E-texts get mixed reviews

College students aren’t wild about e-book readers, reports the Wall Street Journal. Pilot projects have returned “mixed reviews.”

Since e-books aren’t printed and don’t need to be sold through physical distributors, they should theoretically be less expensive than regular books and can save students and schools money. What’s more, e-textbooks are environmentally friendly, can lighten backpacks and keep learning materials current.

But . . . digital reading comes with drawbacks, including an expensive starting price for e-book readers and surprisingly high prices for digital textbooks. Also, publishers make e-texts difficult to share and print, and it is unclear how well students will adapt to reading textbooks on a screen, some say. The earliest versions of these devices lack highlighting, note-taking and sharing capabilities, and one leading provider’s e-books expire after several months, meaning they can’t be kept for future reference.

E-readers start at $280; Amazon’s Kindle DX, designed for textbooks, is a pricey  $489. Publishers, trying to protect their print book sales, are charging nearly as much for e-books.

For example, Human Reproductive Biology, a textbook from Elsevier BV’s Academic Press, costs $65 for the Kindle edition, $66 from Sony’s e-book store, and $49 for a 180-day subscription on e-textbook seller CourseSmart.com. A printed edition costs about $72 from various retailers.

Prices may come down in time, both for the readers and the books, but right now the e-option isn’t a great deal.

A survey by Student Public Interest Research Group panned e-books: 75% of college students said they prefer print books.

Project Tomorrow surveyed younger students on “what elements they found most important in digital textbooks.”

Many said they wanted interactive features like videos and quizzes. No dedicated e-readers have these attributes.

The proposal to put “a Kindle in every backpack” seems premature.

About Joanne


  1. This is interesting, considering that a lot of the propaganda I hear from both textbook publishers and educational “experts” is that college students just LOVE all new technology, and that paper books are totally on their way out, because they are too expensive, too heavy, too much of a pain to re-sell at the end of the year…

    Me? I like paper books. Don’t own a Kindle, don’t really have any interest in one. But I’m 40, so of course my opinion no longer counts.

  2. A standard lithium ion battery is going to last you 2, maybe 3 years under heavy usage before it needs to be replaced.

    If you pour a drink over a book, the cover protects it.

    If you drop a book down a staircase, it still works.

    You don’t need an octopus of chargers and plugs for a class set of books.

    Books require no energy to keep them working.

    Books are more visible in direct sunlight, not less.

    Books can handle temperature extremes.

    And, oh yeah, books can’t just magically disappear from your shelf without your knowledge or permission.

  3. Richard Nieporent says:

    Thanks Obi-Wandreas for you cogent comments. You are absolutely correct. The people who spread this environmental nonsense have got to be called to task.

  4. Parent2 says:

    I think I’ve pointed out before, in earlier comments, that the high cost of textbooks doesn’t arise from the cost of printing. As a matter of fact, if there were a unified, national series of textbooks for each subject in K-12, the sheer size of the printing–millions of copies, with guaranteed renewals–would make it very economical.

    It doesn’t really matter what the current model for e-textbooks is. You can predict what the final model will be. E-texts available for a limited period of time, for a large fee. They will disappear from all students’ readers at once, should a school system miss a payment–even a license renewal. If a state or city were to out of money to pay vendors, all their textbooks would disappear.

    I would predict that e-texts would be more expensive than textbooks, because they would get rid of the used textbook market, which is a significant competitor, exerting downward pressure on prices.

    I knew of roommates and friends who shared textbooks in college. That wouldn’t be possible with e-texts, because it would be very difficult to exchange custody of the textbook.

    E-readers would be a good method to share current articles, and original documents the teacher (professor) decides are needed. Many books which are out of copyright could be downloaded to an e-reader–no need to hold books and articles on reserve at the library. No need to photocopy dozens or hundreds of pages per student. A college could arrange to download journal articles to registered student readers, subject to removal after a certain period of time–unless the student decides to keep it.

    Publishers want as large a market as possible, and they want to lock in their customers. If e-readers gain in popularity, each publisher will have their own model, and you won’t be able to read Publisher A’s books on Publisher B’s machine. The value of technology is personalization, not mass delivery, but the money’s in massive, district-wide contracts.

  5. It must be hard to go to college without your own computer. I found this on a UC Davis webpage:


  6. I don’t know if today’s college kids do highlighting, make margin notes and dog-ear pages, but I certainly did and my own kids (two recent college grads) did. These are good study skills – are they possible with e-books? I certainly don’t like the fragility/battery/theft issues.

  7. Mark Roulo says:

    It doesn’t really matter what the current model for e-textbooks is. You can predict what the final model will be. E-texts available for a limited period of time, for a large fee.

    Because this has worked so well for the music/movie industries 🙂

    Whatever ebook DRM is used, it will be cracked … probably sooner rather than later. The best defense that the publishers will then have is to update each book every year AND SOMEHOW CONVINCE THE TEACHERS TO REQUIRE THE NEW BOOK EACH YEAR.

    I’m not convinced that the teachers will be very accommodating on requiring a new edition each year.

    So … I won’t be surprised to see ebook adoption slow down as the publishers discover that they aren’t selling nearly as many copies as they expect (due to cracked DRM and copying).

    -Mark Roulo

  8. Parent2 says:

    Mark Roulo, I venture to say that music and movies are inherently more interesting to teenagers than textbooks.

