For higher education students who spend an average of $702 per year on course materials, mostly textbooks, the prospect of going digital is an appealing one. Among the theoretical benefits of digital textbooks is the possibility of significant cost savings due to lower overhead costs — bits are cheaper than printed pages, after all. Unfortunately, students shouldn’t chuck their backpacks any time soon; there still exist some major hurdles that digital textbooks must overcome before they widely replace traditional, printed textbooks on college (and high school) campuses.
The benefits of digital textbooks are numerous: they’re potentially cheaper, they’re better for the environment (at least so long as you don’t continually need to upgrade your electronic book reader), they weigh less, they can be updated more easily, and they’re more easily searched. But for all that, a number of hurdles still exist.
1. Cost Savings Must be Greater
In theory, digital textbooks should cost a lot less than their printed counterparts. Textbook publishers will always have overhead costs (they must still compensate authors, editors, typesetters/designers, proofreaders, indexers, etc.), but the costs associated with physically printing, binding, warehousing, and shipping the book are eliminated when going digital. Further, many textbook publishers already publish electronic editions of their books. McGraw-Hill, for example, which is one of the largest textbook publishers in the United States, publishes nearly 95% of its books electronically.
In practice, though, the cost savings for electronic textbooks are miniscule. “Human Biology,” a textbook published by Pearson imprint Benjamin Cummings, for example, costs about $50 used, and about $80 new in its printed/hard copy form (according to BigWords.com). Via electronic textbook publisher CourseSmart, the digital version costs just over $70, a savings of about 12.5% over the printed version. However, the printed version can be kept forever or sold back at the end of the semester to mitigate costs, while the electronic version is automatically deleted after 180 days, and requires additional equipment, such as an ebook reader or a laptop computer. As a student, which of these options makes more sense?
“At the moment, there’s not a lot of [cost savings],” Tom Rosenthal, the senior manager of electronic product sales at textbook publisher Academic Press, told the Wall Street Journal. Those cost savings will have to become more significant for students to start opting for electronic texts over printed ones.
2. A Standard Format is Needed
When Amazon announced the larger format Kindle DX in May, and along with it a pilot digital textbook program at several major US universities to be launched this fall — including Princeton, UVA, Case Western, Arizona State, and Reed College — we called it “a game changer.” But it also raises a very important question about formats and ebook compatibility issues.
There are many different competing ebook formats and a huge number of textbook publishers that don’t all use the same format. If I buy a book on the Kindle, it may not necessarily be available on my Sony reader (and I certainly won’t be able to transfer that specific purchase from one reader to the other), and if I buy a book through CourseSmart, I need to use their proprietary software to download it. What that means for students in a practical sense is that vendor lock-in might prohibit them from going print-free even if they wanted to, because not all of their required course materials may be available for the reader or software they invested in. Because buying an ebook reader is a significant initial cost outlay, it’s hard to expect students to make that investment without assurances that all, or at least nearly all, of their required books will be available in that format.
With ebook readers expected in the next year from Plastic Logic, Hearst, and News Corp., and the much-rumored “Apple Tablet” on the horizon, things may only get more muddled.
3. Questions of Ownership
One of the most important stumbling points for the adoption of digital texts is the question of who actually owns the books. CourseSmart’s books, for example, generally only last for 180 days before being automatically deleted, which means that students are essentially renting them for a set period of time. That’s not a consideration students need to make when purchasing a hard copy book from a bookstore, where the answer to question of ownership is very clear.
Further, the recent Orwellian (literally) case of Amazon remotely deleting books from Kindle readers, has rightly raised a number of eyebrows. One high school student even filed a lawsuit against the ecommerce giant when, as he claims, the notes he had made on the book for school were “rendered useless because they no longer referenced the relevant parts of the book,” as a result of the remote deletion.
“Amazon.com had no more right to hack into people’s Kindles than its customers have the right to hack into Amazon’s bank account to recover a mistaken overpayment,” said Jay Edelson, the lawyer who filed the case.
If students feel that they don’t actually own the textbooks they purchase, or that their books might be taken away before they are done with them (or that their notes might be damaged), they’re unlikely to embrace electronic textbooks.