Rise of the digital college textbook

The new Amazon Kindle Fire tablet.

Kim Spencer, a graduate student at Columbia, is purchasing books for her social work courses. But they aren't cheap. How does she feel about the price?

"It'll be difficult to answer that and not use expletives, so we'll just leave it at that," she says with a laugh. Luckily, Spencer is buying used, "always used, if possible."

College bookstores, like the Barnes & Noble at Columbia University, have become very deft at offering students cheap alternatives to costly new books.

"With 700 locations nationwide, we have the ability to move books around to meet needs," Jade Roth, vice president of textbooks for Barnes & Noble, says describing how the company sells its used books.

And forget buying used books. Students can now rent books for a semester. Roth heaves a computer science textbook off the shelf, "this is a typical big, heavy bound textbook, it's $156 new, you can rent it used for $70."

"Both used and rentals have been around for a long long time, but in the last couple years rentals have skyrocketed," says Kathy Mickey, managing editor for the Education Group at Simba Information.  More students are renting books than buying used ones.

This is great for students. Not great for publishers.

The bookshelf arms race

"Publishers are no longer making money," says Frederic Mishkin, professor of economics at Columbia University and author of some of the country's leading finance textbooks. 

This has sparked the bookshelf arms race. Publishers dealt with the fact that they only make money the first year a new textbook edition is out by raising prices. Students then bought fewer textbooks. Then, publishers raised prices again.

"Some prices are astronomical," says Mishkin. "My book sells for $225. That’s just a lot of money."

He says textbook publishers are like the music industry after Napster showed up: "Cengage is now in bankruptcy, McGraw-Hill's textbook publishing has been sold off to private equity firms. They need a new economic model."

A new model

That new economic model is displayed on a computer screen in front of Mishkin. It's an animated book designed for an e-reader or computer, where complex economics graphs are described step-by-step by audio and animated video presentations.

Ideally this book would be entirely digital, it'll have built-in homework and quizzes that adapt to what a student understands.  But perhaps most importantly, it will be subscription-based.

"The industry is on the brink of a significant transition from print to digital," says Barnes & Noble's Roth.

"That tipping point is happening right at this point," says Paul Gentile, head of digital at the publisher Pearson. "There will be a 50 percent breakthrough by 2015 of people preferring the all-digital model."

Key to this, he says, will be convincing teachers and professors that the new textbook technology will improve learning outcomes, which Gentile insists it will.

"Interactive content is better from a retention standpoint and overall learning modality level," he says. "There's no doubt a student will understand the content more because they interact and work with that content in ways they have not been able to previously."

But the most attractive selling point for digital textbooks may be the price.

Shelving high prices?

"A digital subscription model does not incur the same sort of overhead that we might have to take on," argues Gentile.

Publishers also appear to be pushing for school-wide adoption, says Simba’s Kathy Mickey. The school district in Munster, Ind., switched 6,000 students to digital textbooks in 2011.  Mooresville, S.C., has moved in the same direction. But it's unclear whether that will be the primary venue for e-textbooks at the college level. Professors value individual flexibility in curriculum.

"They've always had that right and it's not one they'll give up easily," says Mickey.

"I do think there's probably going to be a steady growth in this,” she says, though she doesn't see e-textbooks taking off quite as quickly as publishers would like. 

Still, something has to give.

“Everybody is trying to find the way to the future.”

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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