While it seems increasingly likely that e-books will one day become the standard in education, California has passed a law to virtually guarantee it — and to set a deadline.
A new state law, effective January 1, 2020, will require that all textbooks used in public and private postsecondary institutions be made available in electronic form “to the extent practicable” either “in whole or in part.” Senate Bill 48 states that “the electronic version of any textbook shall contain the same content as the printed version and may be copy-protected.”
Senator Elaine Alquist, who wrote the bill, was unavailable for comment. Her legislative aid, James Schwab, who was involved with writing the bill, said that helping students save money was the primary motive. For instance, even today, one textbook with a list price of $173.33 is available electronically for $95.33.
Mr. Schwab also said that the law would encourage professors to integrate technology into the classroom; spark more student interest in science, engineering, and math; and give students marketable skills in using technology.
“Students these days, and kids growing up, will be used to — and even prefer — reading stuff in an electronic format,” Mr. Schwab said.
Albert N. Greco, a professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Business who studies academic publishing, said the 2020 deadline seemed more than reasonable.
“They could have made it 2015!” Mr. Greco said.
The six leading textbook companies now publish 13,000 unique titles. In the past two and a half years, 8,600 of those titles have been made available electronically. Mr. Greco predicts that all 13,000 will be digitized by some point in 2012.
“The spirit of the law is, I think, laudable,” Mr. Greco said. As a practical matter, though, “it doesn’t matter whether a state passes a law or not.”
He explained that textbook companies already have several incentives to make books available in electronic format. First, 24 percent of all printed textbooks are returned from the college bookstore to the publishing company because they go unsold. And sales of used books and textbook rentals are hurting publishers. By making a textbook available in electronic form, the publisher can still make a considerable profit from the six-month rental fee.
“The business is moving toward digital,” Mr. Greco said. “And it has to.”