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

Many titles are available, but students are wary

Sandy Huffaker

Sign of the times: At the San Diego State U. bookstore, a poster exhorts students to "Buy This Textbook as an eTextbook."
September 07, 2009

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.