One of the latest changes in college culture is the availability of digital textbooks, which was underscored when Amazon unveiled its new rental platform last month. The promise is that you can save up to 80% with the ephemeral versions of those oft-cumbersome and expensive paper volumes.
Since money talks for most shoppers, many parents may be susceptible to the desires of their technologically savvy student to forgo physical books and buy an eBook reader or tablet instead, to make use of this digital ingenuity. But are digital textbooks living up the money-saving hype?
An Amazon company spokesperson said it has "tens of thousands of textbooks" available to rent and even more can be purchased as a full download for the Kindle. But for the average student, finding the relevant textbooks required for courses may be tricky.
Actual University Reading Lists Yield Disappointing Results
We obtained three class lists and the required reading for each from three separate students. All are undergraduates at large universities, and none of their books should have been that difficult to find. Regardless, every title we searched for failed to turn up an electronic option.
"Digital textbooks compared to general reading, or trade books, aren't like comparing apples to apples, or even apples to oranges," said Paul Strauss, marketing specialist for the Sun Devil Campus stores at Arizona State University. "It's comparing apples to hotdogs; both are food, but totally different."
ASU — one of the schools included in our research — is the largest University in the U.S., with approximately 72,000 students and five on-campus bookstores, all part of the Follett Higher Education Group of 900 book stores.
"We're the largest book store in the country and carry 15,000 titles per semester," said Strauss. "We carry every book available [in electronic form], and just under 15% are now available electronically. That's up from 5% last fall, but it's just not growing as fast as with bestsellers or mass-market media."
Relevant digital titles thus exist, but a student's chances of finding everything he needs is slim.
A Potential Reason for the Slow Growth of the Digital Textbook Market
Mass-market paperbacks and bestsellers offer a good value to readers in electronic versions, and can be profitable to publishers when sold in volume. But for textbooks, it's not really the cost of the paper and binding that drives up the prices; rather it's the research and labor that goes into the writing of it.
"It's not like buying the latest Ludlum book," said Strauss. "Take 'Managerial Finance for the MBA Executive;' some people might pick that up for pleasure reading but ... it really has a very small audience."
As a result, digital textbooks might not be discounted enough to be compelling to students who feel they are sacrificing certain benefits by forgoing the physical copy. In turn this means a more limited interest. And while Amazon's rental service provides an opportunity to offer significant discounts, the aforementioned problem of availability may rule it out as an option for some.
Taking Into Account the Buy Back Value for Physical Books
At ASU, and many college bookstores, if you don't want to pay full price to own a book, used editions are available at roughly 25% less and rental versions at approximately half off. But for those who buy the new book outright, most campus bookstores will buy books back; ASU will pay about 50% of the original price. However, there's no market for students to sell back digital books.
Considering this, electronic textbooks (when available) aren't always a bargain, said Strauss. And although Amazon's rental variations may change this and indeed offer great deals, the applicable titles were scarce; thus, it's impossible to make a meaningful comparison at the moment.
Should a Student Go Digital?
So, while you can save on textbook titles by opting for digital rentals, just don't buy an eBook reader expecting everything to be available; you'll likely still need to mix the titles up, and it'll still be heavy on the physical tomes.
And, despite previous hesitations, Strauss believes the availability of digital textbooks will eventually change. "We all see it as the wave of the future," said Strauss. "It's a no brainer."
photo credit: bloohimwhom via Flickr