The Death of the Printed Textbook

21 01 2012

Campus Bookstore, Queen's University. The colour of the leaves tells you that this photo was taken in September, price-gouging season at university book stores.

Professors and university students throughout the world are searching for ways to cope with the ever escalating costs of textbooks. One strategy is to dispense with the old-fashioned paper textbook and go all digital. Although most of the price of a book represents IP rights, part of the cost reflects the inputs of paper, ink, and glue. There are also distribution costs—diesel for trucks, plus the university bookstore’s cut of the action. In other words, if students purchase Kindle or equivalent versions of their textbooks they will be able to save the price of more than a few pints! There are also big ecological benefits to going all digital.

I’m pretty supportive of the general concept of dispensing with hard copy textbooks. But which e-reader should we go with?

Some universities have experimented with using Amazon’s Kindle, which is the most popular e-book reader on the market. Kindle has a number of advantages. Students can read both Jstor articles and PDFs they have created themselves on Kindle. For students who don’t own Kindle devices, downloaded Kindle books can be read on a PC with a free app. Amazon’s collection of digitised books is vast and includes many specialised scholarly works from around the world.


The rival Kobo reader is broader similar to the Kindle, but its manufacturer has partnered with retailers (Chapters in Canada, W.H. Smith in the UK) with much smaller numbers of digitised titles. Moreover, the books available on Kobo tend to be novels, not serious works of non-fiction.  I know of at least one academic who uses Kobo for pleasure reading and Kindle for serious academic stuff.

The disadvantage of Kindle is that it is really difficult for students to take notes. There is a way you can insert a note, but it is awkward. Most readers will remember how their own university textbooks were filled with underlining, highlighting, and scribbled comments.

Given Kindle’s limitations, it not surprising that there was  enthusiasm among some educators when Apple announced on Thursday that it was launching iBook2, a tablet designed for educational purposes. Textbooks downloaded to the iBook2 will be cost just $14.99 and will feature full colour, animation, etc. One could imagine that animated images would be extremely useful in subjects like chemistry and physics. The CEO of McGraw-Hill, the textbook giant that has published with Apple in this initiative, said that this product was the brainchild of the late Steve Jobs.

According to the Guardian, digital textbooks will account for just 6% of education-textbook sales this year, up from 3% in 2011. This figure is expected to rise to more than 50% by 2020.

Reactions to the iBooks2 initiative have been very mixed. One American commentator borrowed some terminology from Occupy Wall Street and called it a textbook for the “One Percenters”.  Glyn Moody, a columnist at the British website ComputerWorld, has called it an “attack on educational freedom”. He notes that the textbooks on iBook2 are in a proprietary format, when rather than the standard EPUB format, which is used by many publishers. In effect, owners of an iBooks2 are locked into buying content from McGraw-Hill and Apple’s other partners.  He also notes that there won’t be a resale market for used textbooks in the same way there is with hard copy textbooks.

Moody makes some good points.  I also suspect that the $500 price tag of the hardware may cause sticker shock, even if the lower price of the digital textbooks saves students money over the course of their educational careers (say a four-year degree with five textbooks per year). Despite its limitations, the Kindle is probably the best option for university students. It is cheap (£99 in the UK), relatively durable, and can handle many different types of documents, including the all important PDF.

In conclusion, I suspect that five years from now, paper textbooks will have disappeared from universities. Students will be able to purchase smaller backpacks. Historians should rarely make predictions. Indeed, anyone who has read Dan Gardner’s Future Babble will be extra cautious when prognosticating. (Gardner catalogues all of the predictions that proved to be incorrect).  However,  as as educator who has worked with textbook suppliers in three countries over a span of years, I can say with some confidence that the death of the paper textbook is pretty much a certain thing, at least at the university level.  However, I’m not convinced that students will be reading their e-text books on devices supplied by Apple.

P.S. The NYT reports that

Five universities are implementing a pilot program in the spring semester of 2012 for electronic textbooks to ease costs and modernize the way students obtain class content. The five schools — the University of California, BerkeleyCornell University; the University of Minnesota; the University of Virginia; and the University of Wisconsin — plan to purchase e-textbooks in bulk directly from publishers so that students can buy them at discounted prices, creating a kind of educational wholesale warehouse.