Ditching paper for digital

Students replacing traditional textbooks with affordable, weightless e-textbooks

Students across the country are gradually replacing clunky and expensive texts with their digital counterparts: Kindles, Nooks, iPads and other digital readers.

Students replacing traditional textbooks with affordable, weightless e-textbooks

Students across the country are gradually replacing clunky and expensive texts with their digital counterparts: Kindles, Nooks, iPads and other digital readers.

But is it worth the cost of an iPad to relieve aching shoulders of the burden of heavy print books? Can students save money and get the information they need by switching to e-textbooks?

There is still much debate over whether e-textbooks’ benefits outweigh their drawbacks, and it may be some time before publishers work out all the kinks that come with digital format. But the benefits are significant.

Students often appreciate the relative lightness of a digital textbook as well as the lower costs associated with most e-textbooks. As an example, Apple recently began selling high school textbooks priced at $14.99 or less.

In addition, digital books often come with bonus content like quizzes, videos, note-taking and highlighting capability, as well as easy updates that don’t require students to buy a new edition of the book. And for the piracy-minded, e-textbooks can often be downloaded for free, if one knows where to look for them.

But digital textbooks are not without their disadvantages.

In addition to the eye-straining effects of reading text from a screen, many users have noticed formatting issues that render parts of books unusable. And although e-textbooks may be cheaper than their paper counterparts, students must have a device capable of storing their texts, which can be cost-prohibitive for people already struggling to pay for their education.

And unlike paper books, e-textbooks cannot be sold back after a class is completed. What, then, to do with them? Unless a student is willing to permanently devote anywhere from 800 megabytes to 2.77 gigabytes of space to a single text (some examples of file sizes of e-texts in the iBookstore), the only other option is to delete it.

And just because the text you need is available in digital format, it may not be available across all platforms. Apple’s updated iBooks 2 offers textbooks, but only for the iPad. Amazon sells and rents e-textbooks through the Kindle app, but has been plagued by user complaints about formatting issues.

PCs seem to handle e-textbooks the best, but users must still download the corresponding software. Barnes & Noble sells digital textbooks for computers, but nothing for their own Nook devices. Students must choose a platform wisely, as it greatly affects the type and quality of e-textbook they end up with.

Right now, most e-textbooks are sold to high school and college students, but e-book sellers are eager to expand into the rest of the $8 billion education market. USA Today reported that “sales for e-textbooks in the U.S. higher education market grew 44.3 percent to $267.3 million in 2011, according to Simba Information, a publishing industry research firm,” and that “about 11 percent of college students have bought e-textbooks, according to market research firm Student Monitor.”

People wonder if students get everything a paper textbook offers. In several trials on campuses across the country, e-book sellers like Amazon and Apple have offered devices with e-texts to students in exchange for their feedback—and the results have not been unanimous. It seems many students find e-reading devices awkward to operate (i.e., turning pages), difficult to takes notes on and overly complex.

Despite the lukewarm responses, content providers are optimistic about the future of e-textbooks: according to the Wall Street Journal, “only about 6 percent of education-textbook sales will be digital this year, up from 3 percent in 2011, according to textbook distributor MBS Direct Digital, but that is expected to rise to more than 50 percent by 2020.”

E-textbooks are catching on quickest with college students, who are required to buy the most books and pay the highest prices. Portland State book-publishing graduate student Olivia Croom is optimistic about e-texts; she thinks they will be invaluable to college students “in certain disciplines.”

Croom finds some e-book features appealing. “You might be able to click on a key word and have the definition appear in a pop-up window,” she said. “You don’t have to flip around looking for a definition, and the page you’re reading isn’t crowded with sidebars.”

And there’s the benefit to your health: “No paper cuts!”

Portland State Bookstore President and CEO Ken Brown isn’t so sure about e-textbooks.

“There hasn’t been an overwhelming demand for them,” Brown said. “There is still clear demand for print versions.” According to Brown, textbooks that are available in both digital and print formats have loyal buyers for both forms.

Still, Brown wonders about the future. “Apple could be the game-changer,” Brown said, though he pointed out that the company hasn’t yet committed to the $14.99 price seen in high schools in higher education.

“Digital is not there yet,” Brown said. “It’s not meeting the needs of the majority of students.”

Getting down to brass tacks, e-textbooks are probably here to stay. As with any new technology, there are kinks to be worked out. The most important consideration for a student making the switch from print books to digital is which platform to choose.

Research the availability of titles for each device. It’s useless to buy an iPad if none of your expensive statistics textbooks are available in the iBookstore; likewise, if you use a lot of anatomy reference books that have formatting issues on a Kindle, they won’t be of much use in digital format.

And if you’re a student who likes to sell textbooks back to cut down on net cost, be aware that you’ll lose this source of income if you switch to e-textbooks.

The bottom line: proceed with caution, but proceed nevertheless into the future of textbooks.