That’s the attitude many college students have toward their textbooks. The harsh reality is that students are spending an increasing amount on textbooks every semester out of necessity.
In the past, when brand-new editions aren’t required for a course, students have preferred the more wallet-friendly used book alternative — an option that allows students to recoup a portion of their money by reselling their used textbooks.
But an even cheaper alternative exists, one that vendors always have in stock: digital textbooks.
Print vs. digital
The rub? Those in the textbook sales business say a lack of a re-sale market is partially to blame for deterring students from purchasing them, but more than anything, most agree that students actually just prefer a physical copy to a digital one.
“I’d say probably about 75 percent of those that do get an e-book, they come back and they want the textbook,” says Marianne Gines, textbook manager at Salt Lake Community College’s campus bookstore.
“With digital, it’s a fast learning. And I think when you want to sit and study, that’s where the textbook comes in; you can ponder it, you can take your time.”
As it is, Gines says digital textbooks make up about two percent of campus bookstore sales, and are about 20 to 25 dollars less than published editions. For publishers and textbook retailers alike, the money is made in published textbooks.
However, in the same way the re-sale market is a retailer’s lifeblood, it is a publisher’s poison pill.
To counter the re-sale market, publishers issue “updated” versions of current textbooks to suffocate their on-campus competition.
The merits of digital vs. print can be debated to no end. But despite the overwhelming support for printed textbooks, some think digital carries the ability to offer more user-friendly features.
“I saw one [digital textbook] on anatomy, and you could zoom in on a cellular level of this diagram of a human body,” says Charlotte Howe, an English and publishing professor at SLCC. “That application seemed to be very enriching and could go way further than a paper book could ever go.
“Another issue to think about here is disability. Let’s say you have a learning disability, or reading disability, or low vision, you could have text-to-speech readers read it to you. You can change the look of the text. There are a lot of things you can do to make a book more accessible to all types of bodies.”
A wider implementation of digital textbooks could also lead to the removal of something else: custom titles.
Currently, teachers and/or departments are tasked with selecting which textbook to use. When a national title is too lengthy, it’s not uncommon for an instructor to request certain chapters be eliminated from the textbook, and when they do, a custom title — specific to the institution — is published.
As it stands today, most digital textbooks are national titles.
The future of e-books
In a traditional business sense, the market will be dictated by consumers, which in this case are professors. And while a massive shift from print to digital is hard to forecast, most in textbook sales are not predicting an increase in digital textbook revenue anytime soon.
“Not until students stop using paper and pens,” says PJ’s College Books manager James Harding. “In the end, it’s not the publishers and it’s not the bookstores, it’s always the professors — they select what they want you to have for the class.
“If they want to do open source, they’ll do open source; if they want to do an e-text, they’ll do an e-text; if they want to do a textbook, they’ll do a textbook.”