Wednesday, August 25, 2010

E-Textbooks, Full of Win

I know, I know, I've extolled the glories of a tangible stack of paper gripped in my eager hands transporting me to alternate realities. I still stand by that. For the pure enjoyment of reading a novel, I love an acutal low-tech book.

Textbooks rarely fall under the categories of "novel" and "enjoyment."

The advent of e-books has extended to the textbook market. The "e-textbook" is Full of Win for the end consumer -- students. How financially beneficial this evolving technology is for the publishers, distributors, and institutions is yet to been seen. In the meantime, students of any age should be delighted with the availability of digital textbooks. Textbooks for a full-time collegiate typically cost more than room and board, and, depending on whether one is attending Budget College or Big Spender Uni, they can rival the cost of tuition.

Enter E-book Price Wars: Stage Left

Most of the blood shed in the E-book Price Wars (EPW) has been over works of fiction. Threaten a crime novelist with reducing the cover price of their $7.99 mass market paperback to $1.99, of which that novelist *might* see 12% of net revenue less 15% of that for agent commission, less 34% of that for Uncle Sam, and you'll be lucky if your final moments are spent dismembered in a bathtub of lye. Threaten the publisher of that novel with being dropped from a massive retail outlet unless they agree to price-fixing and nobody wins.

Not so much for authors of non-fiction textbooks. 

Textbook creation, publication, and distribution is a vastly different beast from fiction. Publishers don't sell textbooks to individual consumers, they sell to institutions who then force the product on their captive audiences. Academic textbook authors are driven by different motivators than novelists. In many cases, getting published is a requirement for tenure. The focus is on reputation and prestige, which creates visibility for the author, which increases visibility for the institution, which draws students/investors who pay all their salaries. Textbook cover prices often start well over a $100. Yes, the publisher is still the joystick in the game; without their cooperation, nobody can move, much less win. However, the EPW is Full of Win for the end-consumer, the student.

Let's use Calculus of a Single Variable Edition 9 by Ron Larson and Bruce Edwards as our example.We'll use Barnes & Noble as our retailer. They operate 600+ U.S. campus bookstores, thus providing us with an accurate view of the Price-Point Advantage of E-Textbooks.
  • Publisher List Price: $188.95
  • Buy Hardcover Now Online: $151.16 (20% Back To School Sale)
  • Rent Hardcover for 60 Days: $60
  • Rent E-book for 180 Days: $83
The temptation might be there to rent it for $60, ala a defunct DVD rental . It's completely understandable. In undergrad, you spend 2.5 years of a 4 year program (on average) enduring course work in topics you loathed in high school. Cracking open those expensive paper weights / tv stands / beer-pyramid bases occurs maybe twice during a full semester: once for mid-terms, once for finals. Study sheet in hand, you scan pages searching for keywords that will point out what passages you actually have to read. Hopelessness and regret well up in the back of your throat, along with last night's body shots. There are 700 pages of blah-blah-blah bouncing words off your unreceptive brain. That six-figure salary and corner office straight out of Senior year fades somewhere around 4:00a.m. You flop back in bed, book over your face, and pray that osmosis really does work.

E-textbooks might not be osmosis, but they make cramming easier.

Load that digital copy of Calculus on your laptop or iPad and *blam* you can search for keywords, highlight relevant passages, make notes in-line. Hit "print" and *poof* there's your crib sheet. Print that with temporary tattoo ink and slap it on your forearm, voila, silent legible cheat sheet.

OMG, What if you need to keep those books? 

For what? That huge post-graduate illusion of being instantly hired as Vice President of the Better Than You division? You will never, ever, reach for that book again. Should you luck out with the VP gig, you'll have minions for whom osmosis actually worked.

I held that pack-rat delusion of a post-graduation pop quiz by some Fortune 500 employer who would give me a huge salary and change-the-world power if I could answer the magical question whose answer lay in one of those pricey textbooks. Surprise! That never happens.

After seven years of Higher Education, I had quite the shelf-shattering collection of over priced painfully dull textbooks. A decade-or two-ish later, the textbooks I still own fit neatly on one unbowed non-reinforced shelf. How dare I? I have a B.A. in English Writing, some of those textbooks are actually fine works of fiction.


I will admit to keeping one book from grad school. I never know when I'll need to debate the Hecksher-Ohlin Model in regressing Developed Nations and whether the Leontief Paradox can still be relevant in those economies...'cause I'm fun at parties like that.

Save a forest. Save your forehead. 
E-Textbooks, FTW


  1. I have several books from college...I kept my Complete Works of Shakespeare, French (cause you never know when you'll be asked how to say "where is the toilet" in French), First Aid book (cause I want to be sure I can tell people how to clean out a cut from across the room), and Zoology. Okay, so I couldn't sell the Zoology book back and that's the only reason I still have it.

    If we had e-books back then No more five hour waits in the bookstore. No more buying used books and seeing the WRONG NOTES in the margins along with Becky loves Brad. Today's youth just don't know how good they have it *sigh*

  2. Oh yes! Shakespeare's Complete Works absolutely survived. My Japanese books as well (because some day, I'll earn something higher than a "D" in that class). Okay, the Musical Theater Library too.


    But, there isn't a Decision Sciences book to be found!