Friday, October 09, 2009

electronic textbooks and textbook costs

College textbook costs have been skyrocketing in the past decade. As a professor who has worked diligently to find the lowest cost books possible, often forgoing textbooks to use quality trade books (at $14 and $15 dollars a piece) in upper level courses, I had not really understood why students were complaining so much about textbook prices. Then I had to foot the bill for my husband's textbooks this semester -- $600 for two classes (anatomy and developmental psychology). No wonder students are complaining, that's simply outrageous.

Textbook companies have been trying to encourage the use of electronic texts, touting them as a solution to the rising cost of textbooks. The use of electronic versions of textbooks in on-line classes has caught on rapidly, and many colleges, such as Northwest Missouri, are experimenting with the use of portable electronic text readers such as Kindle (from and the Sony PRS-505 e-reader.

There are a number of good arguments in favor of electronic texts (such as the "save the trees" argument), and a number of good arguments against electronic texts (they don't really fit the way students study - jumping from one page to another 20 pages away and back again). But the primary argument in favor of electronic texts -- that they will save students money -- just does not hold water.

Let's begin with the cost of the readers. The Kindle DX (the larger format Kindle suitable for use in reading large format college textbooks like anatomy and development psychology) is $489 plus tax and shipping. Smaller Kindle readers are $279, while the Sony PRS-505 e-reader (same dimensions as the smaller Kindle reader) are $299.

Second there is the terms and conditions under which students rent textbooks -- yes, RENT not buy. My husband's hardback traditional copy of Anatomy and Physiology, 5th Edition by Saladin cost $200 from the college bookstore. It would cost $98.50 from (one of the lower cost etextbook sellers). However, for this fifty percent cost reduction, the student only rents the book for 360 days. That's not even a full year. Many e-textbooks rental period is for 180 days or less. At the end of the rental period the textbook becomes inaccessible.

Most of the students taking Anatomy and Physiology (like my husband), are planning to take the second part of the course which uses the same book. If they can fit the two parts of the course into two sequential semesters, the 360 day subscription might be sufficient to get them through two semesters. But should something interfere with taking the classes sequentially, they would have to re-purchase the electronic text to have it available for the second semester. That means they have to pay $98.50 TWICE to rent the same book. Now there is no price advantage to the electronic version at all.

At our college, most students taking Anatomy and Physiology are also doing so as preliminary to entering an allied health field (nursing, respiratory therapy, radiography, and physical therapy are the fields at my college). Students going into these fields frequently keep their anatomy textbooks to use for reference while pursing their career courses. Electronic textbooks cannot be "kept" -- they expire in 360 (or 180) days.

Those students who do not keep their texts for reference almost always sell them. While the payback on selling textbooks is not 50 percent of the cost, it still does lessen the overall cost. eTextbooks cannot easily or readily be sold to others. Electronic texts on readers like Kindle and the Sony PRS-505 e-reader cannot be transferred from the device. Electronic text that are purchased on-line can be viewed from many machines, but what student with any sense would want to purchase a rental agreement that could make the book inaccessible before the course is over (or even before the course has barely begun).

This last fact (the inability to sell your electronic book) leads inexorably to the most important way in which a shift to electronic textbooks would negatively impact the overall cost of college textbooks -- the entire supply of used textbooks, that many students depend upon purchasing to reduce their costs, would dry up. All students would have to buy "new" in an all electronic textbook world.

Since all students would be buying "new" textbooks, textbook publishers would no longer have an incentive to come out with new editions every two years. This practice is almost entirely driven by the desire to limit the sales of used books which cut into textbook publishers profits.

Textbook publishers will have a steadier, more reliable stream of revenue (no competition from the used book sellers), and substantially lower costs. Publishers won't have to pay faculty to write new editions as often, they will eliminate many resource costs (paper, ink, presses) and transportation costs. While this may prevent textbook costs from rising quite as quickly, chances are, businesses being what businesses are, most of the publishers' savings will become publishers' profits rather than student savings.