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New Option for Student Shoppers: E-Books

August 12, 2005

As students at eight colleges shop for notebooks and car decals this fall, they’ll have another product to consider at the campus bookstore: electronic textbooks. But not everyone expects the e-books fly off the shelves. 

The eight colleges have partnered with the wholesale company MBS Textbook Exchange to offer about 30 textbooks at 33 percent below the normal cover price. “It’s about giving students a cheaper option,” said Jeff Cohen, advertising and promotions manager at MBS.

The high cost of textbooks, which are often well over $100, has helped spawn a vibrant used book market both at college book stores and online, at sites like VarsityBooks.com, which buys and sells new and used textbooks. College officials do not think electronic textbooks are going to replace paper versions, but they are excited at the prospect of offering a cheap alternative. But some of the tactics that MBS and the stores see as necessary to make the practice viable -- to avoid mass piracy, the books will only be accessible on the downloading computer, and will expire at the end of a course – are generating criticism.

Shane Girton, associate director of the University of Utah bookstore, said students have expressed some excitement at the prospect of books that are 10 to 15 percent cheaper than even the used books the store sells. Credit-card-sized vouchers that students can purchase will sit on shelves next to normal textbooks. At checkout, the card will be encoded to allow the student to download a particular book. “We hope it will help students who might not have enough money for books,” Girton said. “And it will save us operational costs of shipping and stocking.” This fall, he added, will tell if the program should be expanded.

To maintain control of their intellectual property, publishers decided that access to electronic textbooks will expire upon the completion of the associated class. Initially, there were also going to be controls on the amount of the book a student could print out at any one time, but those restrictions have been lifted. 

Still, some people don’t like the prospect of empty bookshelves where students might once have stored texts for years to come. “It’s about being able to access knowledge when you need it,” said Richard Forno, an author and information technology consultant who said he keeps his college books on his shelf. Forno’s first book, The Art of Information Warfare, was released digitally as well as in print, but Forno demanded that there be no restrictions on how long readers could access it for.

“Classes and majors are built on ideas, and a senior might need that freshman textbook,” he said.

Publishers have had electronic books available for years, but this fall will be the first time the books are marketed through college bookstores. Currently, e-textbook sales are only a tiny part of book sales. According to the International Digital Publishing Forum, the 23 publishers that responded to a survey made $9.62 million in revenues in 2004, a 31 percent increase over 2003, even while they chose to publish 4,351 titles, down from 7,138 in 2003. 

The apparently increasing demand is one of the things that enticed the eight participating colleges: Princeton University, Portland Community College, Bowling Green State University, the University of Oregon, Utah, Georgetown College in Kentucky, California State University at Fullerton, and Morehead State University.

Some students are skeptical that the new option will change the textbook market. Joshua Goldsmith, a Princeton student, said he can already get cheap, used books, and recoup most of his cost by selling them back if he wants. Plus, he “hates reading books on the Internet,” he said in an e-mail, and might want to use the book in a computer lab, or some place other than in front of the computer the electronic book is on. He noted that he would probably print out electronic books, but that the cost of ink and paper might negate savings. “I like the saving the environment part,” he said. “I’m just too attached to hard copies of books.” He added that he likes underlining in his books.

In fact, the electronic books, which can be downloaded to Adobe Acrobat, incorporate the highlight function, as well as allowing students to log notes that are linked to a particular section of the book. The notes, though, become inaccessible when the book expires. Other nifty functions include Acrobat reading the book aloud, and the “control+f” word-search function. “As the technology and functions get better, the format will increase in popularity,” said April Hattori, a spokeswoman for McGraw Hill Higher Education, one of four publishers involved. 

Searchability and quick access have already made a big splash in the online journal reading community. But “textbooks are not like articles,” said Richard G. Baraniuk, an engineering professor at Rice University who started Connexions, which has free software and course materials online. “When I do my classes,” he added, “I’m continually drawing links to prerequisite concepts. Students who need to review that material will be held back because of [expired e-books].”

And as far as guaranteeing cheap textbooks, “this is not the silver bullet,” said David Rosenfeld, campaign coordinator for the Student Public Interest Research Groups’ Campaign to Reduce College Textbooks Costs. “We’re happy to see any plan to reduce costs, but publishers have to take responsibility for gimmicks, like producing uneccessary new editions,” he added. “Rather than a new edition, maybe they sell an electronic supplement of just the new material.”

 

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