Thursday, February 02, 2012

The problem(s) with eTextbooks

The eBook market is growing dramatically, especially in the U.S., but eTextbook usage in colleges and universities is growing at a much slower pace. There are no good statistics on eTextbooks' share of overall textbook usage, so surveys and anecdotal reports are taking the place of hard facts. Kno, a distributor of eTextbooks, released a survey last week that said that, of 400 students at four California community colleges who used the Kno eTextbook application with an open source textbook, 95% found it very useful and plan to use it again. However, an article yesterday in the University of Rochester's Campus Times quoted the manager of the school's bookstore as saying that in most cases, students rent or purchase eTextbooks only when the bookstore is sold out of the print versions. (The bookstore has sold eTextbooks since 2004.)

The Kno study focused on a pilot program that used a free textbook, so as much as they may like Kno's app, it's impossible to draw any conclusions as to whether or not students would be willing to purchase eTextbooks from Kno. The Campus Times article says nothing about students who use and like eTextbooks--and there have to be some out there. There have been other stories and surveys, with equally conflicting results.

Given what I've seen in the market, I believe that there are two fundamental reasons why eTextbooks haven't taken off: Price and selection. In general, eTextbooks are priced much less than new print textbooks when purchased, but they're more expensive than used textbooks. What's more, eTextbooks can't be resold, so the student can't recover any of the purchase price. eTextbooks are also more expensive to rent than used print textbooks. Students are very price-conscious, and any usability advantages of eTextbooks (such as the ability to keep an entire semester's worth on a single tablet) are outweighed by their increased cost.

Selection is the other issue. The number of available eTextbooks is increasing all the time, but many print textbooks are still unavailable in eTextbook versions. If the textbooks required for a course aren't available in digital versions, students have no choice but to buy or rent them in print.

The Campus Times article also points out another potential roadblock: Some vendors only make their eTextbooks available for use on personal computers, while many students prefer to use them on tablets. For example, Barnes & Noble's Nook Study eReader software, which is designed specifically for eTextbooks, only works on PCs and Macs. Since most vendors either use proprietary formats or attach DRM that makes it impossible to use their eTextbooks in other eReaders, students are limited to the capabilities provided by the vendor's software.

Apple's eTextbook initiative addresses the price issue, with all textbooks priced at $14.99, but as of this writing there are only ten titles available, and they're all for K-12 students, not college students. No one has managed to address both the price and selection problems, but it's not clear that the publishers, which control both price and availability, really care. Publishers are primarily interested in using eTextbooks to kill the used textbook business, which has been a thorn in their sides for decades. However, they're not willing to accept lower profit margins over the course of several years in order to do so. eTextbook resellers don't want to take the margin hit either, so it's likely that eTextbooks will remain a niche business for the indefinite future.
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