• August 29, 2015

This Could Be the Year of E-Textbooks, if Students Accept Them

Many titles are available, but students are wary

This Could Be the Year of Digital Textbooks, if Students Accept Them 1

Sandy Huffaker

Sign of the times: At the San Diego State U. bookstore, a poster exhorts students to "Buy This Textbook as an eTextbook."

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close This Could Be the Year of Digital Textbooks, if Students Accept Them 1

Sandy Huffaker

Sign of the times: At the San Diego State U. bookstore, a poster exhorts students to "Buy This Textbook as an eTextbook."

The trickiest part of teaching with electronic textbooks is getting everyone on the same page—or to the same part of the digital text. That's what a professor in the honors college at Arizona State University found last month at the start of an experimental class with Amazon Kindle e-book readers.

There are no page numbers for books on the Kindle; instead, every passage has a "location number," which lets users jump to that section. Those numbers can be long, and it can be awkward to type them on the small keyboard. So when Ted Humphrey, the professor, asked students to turn to a certain passage in the Iliad, there were "some glitches," he says, as a few students mis typed the location number.

"You have to hold down an 'alt' button to type in the numbers," which can be cumbersome, says Carson Cook, a student in the required course in Western civilization, who also worries that it will be difficult to take notes in the digital margins using the Kindle's keyboard.

Arizona State is one of seven universities participating in a closely watched e-textbook experiment supported by Amazon. It is gaining attention in part because this academic year marks the first time that major textbook publishers have offered a critical mass of their titles in electronic form. CourseSmart, a spinoff company started by major textbook publishers in 2007 to sell their electronic versions, now offers 7,150 titles. That's over half of the most popular textbook titles from the participating publishers. Students can read them on laptops and desktops, and the company recently unveiled a free application that lets students read textbooks on their iPhones. Several textbook publishers are making titles available on Amazon's new Kindle DX. And last month, Sony released a new Sony Reader e-book device that can download textbooks wirelessly.

The increased awareness and availability of e-textbooks could make this a watershed year for the format—which has held only 2 to 3 percent of the market until now, according to the National Association of College Stores—as publishers learn whether or not enough students like the new titles and features to make them worth selling.

"My mission is to make sure every college student knows they have a choice to buy their assigned book as an e-book," says Frank Lyman, executive vice president for marketing at CourseSmart. As part of a new campaign this fall, the company is working with several college stores to tout the digital option—and the fact that electronic versions are generally priced at about half the cost of printed textbooks. Facebook groups organized by student representatives help encourage students to share their e-book experiences with classmates.

Lower-Cost Option

Publishers say they just want to offer customers choices, and appeal to today's students, who have never known a world without laptops and the Internet. It's worth noting, though, that the publishers stand to benefit from the format switch. Today many students sell their books at the end of the semester, and publishers don't share in that revenue. They have designed their e-books so they cannot be resold; in many cases, the digital files self-destruct after a set period. (For CourseSmart books, most files vanish after 180 days.)

Amazon, the newest entrant to the e-textbook marketplace, quickly added textbooks to its online library this summer. Officials acknowledge that earlier versions of the Kindle were not ready for school, since its screen was too small for illustrations and tables. The new Kindle DX has a screen more comparable to the dimensions of a textbook.

Mr. Humphrey, the Arizona State professor, told his students that he is excited that the device will let students bring all 17 assigned texts to every class. "As a consequence of that," he says, "I can refer them to passages they're going to encounter in the future, and hopefully that will do a better job of integrating those materials in their own minds."

Students' reaction has been mostly positive. A few say, however, that turning to a passage can be tricky. And the professor says the Kindle's "location numbers" would not work as a citation for an academic paper.

Luis De La Cruz, a student in the course, says his favorite feature of Kindle is the built-in dictionary. "You can move the cursor next to the word and right below it will give you a definition," he says. "In my case, since English is a second language, there are many words that have never crossed my face."

Not everyone is excited by the prospect of e-books, though. Mr. Humphrey says two of the 60 students in the pilot project dropped the class after getting his e-mail message explaining that they would be guinea pigs in the Kindle experiment.

