Electronic textbooks could feasibly rock

Photo by Sanja Gjenero.
Photo by Sanja Gjenero.

The idea of using digital textbooks has been with me since my first semester at college, when I spent $600 on textbooks and staggered limply under their combined weight for four months. All of them were good only for that semester, and when I sold them back to the campus bookstore I got less than $300. One of them I couldn’t even sell back, because the teacher wasn’t offering the class the next semester (also, it was badly written and not worth the $20 I spent on it).

It was at this point I turned to buying my textbooks used and cheap, and I saved lots of money. I lorded over the fact that I was bypassing most of the insanity that is textbook publishing. Change one little thing in the text, make it a new edition and charge triple the price of the old edition? Brilliant!

Or evil and irresponsible. Seriously! I just buy the old edition. My psychology text for the spring, for instance, is $40 used. The last edition? Only $4. I’m going with the $4 edition. I win. Kinda.

But that’s not enough now. I am still spending upwards of $100 on textbooks each semester, even buying used, and it’s getting tiring. I still lose money selling them to someone else and it takes more effort to do that than the money is worth. I want a solution besides the library (though that’s certainly a good option) and borrowing a friend’s copy: I want to get all my textbooks for free and I want them in digital format.

Madness? Nay, it is but hopeful wishes. There is a movement, gaining popularity as the economy worsens and textbook prices grow, advocating publishing textbooks online. Unfortunately, the etextbook business is as fraught with problems as the ebook business. Electronic textbooks are frequently crippled by DRM and ridiculous viewing restrictions, and furthermore they can’t be sold back one you’re done with them. They are often just as expensive as paper textbooks and some of them even have restrictions on how long you can use the etextbook.

It is completely ridiculous to expect people to pay $40 for a textbook they can’t keep and can only use on one computer. People still do it, but people still buy DRM’d ebooks and music, too– because they don’t have any choice, at least not without going into copyright infringement territory. The only way I can see DRM’d textbooks would be useful is when they are provided free to students, such as those in high school. The school still has to pay to use them, and by proxy taxpayers do too, but that’s still a little better than forcing students to pay exorbitant fees for a practically useless product.

There are definitely a few problems with schools paying for digital editions of textbooks, especially in a college. No doubt book publishers will be clamoring to make deals where schools are only allowed to use their products and none other. That sort of thing is despicable, but I don’t have an answer for it except that colleges would need to keep buying from all houses depending on what professors wanted (like they do now) and ignore the bribes.

Or they could go an entirely different direction and encourage using free etextbooks instead of paid and/or paper ones. A few people have this idea where they provide free and well-written textbooks to anyone who wants to use them, available for download and unrestricted by DRM. Professor R. Preston McAfee, for instance, wrote an open-source economics textbook and published it online. Anyone can read and use it, and some colleges like Harvard and Claremont-McKenna have already done so. However, it’s not wide-scale and it’s not nearly talked about enough.

With free etextbooks students wouldn’t have to worry about selling back their “books,” something that’s impossible to do now anyway. Cheapo texts are a little better– I still have some of my old textbooks simply because they cost me $10 and it hurts less to keep them around than the $50 ones. If someone could come up with a clever way to sell back ebooks, or to sell them to someone else, while not sticking on nasty DRM but not letting them resell the same book over and over again, I’m sure that someone would be a millionaire within a year.

But what about profit?! I hear some of you cry. (Probably you business people.) No-one will be able to make money with cheap etextbooks. Bah! I say. According to BusinessWeek, publishers of paper textbooks “only make 7 cents on every dollar that’s spent on a new textbook. The rest goes to authors, marketers, printers, college stores, and shipping companies.” By publishing textbooks online, companies can cut printers, shipping companies, and even college stores out of the equation. Cheap textbooks, free of all DRM and some form of sell-back will attract a lot of students and teachers, and the publishers would soon be making plenty of moola.

As a side note, I want to mention that the people who write free etextbooks don’t worry about money; they worry about spreading knowledge. They worry about everyone being able to afford that knowledge, and at the price of FREE anyone with access to a computer can learn from those free books. If textbook publishers worried about the same things, I’m sure less people would hate them.

More reading on electronic textbooks: Course Correction: How Digital Textbooks are Off Track and How to Set Them Straight | E-Textbooks — for Real This Time?

So, what do you all think? If you’re a college student (or an independent learner), would you be interested in using free etextbooks for classes? Have you used an etextbook before?

0 thoughts on “Electronic textbooks could feasibly rock”

  1. Heh, I’m cheap, cheap, cheap this time around with textbooks. I went to uni in the ’90s to do a science degree where there are new editions every year and each course has anywhere from $100-$300 worth of textbooks, lab packs, etc.

    Not to sound like a geezer (which I am just for using that word), but there was no Internet when I went (until my last year and even then there were no pictures 😉 and no online ordering (and cell phones were bricks, but I digress). If you were lucky and an old edition was acceptable, good luck finding one.

    This time is much, much cheaper (also helps that publishing/writing programs use non-textbook textbooks a lot of the time so there’s not always the issue of new editions). The local post-secondary libraries are starting to get digital editions of books that you can check out and return. Not the same as your own copy, but great for classes that only use 10% of the book anyway.

    I also get them from amazon since I can check online to see what textbooks will be used and order ahead to get a (sometimes) huuuuuge discount over the college bookstore. I think on the whole I’ve saved 50-100% on textbooks in any given term.

    If there was an e-ink reader with large pages that retained highlighting and notes, I could see going all digital. Right now, depending on the subject, digital textbooks may or may not work because of screen size.

    As for free, again it depends on the subject. With subjects that are relatively static at the undergraduate level (history for example) it could work, but with subjects that are updated constantly (some sciences, like genetics) it would be hard to do free because the number of updates needed would be so time consuming.

    But then again, I could be completely wrong. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes, but somehow I don’t think it’s going to end up doing me much good as a student unless I decide go back to school, again after this degree (noooooooo!).

  2. I agree with Ann’s comment — if there were a good way to do highlighting and notes, I think being able to go digital with textbooks would be interesting. I’m not sure if I’d want to do it now; I have a hard time reading extended long passages on the computer, and often end up printing out the PDFs that I get assigned. I’m not sure if I’d like an entire textbook where I thought I needed to do that. But if there were a good way to read it, a good way to make notations, and a good way to search back to find notations, I think it’s definitely an option.


  3. Ann and Kim: Yes, usability of the actual text, including notes, highlighting, and even graphs and charts, is something that will have to be worked on if publishing houses ever want etextbooks to get more popular. It’d help if users could actually USE the books on their ebook readers, as quite a few of them support note-taking and highlighting, plus it’s much more comfortable to read big chunks of text on a dedicated reader than on a computer. But then, the readers would have to support images as well, and that’s not something all of them can do right now (though I think most of them are shifting that way).

    I have a post I’m working on for next Wednesday about all the things that need to be fixed/happening for etextbooks to become more popular and furthermore USABLE, and as it turns out practically everything the paid etextbook publishers are doing is wrong. *cough* But maybe somebody out there will listen to me, I dunno. I’m full of hope. 😉

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