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?