Will E-Books Replace Physical College Textbooks?

Anyone in college, or who can still remember their days of listening to professors pontificate, knows how annoying college textbooks are -- on pretty much every level. They're overpriced, extremely big and heavy to lug around campus, and often not very aesthetically pleasing. This is one reason why some people are excited about the e-book revolution. Could e-books eventually replace and improve the college textbooks we endured? It depends.

Back when the iPad was released, there was a lot of talk about how it, in particular, might be a great thing for college students. On the Atlantic Business Channel, both Derek Thompson and Menachem Kaiser imagined e-textbooks with cool 3-D diagrams, downloading instant book updates, and other cool advantages that the iPad would bring to students. In particular, I can only dream about not having had to walk up the hills that rolled across my university's campus with a few dozen pounds of books on my back.

The Economics of Textbooks

Of course, none of that matters if colleges and publishers don't embrace e-books. To determine if they will, let's think for a moment about the economics behind textbooks. For starters, they're a rip off for the students, which implies that they're very lucrative for publishers, authors, and universities. It seemed like a book out for 10 years would sometimes have 15 different editions, so to force students taking the course requiring it to buy a new copy each year, rather than used copies. Those new copies also often run into three-digit prices. I definitely had semesters where my book budget exceeded $500.

How might e-books change the equation? In terms of price, little will probably change. Menachem Kaiser imagined that chapters could be sold a la carte through iBooks like songs are through iTunes. So far, it doesn't look like that's the way the market is evolving. And there's almost no chance publishers would want to allow that in the textbook market, since they already have it cornered.

In general, book prices may decline a bit due to the cost savings publishers will enjoy. But it certainly doesn't cost $100 to stamp out and ship many of these textbooks currently. That's just the price charged, because the publisher, authors, and bookstores know that students generally have no choice but to pay it. So if a book was $100, $25 of which was physical printing costs and shipping, then maybe the price will decline to $75. But don't forget that e-book makers like Apple, Amazon and others will demand a big cut of the revenue, as they currently do. For publishers to maintain their profit margin, the price could climb even higher than it was before.

Why Publishers May Love E-Books

So really, it doesn't seem likely that publishers would have much reason to fight e-books. In fact, they could actually make more money from them, as e-books would eliminate the one way that students do sometimes save money on textbooks. If students don't mind a little highlighter, a dog-eared page or two, and maybe some water beer damage, then they can often buy used textbooks. But there's no such thing as a used e-book. Without having to worry about a secondary market for books, publishers can stop bothering with the headache of creating as many new editions. Of course, there's also the savings in production costs already alluded to, which won't necessarily be passed on to students. Remember in the case of textbooks, the publishers can set the price relatively high due to their control of the market, and they know it.

Why Publishers Might Fear E-Books

There is, however, one clear worry that publishers must have about e-books: hackers. I was in college around the time when .mp3's were just becoming popular. As a result, I saw first-hand the lengths to which tech savvy university students will go in order to bootleg music, movies, computer software, etc. You can be pretty sure that they'll try to find ways to hack e-textbooks, so that they can share copies with, or sell copies to, other students.

Ultimately, pirating might be the barrier. If publishers believe e-book copyright security is strong enough to foil even the smartest of college hackers, then they should embrace e-books. But if they worry about e-book bootleggers, then they may fear the black market could cost them even more than the secondary market does now. The former possibility seems a little more likely though, so we should expect to see more e-textbooks in the years to come. Just don't expect their prices to suddenly dive just because they're cheaper for publishers to produce.

Presented by

Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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