    The teachers will have no choice, if all the textbooks vanish 6 months after the official start of classes. Also, the public school administrators I have met mean well, but they’re 1) not up to date on technology–even afraid of technology in some cases, and 2) exceedingly risk averse. All a publisher would need to do, would be to slide in a clause of cancellation of contracts–or triggering of damages–should the DRM be cracked. The publishers will be able to track this by simple arithmetic.

  9. In theory, the idea of an e-book reader is great…you just have one “thing” to carry around with you, and you always have all of your textbooks with you.

    In practice, there are lots of problems, though. First of all, there is the cost – the Kindle DX costs $500, and the e-books themselves are not much cheaper than paper books. (And I’m not sure that paper books will come down much in cost – textbooks are mass produced in large factories, so I don’t think the savings that comes from making an e-book amounts to more than a few dollars for a large textbook. Or a few cents for a paperback.)

    Related to the cost is the fact that there is no secondary market for used textbooks. This is a huge expense for most students.

    There is also the risk of theft – I was never concerned about leaving a few textbooks on the library table when I went to the stacks, or to the restroom, or to the cafe. But there’s no way I would leave my kindle there – if it were stolen, I would have to not only replace it, but replace all of my textbooks. Related to this is the fragility of the reader – I’d have to worry about dropping it, getting it wet, etc.

    And of course it’s important to be able to write in/highlight textbooks – although this is probably capable of being solved by technology.

  10. Parent2 says:

    It’s possible to highlight a Kindle text. It’s a menu option. You select the text, and it’s highlighted. You can also type comments, linked to text sites. The Kindle keeps a record of “your notes and marks,” and you can review them as you wish.

    If someone stole your Kindle, you wouldn’t lose your textbooks. You’d only need to deregister the device from your Amazon Kindle account. You’d then register a new device to that account, and presto! All your texts would be available. The Kindle isn’t a book as such, it’s a device to access your texts on Amazon’s servers.

    I am not certain that there’d be a huge risk of Kindle theft. As they have unique identifiers, I don’t think it’d be possible to steal one, and use it on Amazon’s network. Maybe it could be cracked–I don’t know. Perhaps it could be chopped up for parts? At any rate, though, the resale value would be limited, as any e-reader supplier could limit the use of unauthorized devices.

    There is a secondary market for used books (but not used etexts). This Times article from 2005 explains how the used book market hurts publishers: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/28/technology/28scene.html.

  11. Mark Roulo says:

    Mark Roulo, I venture to say that music and movies are inherently more interesting to teenagers than textbooks.

    Well, yeah. But the ~$1K per year for books at college will probably get the attention of most students.

    When I was at college, it was rare, but not unheard of, for students to *not* purchase some textbooks, but instead use the copies in the reference library. Ditto, for xeroxing textbooks.

    Downloading a small e-book would be much easier.

    And because it is so much easier, I suspect it would be much more common.

    All a publisher would need to do, would be to slide in a clause of cancellation of contracts–or triggering of damages–should the DRM be cracked. The publishers will be able to track this by simple arithmetic.

    This only works if the ebooks are purchased by the school instead of by the students. Otherwise, the publisher could be very confident that the ebooks were being DRM-cracked and copied, but wouldn’t be able to identify individual students to go after. Given the disinclination of universities to help the RIAA, I suspect little cooperation with the book publishers.

    -Mark R

  12. Parent2 says:

    “This only works if the ebooks are purchased by the school instead of by the students.”

    Well, until my children arrive at a school which requires e-readers, it’s not on my shopping list, especially the DX. I’m also not interested in a device whose primary value is the destruction of the used textbook market. As a parent, I believe my kids can schlep a book bag (uphill both ways, in a blizzard, of course.) I don’t see how you get adoption, short of colleges requiring it–probably something like the original Dartmouth/Apple plan, whereby you purchase it through the school. In which case, the publisher could track e-readers. And at the end of your time at college, do you want a 4-year old e-reader? If you want one, you’ll want the latest model. Technical devices have a short shelf life.

    After all, most high school students won’t be able to afford private e-textbook readers. Any attempts to require purchase of same by families should be struck down by courts–free, public education, after all.

    We’re discussing two separate markets, though, college and K-12. If they’re used in K-12, I could well see high school students charged with serious crimes, for hacking their textbooks.

  13. New editions make me unhappy. They always take out that one poem or essay I always teach. Those publishers are such rats.

    Except the ones showering me with piles and piles of free books and materials this week. Thems I loooove.

  14. While I agree that e-texts are going to be of very little use in a K-12 situation, I don’t think anyone is really proposing that they would be. In K-12 you’re issuing the same text several years in a row, but to different students. E-licensing them would be complicated and probably would alter the payment structure in a bad way. Paper is better in that case.

    I also highly doubt that the used text market really exerts pricing pressure on K-12 texts. My schools bought new and used them until the started falling apart, then they bought new again. If you start buying used then you might save some money in the short term, but the books have a shorter useful lifespan so you have to buy more frequently. I imagine some schools might do it, but I doubt it is common.

    Collegiate texts are where this really shines. When I was in college I often had to buy $500 in textbooks per semester. In engineering, you’re looking at a relatively small volume of texts that are printed because of small class sizes, etc. Printing costs are higher than normal because the books are full of complicated color diagrams and useful illustrations of physical concepts. Nobody sells their books back because they’re used for reference throughout your career. Most specialized scientific fields are like this. There is a lot money that could be saved in printing costs, there is very little downward pressure from a used market, and most members of the buying public are tech savvy. About the only concern is whether I’ll still be able to use those e-books in 10 years because of the instability in the technology base.