’t have to be a publisher. If they have content that they own the copyright to, then they can give it to us and we can publish that.

For example there’s this Florida State community college that has created their own content called Serious. This content is material they had faculty put together, they come to us and say we want to publish this through Café Scribe electronic mode only. Now it’s available to any campus out there. Any student can download it, and it’s cheaper, better and more interactive. It’s got built-in interactivity, it’s got the videos and whatnot. We may see a trend where it’s not just the major publishers that are providing content.

We have a guy from a university in Idaho. He essentially came to us and said, ‘I have my own book, I have 1,000 students every semester that use this, I’d like to publish this in electronic form’—and that’s the way he tells the students to buy the book.

This is something where he’s in a niche market and it’s his materials that he’s created and he owns the copyright for. Major publishing houses necessarily didn’t want to take that and put all the money behind that to get that out the door. But now, it’s a lowered bar—he can have his own editors create it, he puts it together gives it to us and now he’s a, a new marketplace has opened.

That’s a long a tale of what’s available through Café Scribe. I know that people aren’t doing that or won’t do that and may not be able to the way they’re operating, the way the company is set up. But that’s one last thing I’d like to throw in there. I think it’s a significant differentiator.

Victor: It’s a YouTube-ization of the education, college textbook market where there’s no real authority—it’s becoming more decentralized, the word you used is de-fragmented; it opens up opportunities.

Bryce: That’s a great word for it.

Victor: Lots of opportunities—how do you successfully monetize it? 

Bryce: With regard to the professors, almost all the professors that come to us with materials, they’d actually like to be compensated for the work that they’ve done. We haven’t done any open source per se, where you post it and is a free for all up. Most of it, everybody to date, has said hey, I want to get some compensation. It’s usually a lot less, I mean, I had one publisher that I had, one professor, that used to use that publisher—a major publisher—and to that publisher he  said, ‘I want to take back my copyright, I want to go through Café Scribe.’ And the book used to be $150. It’s now $30.00 on our web site, but he retains a lot of that money.


Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to:


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