The Textbook is Dead, Long Live the Etextbook!

Picture by goXunuReviews/Flickr

Via Chronicle of Higher Education:

For years observers have predicted a coming wave of e-textbooks. But so far it just hasn’t happened. One explanation for the delay is that while music fans were eager to try a new, more portable form of entertainment, students tend to be more conservative when choosing required materials for their studies. For a real disruption in the textbook market, students may have to be forced to change.

That’s exactly what some companies and college leaders are now proposing. They’re saying that e-textbooks should be required reading and that colleges should be the ones charging for them. It is the best way to control skyrocketing costs and may actually save the textbook industry from digital piracy, they claim. Major players like the McGraw-Hill Companies, Pearson, and John Wiley & Sons are getting involved.

To understand what a radical shift that would be, think about the current textbook model. Every professor expects students to have ready access to required texts, but technically, purchasing them is optional. So over the years students have improvised a range of ways to dodge buying a new copy—picking up a used textbook, borrowing a copy from the library, sharing with a roommate, renting one, downloading an illegal version, or simply going without. Publishers collect a fee only when students buy new books, giving the companies a financial impetus to crank out updated editions whether the content needs refreshing or not.

It’s that last sentence that really grabbed me and was the underlying rationale for writing this post. To me, it totally screams “We need you to sustain our business models!” They can’t make students buy their textbooks, so they are going to roll them into a fee instead. I realize that it solves a legitimate problem (students who cannot afford textbooks) while thwarting a industry concern (pirated copies of textbooks), but I’m having a hard time weighing those aspects against a blanket fee that could not be avoided. I’m wondering if students would be allowed to keep their textbooks from semester to semester, since some can act as a resource for advanced topcis.

(For the efforts of full disclosure, I did borrow a textbook rather than buy it for a class one semester.)

The questions I have are whether college and university libraries would be given the option of adding either the electronic copy and/or the physical book to their collections. That idea may seem rather inane under this model, but I’m looking at it from the angle of historical progression; as in, how people’s thoughts and theories on subjects changed over time through different textbooks and editions. It’s the preservation of the logical progression of the thinking of a subject. I expect to be controverted on this point; I can see academic librarians reading this and saying to themselves, “We have enough old crap as it is, we certainly don’t need old textbooks as it is.” So, I’m sure someone will be happy to set me straight.

Moreover, I would be curious to hear reactions from academic librarians. Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Or just a thing? How does it impact you?

20 thoughts on “The Textbook is Dead, Long Live the Etextbook!

  1. I’m not an academic library, but a couple things strike me.

    One, I myself am the type of learner that I like taking/writing notes etc. I’m just not sure if the electronic format would work best for my learning style. Is my style because I’m an old? Or are there styles that this won’t work for? Maybe that’s why students want traditional textbooks.

    Second, because of that, I notice it saying first that students (NOT professors) are being conservative and so the students would be forced to change.

    Why, with other things, are we all “listen to the patron/customer!” but here its “big brother knows best?”

    • Excellent point on notation. As someone who took science classes, I marked the hell out of it. I’m sure it’s true for other majors and their beloved books.

      And here’s another thing: would the textbooks be available on every ereader? Could I download my literature books into the Kindle and my science books into an iPad? How will these be distributed? At the rate the ereaders are dropping, they may end up as part of the fee.

      I think it solves an equal number of problems that it creates.

    • Electronic textbooks are not innately incompatible with annotation, although devices’ support for it varies. Personally, I think that there hasn’t been a ton of demand for annotation because ereaders have not yet been available at a price point that makes sense for the student market (either university or K-12), but once we see decent sub-$99 readers there will be a lot more pressure for student-friendly features.

  2. Textbooks are the one place where I can support e-books catching on. Less the student has to lug around, much easier to search for the information they need, and no need to shell out $59.99 for the 13th edition of a book, which has one more semi-colon than the 12th edition. I don’t think a mandatory fee for access to them is too bad, as it’s easier to plan for (you know you’re going to pay that fee every year, as opposed to not knowing exactly how much you’re going to be spending on books), but not every student has access to an e-reader. I know that UNC Chapel Hill requires that all students have laptops, and the cost of the laptop is factored into their freshman tuition. Maybe something like this?

  3. for the record, I was comp si major, english & math minors. and then law school & library school…and yeah. for different reasons, I marked up all of them. the only ones I still have, tho, are the english ones.

    the which reader/ device point is really significant, especially when it comes to things like low vision, dyslexia, etc. I’ve heard terrific things about iPad — it’s out of the box ready for blind/low vision users! and the increased font size for the entire device not just the books is pretty impressive. I’ve had some students delighted that it turns every book into a large print book….if it’s available. but, other blind/low vision readers have said “eh, doesn’t work for me” and I’ve heard the touch screen really doesn’t work for people using breath switches, etc.

    • I think this is a really important point. Earlier this year the National Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind sued Arizona State University for having students use Kindles, which are not completely accessible. Even though various ebook platforms are being improved, it will be a long time before universities can require all students to use ebooks without disadvantaging students with various disabilities, if it is ever possible at all. (This is also an issue with distance learning:

      As has been said multiple times, including on this blog, why does it always have to be digital vs. print? The more formats information is available in, the better.

      • I agree that the “print v digital, who will win” is a false conflict. Why not both?

        Also, some of the stuff I’ve read have complained that ebooks are too much like print books and don’t take full advantage of what digital offers.

        If I were to place bets, I think the future will have print books and books identical to print books that are available for ereaders — but that a new story/entertainment format will develop and be just as healthy alongside the existing “book” format. Sort of like how TV has yet to kill off either film or plays.