Environmental Benefits

The Kindle tryout seems to have sparked student interest at other colleges as well. Kate Gaertner, a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, was inspired to write an essay for her student newspaper about the idea after reading about the project in The New York Times. She argued that her university should "push for paperless textbooks" as part of its effort to reduce its environmental impact.

She said in an interview that her involvement in a project to help students resell old textbooks had made her realize how many printed textbooks become obsolete each year when publishers put out new versions. "We had mountains and mountains of science textbooks that were old editions that students couldn't use anymore," she said. "If these books were available in an electronic format, the paper wouldn't be wasted."

If e-textbooks catch on, however, publishers may see a rise in online piracy. Filching digital textbooks does not yet appear to be widespread: A survey of full-time college students this spring by Student Monitor, a company that does market research for businesses, found that 6 percent of students admitted trying to download a pirated textbook.

Some publishers fear a repeat of what happened in the music industry, where the Internet sparked widespread piracy and a decline in sales.

One textbook publisher simply gives away online copies of textbooks, in the hope that enough students will still opt to buy print copies. That's the business plan of Flat World Knowledge Inc., which says it has persuaded 400 professors to try its books this semester. Eric Frank, chief marketing officer, says those who adopt the textbooks in their courses can make changes to customize them. The company has spent about $150,000 on each of the 11 online textbooks it offers, Mr. Frank says. Anyone can read the books free online, but students can buy a black-and-white print version for about $30, or a color copy for about $60. About 65 percent of the students in courses that require the "open textbooks," as they are called, have bought some product from the company, he reports. (One popular item is a printed study guide.) "We think we'll get to 70 or 75 percent," he says.

Eric Weil, managing partner at Student Monitor, predicts that electronic textbooks will probably turn out to be just one option rather than a widespread replacement for printed textbooks. Some students will prefer the features of electronic versions, while others will be willing to pay a little more for hard copies. "It's going to be different strokes for different folks," he says.


1. paievoli - September 08, 2009 at 08:59 am

The real problem is going to be that this marketplace's margins are going to dry up like the record industry. e-Books are going to be 99¢ a download within two years. Just look at FlatWorldKnowledge and you can see the cost difference just starting. As more and more companies get into this space the margins will flatten out. Then the textbook industry will need to look at alternative revenue streams to stay in business. Just look at the newspaper and magazine industries.

Entertainment Weekly is including a thin screen 40 minute - rechargeable digital video ad in their Sept. 18th issue. CBS and Pepsi are the ad sponsors.


How long before textbooks include this feature and why bother when you have the Internet and TabletPCs coming out soon?

Read the story in The Boston Globe about the Cushing Academy


The change is happening right now.


2. emmadw - September 08, 2009 at 11:40 am

"(For CourseSmart books, most files vanish after 180 days.)"

Oh gosh - if our students fail a unit (module) - they have to re-take the next time it runs - generally a year later. That could be a problem.

Also, if a book "expires" after 180 days, surely that doesn't say much for the confidence the author has in readers finding their information useful once they've passed the exam. What about going back when you're doing something else - which maybe makes something that was unclear at the time, clear.

3. tdmoritz - September 08, 2009 at 02:31 pm

We are in the midst of a major transition -- the old publishing paradigm will only survive by rearguard attacks (like the RIAA has used on it's own customers) or by artifical props ["crop subsidies"?] to support "traditional" pubishers -- like the firemen on electric trains...

We need to analyze and to re-evaluate the essential functions of authors, editors. publishers and "disseminators" (including librarians and book sellers) and develop fair modes of compensation for all those performing essential functions -- this implies **public investment** in public goods...

Have we had enough market failures yet [??? !] -- enough "casino economics" -- to completely discredit the ideologues who argue a priori that "the market" in and of itself will provide for the common welfare?

4. ksledge - September 09, 2009 at 07:02 am

It's surprising to me that whomever designed kindle and/or the books on it didn't think to include page numbers that matched up to the real text so that the book could be discussed with others.

