Will College E-Textbooks Catch On?

On Friday, something sort of big happened. McGraw-Hill launched four of its biggest selling college textbooks in e-text form for the iPad, meaning you can download the whole book or just chapters. The e-reader version comes with interactive graphics and videos.

Digital textbooks are projected to account for just 1 percent of the higher education textbook market this year, according to The Wall Street Journal, but that would be twice as much as last year, and the future looks bright.

The Journal reports

"Prices will start at $2.99 per chapter and $69.99 for entire books, for a limited time. Thereafter, chapters will be $3.99 and books will start at $84.99.

"The Inkling-based e-books make full use of the iPad's color, video and touch screen. A biology text, for example, offers 3-D views of molecules such as DNA, video lectures, and interactive quizzes. Users can highlight text, take notes and share them in real time with other users, such as fellow students. Along the way, students can jump outside the text to Google or Wikipedia.

"Inkling has struck deals with other large publishers, including John Wiley & Sons Inc. and Cengage Learning, to launch future titles.

"It's unclear whether students and their parents will want to fork out $499 to buy an iPad on top of other college expenses. But [Inkling's Matt] MacInnis says that Inkling expects to see a 'blossoming of touch-enabled tablets' and that the affordability of those tablets will be broadened considerably over the next two years. 'Our bet is that those tablets will change the way people consume content,' he says."

Sure, digital textbooks can keep you from carrying a bunch of heavy books, and they sometimes have great interactive features and easy-to-use search functions.

But are digital textbooks really cheaper? Digital Trends put the claim to the test and concluded that you don't save much money:

"We signed up for Spanish, writing, philosophy, religion and political science courses. The total tab for all the books we could buy online from the SU [Syracuse University] bookstore with one click came to $368.45. This included a total of 15 titles, buying used books whenever possible.

"Then we went shopping on Amazon's Kindle store. We had intended to compare the total cost of buying print versus digital, but the digital catalog was so incomplete we ended up comparing individual titles.

"When comparing brand new, hefty textbooks, an e-reader can save a bundle. For instance, Writing Analytically would cost us $66.50 brand new from the SU book store, but we could download an e-book version instantly for just $46.30 on the Kindle. Total savings from just one book: $20.20.

"Factor in the used-book market, and savings dwindle a little more. Let's use Immigrant America: A Portrait as an example. It sells for $24.95 brand new from the Amazon store and the campus store. But the SU book store offered it to us used -- automatically -- for $18.75. Had we bought it for a Kindle, we could have scored it for $14.82 -- savings of only $3.93 over the used paper copy.

"Even those small savings dissipate when you consider that most students will sell their books after a semester. "
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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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