What's the Next Chapter for College Textbooks?
Jun 05, 2012 Comment
E-reading is on the rise. In 2011, digital books outsold paper books on Amazon.com for the first time, and a survey conducted in February by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found 21 percent of Americans had read an e-book, up from 17 percent in December.
Pew also found 19 percent of adults ages 18 and older owned an e-book reader (such as a Kindle or a Nook) and 19 percent owned a tablet computer. Plus, not everyone reads e-books on e-readers and tablets--many people also access e-books on laptops, smartphones and other mobile devices.
E-books may never replace paper for some people, but they offer incredible convenience, especially if you are on the move or need to have multiple books at your fingertips at the same time. College students, who have to plow through a new pile of textbooks each semester (and drag them around to classes and labs and study sessions) must be on leading edge of the e-reading revolution, right?
Apparently not. In November 2011, The New York Times reported that only 5 percent of textbooks acquired last fall were digital, with research group Simba Information predicting that digital textbooks would represent a not-so-whopping 11 percent of textbook market revenue by 2013. A recent report from Next is Now, the research arm of digital textbook provider MBS Direct, projects that e-textbooks will exceed 25 percent of the higher education and career education market by 2015.
That's certainly a significant increase over 5 percent, but it still seems out of line with where higher education should be in three years. For that matter, why aren't we at 25 percent today? Why are so many college students in 2012 still lugging around backpacks full of textbooks?
To start with, textbooks are big business. The average college student spends more than $500 on textbooks each year, and students in some disciplines can spend much more. Total sales for college textbooks are in the range of $5 to $8 billion (depending on who is counting and what is counted), and the textbook market is full of stakeholders who have operated on the same profit model for decades.
The adoption of e-textbooks is also complicated by all the players vying for a piece of the e-textbook pie--from Amazon partnering with major publishers to digitize texts and try out rental models, to Silicon Valley start-ups seeking to reinvent the textbook and how it is delivered. There's a bit of a Wild West feel to this evolving market, and that makes it harder for schools and students to find consistent, compatible hardware and software platforms that work for their educational needs.
There's also some resistance from students who are accustomed to traditional textbooks. Browsing, flipping, highlighting, marginal notes, comparing passages, checking indexes and glossaries--these elements of the learning process are deeply ingrained for many students, and an e-reader with a six-inch screen isn't a very good way to navigate a massive textbook.
The e-textbook market may also be slow to grow because textbooks, as we know them, are evolving. More and more, books are being replaced by online learning, where text, videos, multimedia and real-time interaction combine to offer something very different from a traditional textbook that has simply been digitized.
Despite these forces and other factors that may help explain the slow adoption of e-textbooks, it still seems like there is a digital disconnect. Even if e-books are just a stepping stone to something else, 11 percent of the market by next year sounds surprisingly low.
And doesn't the prediction of 25 percent of the market by 2015 sound like we're living in a world where many students don't have access to the technology required to read e-books? But they do have access, of course. College students may be behind the curve on e-reading for school, but they lead the way in technology use and gadget ownership.
Maybe students just aren't sure what they are going to do with all those empty backpacks.
What do you think? How soon will higher education reach a tipping point where e-textbooks outnumber print textbooks?
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