I also think that having a book expire is totally against what education is all about.

5. garay - September 09, 2009 at 08:11 am

e-Textbook publishers need to leverage the malleability of digital content and intelligent software to offer multiple options and added value for students and instructors alike.

Reading and interacting with e-Textbooks ought to be ubiquitous :: cross-platform, on Windows, Macs, Linux or any desktop, but also on Kindles, iPhones and other smartphones, e-Book readers and mobile Internet devices. e-Book standards and software that runs everywhere are essential.

In terms of licensing, why a 180 day self destruction "feature"? Perhaps, that should be one option, but other options ought be unlimted/permanent ownership, yearly subscription, unrestricted play/use anywhere (with roaming bookmarking and use history), accessibility features, print options, to name a few.

All e-Textbooks (all textbooks, actually) should have accompanying LMS-ready content like the thousands of Blackboard course cartridges that exist for Blackboard customers, that is, with chapter materials and images, end-of-chapter exercises, question pools and implied copyright permission.

I hope that when electronic textbooks do take off, we do more than simply digitizing sequential print and nickel-and-dime our students and teachers to death. I want to see interactive textbooks, with effective multimedia and what-if scenarios (where applicable), dynamic textbooks that truly take advantage of digital and networked delivery (like the Kindle dictionary, for example).

The year is 2009 :: the education industry needs live and adaptable electronic textbooks that facilitate learning, as we move away from inert paper.

6. bernadotte - September 09, 2009 at 08:57 am

Small correction: Kindle didn't release an app for reading Kindle books on phones. Stanza did that. Kindle merely bought them. One more piece of their veritcal integration.

Oh, and paper isn't inert. What happens when reading isn't about technology. It's about how the reader interacts with the ideas. The Cushing Academy misunderstands how information works.

7. 11142518 - September 09, 2009 at 09:22 am

Someone really needs to do a systematic study to determine whether or not the environmental claims made in favor of ebook devices and against paper are in fact true. We all know (and believe me, I'm as prone to gadget-mania as the next person) that most electronic devices are obsolete in five years. Where do we suppose they end up? And what is the impact to the environment of this constant churn of heavy metals and plastic? I'm deeply suspicious of the environmental claims made on behalf of digital texts.

8. fsweitz3 - September 09, 2009 at 10:08 am

If the margins do dry up, then I wonder how the text book companies will maintain any quality to their offerings. Authors are not going to put in the work if they are not going to get some reasonable compensation.

9. byronbrown - September 09, 2009 at 11:04 am

A section of the article is headed "Lower Cost Option," yet there's nothing in that section to indicate that e-texts are lower cost for the students. In fact they are not, as you can easily confirm.

Take the example of Greg Mankiw's Principles of Microeconomics, 5th edition, from South-Western/Cengage. Prices for a new paperback range from $121.13 at Amazon (free shipping), to $156.65 at a local bookstore in the city where I live. Other prices from websites all fall within the range stated here -- local bookstores most expensive, Amazon the least.

Students can sell back a paper copy, new or used, for $78.33, one-half the local bookstore retail price. They can buy a used copy at the local bookstore for 3/4 of the retail price, or $117.50.

But look now at what the e-textbook is selling for. SW/Cengage will let you have it (in a manner of speaking) for $79.49 (1 year license), or $102.99 (2 year license). CourseSmart charges $79.49 for a 180 subscription. As others have pointed out, these options have no resale value.

Bottom line. Students can buy a new copy at Amazon, and sell it IF THEY WISH to the local bookstore for $78.33, for a net cost of $39.18. For the math-paired, that's about half the price of the cheapest e-text. Putting aside for the moment considerations of ease of use, and extra features possibly present in the e-text, the publishers are overpricing their product by about 100% of the next best competitor.

What to do? If you teach a course, especially a high enrollment course with an expensive textbook, collect the data on several new, used, and e-text options, and tell your students what you found EARLY ENOUGH TO DO THEM SOME GOOD!

