From the Ad Nauseum Department: The Digital vs. Printed Textbooks Debate

27 Oct

Another article about the high price of printed textbooks cropped up yesterday at The Chronicle of Higher Education that once again, as occurs in most discussions about this issue, missed several key points. In particular, Jeffrey Young, the article’s author, points to initiatives such as Flat World Knowledge and/or bulk licensing of ebook titles from major textbook publishers via course materials fees to help students out with this dilemma. And, while there can be something gained with an outside/naive perspective—be from Young or the college administrators he quotes—I’m ever amazed by some of the assumptions made about textbook publishers in general and digital textbooks in particular.

Things to keep in mind when looking to digital textbook technology as a panacea for textbook pricing ills include:

1) Young’s article points not to the demise of the printed textbook as we know them but, rather, the demise of the college bookstore as a middleman for textbook sales.

2) Do not expect any altruism—other than token lip service—from major textbook publishers about new technology lowering prices for students over the long haul. Textbook publishers will be willing to nominally lower prices on e-textbooks only (and only in the short term) if by cutting out discounts to college bookstores they can retain the profit margins they currently enjoy. Plus, with widespread use of digital textbooks, they’ll destroy the used book market in one fell swoop which means even more profits.

3) Time-based subscriptions (180 days, whatever) for access to either websites or downloads of textbook content (or even to gain access to individual chapters) is ultimately already dead in the water. Sure, publishers will push this option—who wouldn’t love the idea of a student having to purchase again (and again) a subscription to a book if retaking a course or needing to use it in another class—but when you see trade ebooks at the de facto industry standard price of $9.99 across a variety of e-reader platforms, this is the real future of textbook sales and distribution.

4) Ultimately, if textbook publishers were actually concerned about lower prices, they’d lower prices . . . but won’t because it would impact the bottom line. I mean, really. We publish 250 page, B&W interior, softback textbooks that typically retail for $30-$50. Sure, it’s made it a hard slog for us to be financially self-sustaining but a key component of our mission is to produce quality textbooks at prices that students can afford. This is the real deal in action, not lip service.

Certainly, while Young’s article doesn’t address the points above, many of the readers who commented on it do see the glaring challenges/limitations of digital textbooks. In particular, I’d take suggest taking a look these comments that follow the article itself:

#4: “About half the states that collect sales tax on course materials transactions including Indiana and Florida mentioned in this article as well as California and Texas will loose [sic] tax revenue that funds colleges and universities if the schools switch to a fee model.”

#18: “Colleges are trying to capture some of the profits of book sells [sic] as well by signing anti-competitive agreements with bookstores that prohibit instructors from telling their students about alternative sources of textbooks. . . . Flatworld [sic] Knowledge has 10.5 million in venture funding. You know they are going to raise prices significantly to pay back their investors down the road.”

#30: “Although a price break can be realized using e-textbooks, if the material is needed longer than the initial subscription period, the result can be more expensive than a traditional book.”

#34: “No one has mentioned anywhere the studies indicating that students retain 40% less of what they read online compared to reading a physical text.”

Stay posted . . . more details as events warrant!


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