The high cost of textbooks is a rising student complaint. It inspired recent federal legislation calling on colleges to list the cost of required reading. When courses use only a portion of expensive books, it only makes matters worse.
"Sometimes a professor only assigns five chapters out of a whole book," says Jennie A. Dexter, who just graduated from Oklahoma State University at Tulsa with a degree in marketing and management.
Now textbook publishers are offering an experimental form of price relief: The option to buy book chapters instead of the whole thing, in electronic versions with lower prices.
McGraw-Hill and Pearson Education are among the investors in the San Francisco-based start-up Inkling, which offers multimedia-rich iPad versions of several publishers' textbooks by the chapter or by the book. Cengage Learning also offers students the opportunity to buy chapters of various books in a PDF format, through its Web site.
For students accustomed to purchasing individual songs from Apple's iTunes store, the chapters option may seem like a logical step. Whether it actually saves students money depends on how many chapters from a book they are assigned, when they're given that assignment, and, in the case of Inkling titles, whether they were already planning to spend the $500 or more to purchase an iPad.
The 10th edition of Sylvia S. Mader's Biology textbook, published by McGraw-Hill, is one of Inkling's introductory-biology offerings. The book has 47 chapters, and Inkling sells each one for $3.99, with one chapter thrown in free. The company sells the entire iPad version for $129.99, and McGraw-Hill's hardcover version retails for $185. So students assigned 33 or fewer chapters would save money buying by the chapter rather than by the book.
Of course, such savings are only possible if a professor assigns just a portion of the book. Of 33 publicly available course syllabi that use the textbook, retrieved through a Google search, only two had more than 30 chapters assigned, meaning that students in the other 31 classes would have been better off buying by the chapter. But that is far from a wide-ranging or representative sample of courses.
Ms. Dexter says she would welcome the option to buy only the chapters assigned for class. "It's totally cost-effective," she says. A fellow recent graduate of Oklahoma State, Brent M. Fitzgerald, says most people he knows don't like paying for material they don't use. "Students read what they have to, that's it," he says.
And that's just what worries David S. Berg, a psychology professor at the Community College of Philadelphia. He likes the technology—he leads faculty workshops on using the iPhone and iPad in teaching and encourages students to buy digital textbooks. But he doesn't like what he calls the increasing "disarticulation" of the course model.
"If I tell my students they can just buy four chapters, they get no sense of the connectedness of the field," he says.
Optimistically, he hopes students in his introductory-psychology courses will see their textbook as a reference to return to later in life.
For Matt MacInniss, founder and chief executive of Inkling, the question of whether the chapter model will deny students a "whole book" experience misses the point.
"Forcing the student to buy the whole book does not make the student happier, more engaged, or more likely to read the whole book," he says.
The issue really is engaged learning, he says, and he hopes Inkling texts make that happen. They are designed to take advantage of the iPad's touch capability and graphical interface, with interactive quizzes and 3-D illustrations. The scrolling, hyperlink-heavy text reads more like a Web site than a book, and he thinks that experience will be more engrossing and foster better understanding. He plans to expand the Inkling line to other tablets when they gain greater traction in the market. For now, the former Apple employee hopes to attract the 10 to 15 percent of iPad users who he estimates are students, a small but growing number.
Inkling's interactive approach appealed to officials at Brown University's medical school, which will require students entering this fall to purchase iPads. It will also require three Inkling texts: Essential Clinical Anatomy, Grant's Atlas of Anatomy, and Bates' Guide to Physical Examination and History Taking.
The print versions have been standard reading at Brown. Luba Dumenco, the medical school's director of preclinical curriculum, says she was on the fence about whether to require students to purchase Inkling versions until she read through them herself. The interactivity and portability sold her, and should be a great plus for students, she says. "Being able to have an educational tool made all the difference."
The chapter option, she adds, was not an important part of her decision. Indeed, Brown students will still be expected to purchase entire texts and retain them as a reference. Dr. Dumenco does think the chapter option could be useful for students looking to brush up on concepts—cell biology, say—that they were expected to have learned before medical school.
It might help with cramming for examinations, too. Nader M. Qaimari, senior vice president for marketing at Cengage Learning, says the publisher normally sees a flurry of PDF chapter purchases around exam time, presumably from students catching up on missed reading.
The Case Against Chapters
There is, however, an economic argument against chapter purchases or customized books: Students can't sell them back to the bookstore. Albert N. Greco, a professor at Fordham University's business school, has resisted assigning customized textbooks to his students for just this reason.
On Amazon.com, for example, students can now sell back the latest edition of Sylvia S. Mader's Biology for $63.10. With a new book on Amazon costing $140.43, and third-party or used texts as little as $69.99, it could be significantly less expensive for students to purchase and resell the book through Amazon than to buy a digital edition through Inkling, even by the chapter.
Those numbers explain why the used-textbook market is flourishing. Mr. Greco, who studies the academic publishing industry, says it accounts for one-third of the overall textbook market. Even though publishers might make less per unit if students buy digital books by the chapter, he says they would still come out ahead because it would reduce used sales—which don't pay publishers a penny.
Vineet Madan, vice president of learning ecosystems at McGraw-Hill, concedes that increasing digital sales—by the chapter or by the book—will ultimately shrink the used-book market but says those changes are a long way down the road.
First, publishers have to figure out how to persuade more students to go digital, he says. While e-textbook sales are growing, they still account for only a small fraction of overall textbook sales.
At Cengage, making texts available to students by the chapter hasn't had a major impact, Mr. Qaimari says, and his company's newest platform, MindTap, gets away from that model by putting professors back in charge. It allows them to pick chapters to stitch together into customized, multimedia-rich texts.
Inkling is still a year away from making any real market ripple, Mr. MacInnis says, with fewer than 25 titles available and a little more than 100 scheduled for next fall.
Mr. Madan says he is excited about the Inkling model, but stresses that it's one of several options his company is pursuing. Like many other publishers, McGraw-Hill is hedging its bets.
Here are the prices for Biology (Sylvia S. Mader, McGraw-Hill, 10th Edition) in various formats:
McGraw-Hill — print — $185
Inkling — entire iPad book — $129.99
Inkling — chapter price — $3.99
Amazon — new book — $140.43
Amazon — used — $69.99
Amazon — Kindle e-book — $113.84
Barnes & Noble — Nook e-book -$113.84
CourseSmart — e-textbook 360-day rental — $101.75