Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why students don't use e-books as much as expected

We keep hearing about the boom in e-book sales, especially in the USA, but according to an article in Mind/Shift (Why aren't students using e-books?) students aren't using them as much as expected. You could interpret this as evidence that they prefer print format but the truth seems to be the lack of course literature available in e-format. A survey by e-book provider eBrary shows that e-book sales to students have leveled off over the last three years, whereas the mainstream fiction market for e-books is growing rapidly. But it's not because students don't want e-books; it's simply too complicated. According to the eBrary survey:

“the vast majority of students would choose electronic over print if it were available and if better tools along with fewer restrictions were offered.”

”E-Book auf dem Ipad”– Projekt 365 – by Stefan Bäsmann, on Flickr

Firstly there's a reluctance by publishers to release e-book versions of profitable textbooks and when they are available they cost almost as much as the print versions, despite the problem that you can't lend your e-book or resell it after the course as you can with a printed version. Then there are all the different formats available for different e-book readers, iPads and tablets. It's simply too time consuming and expensive and you can't just buy all your e-books from one place.

Students are becoming increasingly vocal against the high cost of textbooks and their built-in obsolescence - since they're revised each year the second-hand value is zero. E-books are the obvious way forward but the business model needs changing. Publishers are of course reluctant to give up a very lucrative business but the growth of free course literature on Wikibooks or Flat World Knowledge is a significant disruptive force. Integration with social media to create social reading also needs to be developed. The industry needs to streamline and focus on new models rather than simply preserving the traditional model.

"... it does highlight the ways in which students’ needs aren’t being met yet by digital content providers. That means there’s still a huge opportunity here to reshape what the textbooks of the future look like. Openly licensed content, for example, could address students’ concerns about sharing. Better social tools could help meet their needs for social reading and learning. Open educational resources could provide content, while an iTunes model of sorts — one that sold the “song” (or rather the chapter) rather than the “album” (the whole book) could save students money."

  Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Stefan Bäsmann 


  1. This kind of business infuriates me. Textbook publishers only have power as long as the academics give it to them.

    (Maybe I don't know enough about Professors, kickbacks, or scholarly writing) but why don't professors simply teach a course. If they do have to prescribe a text, does the course material not follow roughly the same content every year? They're not making new Calculus! (or if they are, they aren't putting it in a frosh text...).

    Sure, they may say "Reference Page 235" in a handout or something, but can't they simply change it to "Reference the X chapter Y Sub-section" that way every year they don't have to change their lesson plan. They have to change every year now anyway?

    Or is it because they have a financial incentive? Perhaps transparency is needed? It's either Money or Laziness. It would not be that hard for a prof to create their course content, multi-format, and make it available either for free or for cheap. Just like the fiction writers figuring out that if they sell direct via amazon they actually make more money, perhaps a prof could generate additional income without financially-raping the students via the book store.

    What do you think Alastair?

  2. I think the publishers need to change and find a better business model for e-textbooks. They can't charge the same prices as today because the e-version costs virtually nothing to publish and the industry has to settle on common standards so they can be viewed on all devices. Professors also need better digital competence to be able to find and recommend e-books. The shock treatment that hir the music industry a few years ago is now hitting education. Sadly there are plenty vested interests blocking and resisting this change.
    We need to talk more and avoid unneccessary conflict.

  3. I think all the textbooks I use are available as e-books, but I've never seen a student buy one. Most of us are aware of the high price of books, my school's administration has asked us to try to find the least expensive books possible. I always tell my students to buy the least expensive version, new or used, which may not be the latest one. I only change editions when the content changes significantly, and even then, I allow the students to get older versions. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

  4. Unfortunately, it seems the scenario is this. E-books are exceptionally popular for fiction titles because they are purchased by people who CHOOSE to read them. There will continue to be a residual income from these titles. With textbooks, not only are there new editions yearly, but they are predictably purchased by a fairly regular student body. The "passive income" option is not really available. The consumer market is too predictable and easily manipulated. If there were some way to pay for your purchased edition to be updated along with the print book, there may be something there. I know that sounds silly, but it seems like the only way to make a solid transition.

  5. They might not be making a new calculus, but other fields of knowledge do change more frequently than some. Also, you don't have to make a new calculus to make a better book ABOUT calculus. Academics change the books they prescribe based on what they think the best material is, and if that material ain't in a e-book, then print-based it shall be.

    Alastair I agree completely that the issue is a lack of digital competence. Teachers who don't e-read themselves are unlikely to set e-readings. But there is also a cultural hangover, where people are used to thumbing through well worn pages of print, as well as a reality that NOT all students own e-reading devices. Libraries are leading the way here, and can do a lot to promote aquisitions, lending and borrowing or e-texts if you have time to work with them.

  6. I think a major change is in progress but the big switch hasn't really happened yet. Textbooks are ripe for digitalisation but there's a big vested interest in keeping the current model. If students get used to accessing literature via tablets/iPads then things could move fast. Textbooks that update automatically and don't weigh several kilos is a very attractive proposition, especially if they cost a fraction of the price of print.
    South Korea has already set a goal of digital textbooks in all schools by 2015.

  7. Students aren't using them as much as expected, because in my opinion, these devices are quite expensive and it's not the same to read a book this way. Honestly, I love to read both ways, each other with their advantages and desavantages. I downloaded from All You Can Books some eBooks, because I needed them for my classes and I can read them on my PC as well.