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?