Thursday, December 8, 2011

The False Economy of E-Textbooks

It's time for another round of coordinating the library's textbooks-on-reserve service here. Every semester I look to see if we're any closer to moving away from the print -- I keep seeing various news stories about the impending dominance of the electronic versions. I notice that our school book store is increasingly promoting the online versions too. On the supply side, things do seem to be heading in that direction. The message to students seems to be all about saving money, which I could see being very persuasive at the community college. In the long run, however, I have to wonder if there is truly a cost saving.

First, there is the issue of portability. Online classes aside, if everyone taking classes had a tablet or a laptop, the electronic version might (might!) rival the print version. But not everyone does, and not all classrooms have computers. Even the number of public computers available on campus seems to be shrinking. The resulting level of inconvenience should be apparent to anyone.

Then there is the issue of durability, both of the book and the book's content. An online textbook might not face the same risk of damage or loss as a printed one, but switching access on and off depending on whether a bill has been paid doesn't seem wonderful either. Plus let's not forget Penguin's recent maneuvers or Amazon's remote deletion of the Orwell books a couple of years ago.

Also I wonder about content retention after students no longer have access to the book (i.e after their temporary access expires). I know people like to imagine they are in control of their computing and could hack into ebooks to copy and keep them forever, but actually the trend in computing seems to be moving away from that, thanks largely to smart phones.It seems like if you wanted to review something after the class ended, you would need to make another purchase. (Or heck, I don't know; maybe students will be savvy enough to print out the entire books when they do have the access.)

As far as the publishing business goes, e-textbooks in their current form seem like a great deal. The pesky used market is effectively eliminated, access to student customers is newly unconstrained, and there's a captive audience if professors make the texts mandatory. The question is, will consumers bite?

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