Leading E-Textbook Seller Reports 400 Percent Sales Increase in 2009

The nation’s leading e-textbook seller reported a 400 percent increase in sales for 2009 from the year before, the company’s executive vice president said Tuesday.

CourseSmart does not disclose exact values, but Frank Lyman said students who have used the company’s e-textbooks number in the hundreds of thousands.

“It has enormous value to students not to lug a printed textbook around,” Mr. Lyman said. “They can log in anywhere and access their textbooks, and for a lot of students, that’s a better solution.”

About 42 percent of students have either purchased or at least seen an e-textbook, according to “OnCampus Research Student Watch 2010,” a 16,000-student survey released by the National Association of College Stores in fall of 2009. That’s an increase of 24 percentage points from 2007.

Charles Schmidt, a spokesman for the association, said an increase could come as e-textbook technology improves and student who used the Internet from a younger age reach universities. The National Association of College Stores predicts 10 to 15 percent of college-store textbook sales could be digital by 2012, up from 2 to 3 percent of sales that are digital now.

“They’re still kind of digital immigrants, the people who are in college right now,” Mr. Schmidt said. “Also, your typical e-textbook is kind of a glorified PDF of the hard copy, and students are not necessarily enamored with that.”

One major factor affecting students choice is price, said Nicole Allen, textbooks advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups. E-textbooks are often cheaper–Mr. Lyman said CourseSmart e-textbooks are about 50 percent of the cost of a new textbook on average–but can’t be sold back.

Ms. Allen and a team of researchers surveyed the cost of buying 50 commonly assigned new or used textbooks versus e-textbooks. The cost of buying an e-textbook was on average the same as a hard copy sold back to the bookstore and twice the cost of a used copy sold back to the bookstore.

If students are going “to make that change, they’re going to need something in return,” Ms. Allen said. “They’re going to need lower prices.”

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