What's Going to Happen to Textbooks?

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Reviewers and technology bloggers have been announcing the new e-reader era for a while now, and the release of the Barnes & Noble Nook reader appeared to cement the e-reader craze for the holidays. These new gadgets can pack a large amount of content in a single space, and are famously convenient for both readers and authors, with potential for a greater profit margin for the latter. But can e-readers go super mainstream by taking over the textbook market? Some think this might be a good idea, given the high cost of traditional textbooks. But it's not clear that will be enough to get e-readers on college campuses and in high schools. Here's the debate:

  • Textbooks Are Expensive  Philosophy professor John Holbo complains about the price of favorite textbooks, and writes that he is revising the syllabus for his class to include cheaper books, even though they are of poorer quality. "There is such a thing as charging too much," he declares to Oxford University Press, telling "anyone at [the company] who might be reading" that they have "lost a course adoption."
  • Academics Should Publish Cheaply--On A Kindle!  At Think Progress, Matt Yglesias responds by saying he is "perennially baffled by the business model of academic publishing. Universities," he explains, "are non-commercial institutions that take substantial quantities of philanthropic and government funds to subsidize the production of scholarship but then turn around and try to manage the dissemination of scholarship on a quasi-commercial basis." Why not "disseminate ideas for almost no money" with digital technology? "I assume," he writes, "that the kind of people inclined to write books about the history of early modern philosophy are more interested in finding an audience for their work than in making a quick buck--that doesn't seem like a profit-maximizing sort of field."
  • Kindle Textbooks Not Taking Off Anytime Soon  Daily Finance's Sarah Weinman, though, points out that students aren't as enthusiastic about e-readers as their elders assume they are. Not only do they prefer paper books for better reading and note-taking in the margins, but the e-reader initial cost, at $489 for the Kindle DX, marketed to students, is a significant deterrent for many. "Students weren't so much shocked that e-books are expensive," writes Weinman, "as they were disillusioned that e-books weren't substantially cheaper than textbooks."
  • What About Textbook Rentals?  Nik Cubrilovic notes at TechCrunch that textbooks cost and "limited lifespan ... combined with a market of poor students looking to save a few dollars, have resulted in the textbook rental market exploding in recent years." So is this trend likely to stay? In fact, Cubrilovic thinks one of two companies--Chegg and BookRenter--"is likely to become the Netflix of textbook rentals."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.