Published Online 1 April 2009 | Nature 458, 568-570 (2009) | doi:10.1038/458568a
Undergraduate textbooks are going digital. Declan Butler asks how this will shake up student reading habits and the multi-billion-dollar print textbook market.
The rumble of textbooks thumping on to the desks of a university lecture theatre, the rustle of turning pages, the groan of backpack straps hoisting 10 kilograms of textbooks — these sounds may soon be an echo of the past. This semester, 1,200 students at the University of Texas at Austin (UTA) are foregoing printed textbooks in a pilot trial of Amazon Kindle e-readers stuffed with texts in electronic form. At NorthWest Missouri State University (NWMSU) in Maryville, classes are testing textbooks on Sony e-readers, as well as on the students' own laptops, as part of plans to roll out e-textbooks across all courses within 5 years. The list goes on: within the past 18 months or so, as textbook publishers have begun to make more and more titles available online, universities worldwide have begun to experiment with e-textbooks.
"E-textbooks are not yet mainstream — but they are on the edge of a breakthrough into the mainstream," says Kevin Hegarty, UTA chief financial officer. [snip]
Beyond Black And White
On the hardware front, e-textbooks are reaping the benefits of rapid innovation in electronic readers for documents and novels. Most of the latest generation of e-readers, such as Amazon's Kindle 2 and Sony's PRS-700, ... .These displays produce text and images that rival the brightness and clarity of ink on paper, which makes reading them far more comfortable than reading text on the liquid crystal display screens of laptops and desktop computers. [snip] The first generation of such e-readers, launched less than three years ago, has already sparked mass uptake of e-books, and they could potentially do the same for e-textbooks.
Another drawback of current e-readers is that they have small black-and-white displays, just a little larger than 9 by 12 centimetres. This makes them unsuited to most science textbooks, which typically have large pages and colourful graphics. "The market is not likely to expand until the e-readers improve," says Hegarty.
Many large textbook companies are holding off from experimenting with e-readers until that happens. But manufacturers promise that big screen, colour e-readers are on the way within a year or two. If so, this will be the tipping point at which e-textbooks take off, predicts Hegarty. "It will be a big leap forwards," he says.
If the price is right. Dedicated e-readers currently start at prices of around US$350, points out Joe Esposito, a digital-media consultant and former chief executive of Encyclopaedia Britannica online. Reading an e-textbook on a laptop might not be as easy on the eyes, but most students already own a laptop — complete with a colour display. "The student laptop will prove a potent competitive entry barrier to other devices for reading e-textbooks," says Esposito. [snip].
Kindling A Revolution
Like the music industry, textbook publishers have been reluctant to put content online because of concerns about piracy, and the risk that it might undermine sales of their traditional print editions. If they are now willing to do so, it is largely because such concerns have been offset by the realization that e-textbooks may give them a way to cut into the largest threat to their profits: the huge market for second-hand textbooks.
Thanks to the Internet, what was once the preserve of local used bookstores is now a vast and sophisticated international online market. The US market for new textbooks is estimated at around $5.5 billion, but the parallel market for used books is around one-third of that, says Esposito. Publishers hope that by offering lower priced e-textbooks they can obliterate the used-textbook market, ... .
By far the largest market for textbooks is the United States, and the companies that win in this space are also likely to be those that will dominate worldwide. Because of this, it is also likely to be where the evolution of e-textbook business models plays out. The biggest player is CourseSmart, a consortium in Belmont, California, created by the five publishers who together account for roughly 85% of the global print textbook market: Pearson; Cengage Learning; McGraw-Hill Education; John Wiley & Sons; and the Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group. [snip]
CourseSmart sells its e-textbooks at about half the price of its print versions, and so far has made more than 5,800 e-textbooks available at its website, or about one-third of the world's most popular textbooks. Students who buy the books are constrained by digital rights management. [snip].
Nonetheless, student purchases of CourseSmart e-textbooks are growing rapidly, says Devine. A survey by NWMSU in February found that, all things being equal, about half the students would prefer print textbooks and about a quarter would prefer e-textbooks, whereas the remainder had no strong feeling. But when asked what they would do if buying a textbook themselves, almost 80% said they would opt for the cheaper e-textbook offering
Ongoing tests of CourseSmart e-textbooks by the University System of Ohio show that they reduce costs — the average US student forks out some $900 annually on print textbooks — and students using them perform just as well as when using paper versions, ... .
But Make Textbooks Affordable, a coalition of US student groups, thinks that students are being fleeced, and that the price of 'renting' an electronic file, which costs little for publishers to distribute, is excessive. Indeed, if an e-textbook typically costs half that of the print version, the saving is less impressive ... .
Charging half the price of a printed textbook for an e-book that expires is "far too costly", says Hegarty. Rather than leaving students to act as isolated agents in the marketplace, he says, universities, or consortia of universities, should step in and use their bulk-purchasing clout to force down prices by negotiating site licences to e-textbooks, just as many do for online versions of scientific journals. E-textbooks procured this way could be made free at the point of use to all on campus, or for flat fees included in tuition fees. [snip]
Such a model is being tested by the UK National E-books Observatory project. The project has licensed from publishers 36 e-textbooks in business and management, medicine, media studies and engineering from September 2007 to August 2009 at a cost of £600,000, and made them available free to all UK universities. It is the future, says Liam Earney, collections team manager of the Joint Information Systems Committee, based in London ... .
A more radical idea is to offer textbooks for free, without rights restrictions. A range of free, open textbooks are already available for download at WikiBooks ; the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources' Open TextBooks Project; and Connexions, created in 1999 by electrical engineer Richard Baraniuk of Rice University in Houston Texas. These texts typically take the form of modules written by many expert authors.
Still, perhaps 'free' and 'profitable' need not be a contradiction in terms. One group of veteran textbook publishing executives is trying to put open textbooks on a solid commercial footing. In 2007 they created Flat World Knowledge, ... . The texts are written by some 40 domain experts who will be paid 20% of royalties. The company also plans to make its content available via Kindle and other e-readers. [snip].
By making its content free for reuse, Flat World Knowledge will allow lecturers to splice and dice its content. "More and more professors want to teach from 'customized' textbooks, which are aggregations of various materials, not just what a publisher has aggregated in a single book," says Hegarty. He says that the UTA has made an electronic tool available for academics to aggregate any licensed library materials, including scientific journals, and 'publish' them to their students as their textbook materials. "I think that this is where textbooks are headed."
In the larger sense, of course, no one really knows where e-textbooks are headed. They just know that things are moving very fast. About all that's certain, says Klute, is that the next chapter of e-textbooks is now being written. "E-textbooks as we currently know them will look drastically different five years from now".
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