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Amazon Announces Digital-Textbook Rentals

(This story was updated on July 21, 2011)

Amazon has rolled out an e-textbook-rentals program, which could bring more attention to the emerging model of treating textbooks like online subscriptions.

Students can now download temporary copies of textbooks on Amazon’s Web site for reading on a Kindle e-book reader or on a computer, tablet, or smartphone running free Kindle software. The system lets customers specify rental periods lasting anywhere from a month to a year. Amazon argues that the digital rentals can save students up to 80 percent compared with traditional print textbooks.

For example, one textbook, Intermediate Accounting, which retails at $197 in print and $109 as an e-book, would cost $57 to rent from Amazon for three months. Students have the option to purchase the e-book during or after a rental period, and can extend rental period in daily increments.

Students will also be able to refer to any margin notes and highlights they made in their digital textbooks after the rental period is over. Amazon has tens of thousands of titles available for digital rental from major publishers like John Wiley & Sons and Elsevier and Taylor & Francis.

“Textbooks by nature are a disposable product,” said Sarah L. Glassmeyer, a faculty services and outreach librarian at Valparaiso University School of Law, in Indiana.

Ms. Glassmeyer, who is also an assistant professor of law at the university, said she supports the move by publishers to offer more digital-textbook options, which she says can save students money and lighten their backpacks—especially when it comes to heavy case-law books.

She said the ability for students to quickly and cheaply access textbooks and margin notes appeals to a generation of students she described as “digital learners,” and she expects digital rentals to catch on.

CourseSmart, a digital-textbook seller started by major textbook publishers, allows rentals but only for periods of six months or more. “CourseSmart has found that the current rental periods offered are those preferred by students as they align with the length of a course,” said Emily Peck, senior account executive at CourseSmart.

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