Textbooks make a digital leap

Amazon, which got its start selling books online, announced this year that, for the first time, its digital books had outsold paper books. This trend of going digital does not hold true for all books: While many popular consumer books have successfully made the switch into the new format, textbooks are still widely read on paper.

Textbooks are gaining, though, as publishers take advantage of the popularity of tablets like the Kindle and iPad, expanding their catalogues and offering products like rental digital books that expire after a semester or two.

The potential for digital growth is leading publishers to experiment with products that stretch the boundaries of traditional textbooks, slowly turning away from static text and images toward a multimedia, intuitive approach, publishers say.

“Textbooks as e-books ought to be seen as a stepping stone to the future,” said Mark Majurey of Taylor & Francis, a textbook publisher in Britain.

Digital textbooks are any books that can be downloaded to an e-reader or computer or those that can be read online using a Web browser. While no one keeps precise numbers of digital textbook sales globally, a number of companies have seen similar growth patterns and nearly identical market share.

According to the Student Monitor, a private student market research company based in New Jersey, about 5 percent of all textbooks acquired in the autumn in the United States were digital textbooks. That is more than double the 2.1 percent of the spring semester.
Kathy Micky, a senior analyst at Simba Information, a research company, said digital textbooks were expected “to be the growth driver for the industry in the future.” Her company estimates that by 2013, digital textbooks will make up 11 percent of the textbook market revenue.

Though some textbook publishers made some of their textbooks available in digital formats a decade ago, it is only recently that the market has picked up. Responding to the new demand, many academic publishers have made almost everything they sell available in electronic format.

“All of our books are available as digital,” said Bruce Spatz, head of digital development at John Wiley & Sons, a major academic publisher.  Other entities expanding into the market include Chegg, a major paper textbook rental company in the United States, which started offering digital, downloadable books this year.

Perhaps the biggest change could come from the rise of electronic rentals. Digital textbooks can be made to expire – often between six and 18 months after the initial purchase – which means they cannot be resold like traditional books. Most digital textbooks also only license the first owner, and sophisticated software ensures that copies cannot be passed around. These measures help ensure that prices for digital textbooks stay well bellow the cost of the paper versions, publishers say, even though those who print traditional paper books might take issue with that.

Early this summer, Amazon announced that it was partnering with three major textbook companies to offer rentals of digital textbooks for even shorter terms. When Amazon announced its program, which lets students rent a book even for 30 days, it said students could save 80 percent off the price of a new printed textbook.

Students say digital rentals can be good and bad.  “It was cheaper than actually buying the book,” said Rebecca Johnson, a senior at George Mason University, who bought her first electronic textbook during her junior year. But she pointed out that the digital version was not permanent.  “You have it for that class time, but you don’t have it forever,” Johnson said. Her textbook expired 180 days after she purchased it.

Jill Ambrose, the chief marketing officer at CourseSmart, says sections of rental books can often be printed off and kept. Also, most publishers will make the printed version of the textbook available at a big discount to students who have purchased the digital version.
For some students, the limited-time access can represent a real downside to digital books.

“I usually keep the book, it helps me with my other classes,” Johnson said. If she ever needs her microeconomics book again, she said, she will have to subscribe again to the online digital version.  Some experts question whether textbooks are ready to follow regular books onto tablets, readers, laptops and other devices.

“Electronic textbooks will eventually be the norm, but it’s going to be quite a bit more time than folks anticipate,” said Charlotte P. Lee, a professor at the University of Seattle.
In May, Lee released the results of a study of graduate students showing that a majority eschewed portable devices after trying them for some months. Students complained that the traditional reading, scanning and note-taking habits – developed and honed by learning from paper textbooks – were not easily applied to tablets.

Lee explained that while the popularity of digital textbooks was sure to expand, learning from digital devices – especially standard consumer devices like the Kindle or the iPad – presented problems.

While traditional linear narratives, like those contained in a novel, can easily be transferred onto an electronic device, textbooks cannot as easily be transferred because they are rarely read from the first page to the last page. Lee said cognitive mapping of a textbook – knowing where certain information is contained, on the page or within the book – was needed to help students navigate such large amounts of text.

Still, there are signs of growing popularity among students. In May, the National Association of College Stores found in a study of 655 students that 39 percent of students surveyed had used a dedicated digital reader, up from 19 percent just five months before. The association said such results showed that a “tipping point” for digital reader technology among college students was fast approaching.

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