      • It’s only a print versus digital because it would become a college fee for the digital with no mention of the print edition. And I agree with you. Now, I can imagine a policy in which there is a fee added for college books, but you are given the option of getting the print book as well as the digital copy. It could be something that is addressed during registration and delivered at the first day of class.

        There is some logistics to this, but I think it works towards a “print on demand” ideal for textbooks.

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  5. A couple this I would like to say. I’m not an academic “librarian” but I’m a cataloger in the off-site library of a large academic library so I have a good idea of what the library keeps as part of its “preservation of knowledge” mission.

    From a collection development standpoint, academic libraries generally do not keep copies of textbooks required for courses for two reasons: (1) those items are rarely used outside of coursework and (2) out-dated information, especially in the sciences, can turn out to be “misinformation” for inexperienced researchers.

    You could argue that these textbook provide evidence of a history of scholarship or research, but let’s not forget that textbooks are secondary and often tertiary sources of information. They are someone’s summary of someone else’s research which, for a historian, is a poor substitute for the original research. Given the choice, and many libraries are facing this choice with all types of materials given shrinking budgets, most would choose to favor providing access to primary research.

    So textbook purchases are not part of a library’s acquisitions budget. Putting all comments about the serials crisis aside, subscriptions to textbooks would be an additional continuing cost that I think many libraries would be reluctant to take on… especially if their subscription costs are equivalent or proportionate to their monograph costs (i.e. big $$)

    There’s more that could be said, including DRM, platform issues, and the ultimate mission of academic libraries, but I’ll leave it with the collection dev. perspective for now. Thanks for passing along the article!

    • PS- I should note that I’m not against textbooks moving to e-reader platforms. I think its a great idea! especially if it reduces costs for students and makes backpacks lighter. I just hope that administrations don’t expect libraries to pay for it, because that would indicate a shift in their view of what the library’s ultimate mission is supposed to be, which may or may not be what we want our mission to be.

    • Thanks for your comment, John! You are right about acquisitions; it was just a passing thought in my head in trying to make sense of it.

      Now, here’s the real kicker I can foresee: would professors be allowed to have ereserves added to the student’s ereader? Then there would be no excuse for them not to have the supplimental reading. BUT, of course, then how much is the fee to add those articles? What would it take to get permissions or pay for those article contents that built into library fees before?

  6. I’m a special librarian (a hospital librarian to be more specific) but ebooks, especially etextbooks are a hot button issue for us as well.

    Every year the library orders core textbooks for our new residents and this was the first year we considered offering them electronically. Most medical books are not available for the Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc, so we looked into other options. Having ebooks that are available for use in the library and at home isn’t an issue, but having an individual copy apparently is. We could only find one platform, SkyScape, that would let us do what we wanted, but then we couldn’t get all the books we wanted in the electronic form. The other problem is you pay for the book, but you only have access for one year. Clearly, that’s a major problem.

    Many of the issues we are facing are problems specific to the medical publishing community, but I do have to say that ebooks, especially etextbooks are becoming very popular because of their searchability and portability. Who wants to carry around a 2 volume (500 page each!) set of textbooks when they can have it on their iPhone?

    • Thanks for the comment, Elizabeth. My question to your comment is whether getting ebooks under they were under your conditions would be a possibility. I mean, to be honest, if you can’t get what you want out of a deal, then why settle for some inferior also-rans?

  7. Our smallish academic library does not carry textbooks for the reasons John Jackson mentions above– the expense, the incredibly short shelf-life, etc.

    I think that e-textbooks are a wonderful option; my college roommate could have been saved a lot of back strain if she’d been able to carry her four huge business textbooks in digital format instead of a bursting-at-the-seams messenger bag. I wouldn’t have shown up to class realizing that I’d grabbed the wrong book on my way out the door if my lit-class texts all been on a Nook or something similar.

    Students already pay enough mandatory fees, however, and I am against forcing students to adopt a particular format. Some students will love digital textbooks; some may want to stick with paper and highlighters, at least until annotating capabilities are perfected. Why should we take away students’ freedom to access the information in the way that makes the most sense to them as individuals? Oh, wait. Because we can make more money off of them that way…

    • Considering how college tuitions rose because (surprise) they were able to get more loans out of student loan companies, your last line is a no-brainer. Since the cutbacks to state schools, additional ways to generate revenue and potentially solve a problem that can lead people to dropping college is a savory option.

  8. At the last academic library where I worked, our policy was to not collect any textbooks. It was a relatively recent policy, as the many 15-year-old business and nursing textbooks in the stacks attested, but it was one about which we were very firm. As John mentioned, the cost was prohibitive and the content quickly became worthless. We were not, however, a research institution, so the value of the historical progression of a topic was less relevant to us.

    Requiring students to purchase or “rent” e-textbooks would affect course reserves quite a bit in most institutions, whether or not they were research libraries. Even libraries that do not collect textbooks may have professors’ copies on reserve for the students to use. Would that still be necessary if students were all required to have access to the texts in digital format? I’m not sure. It would be ideal if academic libraries could place e-readers on reserve, stocked with all the textbook titles in use that semester — that would provide access for students who had forgotten their e-reader or just needed to look up a quick quotation or fact, without putting an undue strain on libraries’ time, budget, or shelf space. It may be a redundant service, though, if all the students always had their e-readers with them.

    • I really like your idea for having ereaders be available to students who forgot a textbook or want to look something up or whatnot. That sounds like a very sensible solution and something that could save some time/life for the people who use (and the librarians who deal with it). I can imagine a series of devices that are available that are ‘best fit’ to the material (kindles for text only, iPad for graphic heavy, etc).

      A very cool idea!

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