10. asanjume - September 09, 2009 at 01:25 pm

Sure, your math works, sometimes. However, many students don't have the upfront cost and really can't afford to wait until the end of the semester to recoup part of their cost. Additionally, with edition changes, late orders from faculty, and once a year courses there is no guarantee the student will get 50% back during buyback.

11. greentextbooks - September 09, 2009 at 11:21 pm

I would suggest using GreenTextbooks.org
Save Money, Save The Planet

GreenTextbooks.org specializes in the recycling of textbooks, DVDs, CDs. Buying used textbooks not only saves you money, but cuts down on greenhouse gases caused by the manufacturing of new textbooks.
With GreenTextbooks.org you're not only saving trees, you are saving some green. http://www.GreenTextbooks.org

12. ethylester - September 10, 2009 at 01:47 pm

I have worked in the textbook industry for ten years. This past book rush, we had a handful of classes in which the professor required the students to purchase an "online access code" to be able to do required readings and turn in homework. The prices ranged from $65 to $113, and yes they expire after a certain amount of time. The majority of customers who had to buy these complained and asked if we had a copy of the actual book they could purchase instead. One student said, "I have to pay $80 just to turn in my homework! Ridiculous!" I couldn't agree more. First of all, the idea that the book expires after the semester is over is defeating the purpose of lifelong education. Second, the student cannot sell this back at the end of the year. This would be reasonable if the inital cost was inexpensive. But for $113, most students would like to see a little of that money come back to them if they no longer need the text. And personally, when I was in college, I relished in reading my books in the quiet of nature, lying on the grass. I can't imagine doing this with a with a laptop! The batterly life on laptops are limited, you can't highlight or make notes on the actual text, and plus, if you need internet access, where do you find that in the woods or a quiet, seculded location ideal for reading? You can't!

13. rhershman - September 10, 2009 at 04:16 pm

Regarding the question/comment on e-waste. It is a serious and real issue that should not be overlooked in this debate. Also do institutions have the broadband capacity for the digital learning materials envisioned in the future and if not where will the funding come from to acquire and maintain this.

A good source of information on e-waste is the Electronics Take Back Campaign.

Nice compilation from the group of facts and figures along with citations:

14. literallyjess - September 13, 2009 at 02:08 pm

@paievoli Newspapers and textbooks are different issues all-together. Newsreaders want information as it changes, meaning the content is time sensitive. Textbook readers want information, without the need of such stringent time requirements. Also, advertisements have been a long-standing point of contention in education since before e-books became the rage. Ads in education correlate to the view of students as a "market"; though now we can relate this with the digital revolution, e-books were,are not at the forefront of the battle. See 'The Branding of Learning' chapter in Naomi Klein's 'No Logo'.

@emmadw I agree, the idea of self-distructing textbooks is antithetical to education and discouraging to students.

@tdmoritz Great ideas! I'm envisioning a disaster scenario where in order to cite e-books in an academic work the publisher will require an ASCAP-like fee. What do you mean by public investment?

I think open texts with optional print counterparts is a good avenue to follow for starters, I need to check out Flat World Knowledge Inc. for more information. There's something to be said about ancillary rights here... As an online student, I need both online and print texts for personal and practical reasons.

And to those equating the music business to e-books, don't fear. Clearly, the music industry is still thriving, in an evolved state.

@rhershman Thanks for the links on e-waste; this issue isn't getting enough attention!

15. manifestdestiny - September 14, 2009 at 11:48 pm

Libraries have had to deal with leasing vs. owning the e-content for years. Springer has e-books that libraries can buy--and own forever. They can be used as the textbook, and black&white copies can be purchased by students for $25. Now that's a business model to get excited about. Don't accept the leased-content deals. Only buy ebooks that you can own.

16. laoshi - September 19, 2009 at 02:05 pm

I'm trying a CourseSmart book this semester, but also ordered the paper book. Having one copy digitized will allow me to carry it with my notebook PC, and the cost isn't much. Sucks about the 180 day expiry, though.

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