Digital textbooks on the rise, but traditional books hold sway

Sarah Sanders, a first year student at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, knows better than most how much textbooks add to the escalating cost of higher education.

“During undergrad, I was spending several hundred dollars each semester on textbooks,” Sanders said. “Here at Northwestern, I’ve spent $400 for the year, though I don’t purchase all of the ‘recommended’ textbooks.”
According to recent data gathered by the Institute of College Access and Success’s Project on Student Debt, college graduates are currently emerging from higher educational institutions with an average of $25,250 in debt. To offset rising tuition costs, students like Sanders are beginning to invest in digital textbooks and textbook rentals that are becoming available for tens and sometimes hundreds of dollars less than purchasing traditional print versions.

“If I’m given access to e-books, I enjoy the capability of searching for keywords or quickly flipping to particular sections,” Sanders said. “Additionally, I like that e-books can be put on tablet devices, like my iPad, so I don’t need to carry around huge textbooks.”

The National Association of College Stores says digital textbooks are expected to account for 10 percent to 15 percent of course materials sold in the fall of 2012, compared with just 3 percent this past fall. To accommodate this trend, traditional print publishers are turning out new versions of e-books every day, creating a crowded marketplace that some believe is confusing and hard to navigate.
“There have been a lot of complaints about the format of e-books,” DePaul University textbook sales associate David Eberhardt said in an interview. “There are too many options. The demand is there, and the database is there – it’s just a problem of utilization. The publishing industry is a disaster right now. It’s like the music revolution, when labels didn’t want to convert to mp3s – a lot of publishers are slow to cross over to the digital side of things.”

Other cost-conscious students are renting textbooks instead of buying them. Loyola University junior Emily Frankman said, “I rent textbooks because it is a lot less expensive than buying from the bookstore. Also, when selling back a textbook, you usually don’t get a very good profit from it – maybe 40 percent at best – so I know that it’s better in the long run to just rent.”

Price differences for e-books vary depending on publisher and demand. At Northwestern University’s bookstore, a microeconomics textbook can range from $94 for a new print edition to $46 for quarterly rental. The e-textbook version is significantly cheaper: $62 for purchase, and $45 for digital rental.

However, traditional textbooks still hold sway with many students.

“I bought an e-textbook for an economics class last year because it was a cheaper version of one of those big expensive books,” Northwestern junior Lauren Carbajal said. “I haven’t bought one since because I prefer hard copies. When I downloaded the e-book, I had to have my laptop with me to read it, and that was annoying – it’s nice to be able to bring books around and do work in other places. Another downside is that you can’t sell them when you’re done with them.”

For Northwestern University graduate student Katie Fortner, the pros of digital textbooks outweigh the cons, though print versions still dominate her academic library.

“The upside of digital textbooks is that they are usually cheaper, and they don’t take up any more space on my already overcrowded bookshelf,” Fortner said. “But I really dislike staring at a screen, so I usually opt for the print version.”

Northwestern University’s assistant bookstore manager Charles Depondt agrees the e-book trend is gaining traction, but has yet to win the majority vote among students and faculty on campus.
“Last year, when we thought e-books were really going to take off, we made an effort to communicate with professors to see if they would use ‘nookstudy’ in class,” Depondt said in an interview. “There was one professor gung-ho on the idea, so we made it happen. In that case, we also had the hardcover book available on the shelf, and I would say three-fourths of the class actually bought the book, not the e-book.”
To ease the transition into a digital marketplace, brick-and-mortar university bookstores are teaming up with online distributors to provide tech-savvy students with easily accessible digital content. Loyola University in Chicago utilizes Follett Corp., based in River Grove, Ill., a textbook distributor servicing schools across the nation.

“Institutions need to think strategically about standardization,” Gary Shapiro, senior vice president of intellectual properties at Follett Higher Education Group, stated in a recent press release. “In the past, when somebody said, ‘go get me a book,’ we simply pulled it off our shelf. Now we play more of a consultant role, helping universities navigate the many course material options – our goal is to help make it easy, and, in turn, help teachers teach and students learn.”

Both Northwestern’s and DePaul University’s bookstores work directly with Barnes & Noble’s “nookstudy” program, a free software download that allows students to purchase textbooks published by industry giants including McGraw-Hill Inc. and Pearson Education Inc.

Even though e-book sales still don’t equal print sales, figures collected by the Pew Research Institute indicate the market is poised for a digital textbook revolution. According to Pew’s recent study on tablet ownership, the share of adults in the United States owning tablets or e-book devices nearly doubled from 10 percent to 19 percent from November to mid-December, and increased again to 29 percent in mid-January. In response to this trend, publishing companies have responded in a variety of ways.
Tudor van Hampton of McGraw-Hill said that textbook publishing has become “a more competitive business.”
“With things like open sourcing it can be hard to keep up. Companies are having to come up with new products faster than the old four-year cycle. Some traditional publishers have had a hard time keeping up with this, but McGraw-Hill has done some pretty cool stuff in digital textbooks.”
By the time up-and-coming generations arrive at higher-education institutions, a majority may be equipped with tablets and e-readers, ready to welcome the e-textbook trend with open arms.
“Shipping print textbooks is an expense in both monetary and ecological ways,” Depondt said. “E-books are definitely the future – every day there’s somebody else coming up with a whole new product. Eventually we’ll be going that way, but the market will have to tell us when that is.”

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