E-books cheaper, but still unpopular

Publishers are making more textbooks available online at reduced prices.

On Monday, applied economics professor Donald Liu met in his office with a sales representative from McGraw-Hill, a major textbook publisher. Liu said he pressed the representative on the publisher’s price of electronic textbooks, which had previously been offered at a discount of only around 10 percent. “I said that the production cost for a copy of an online textbook, I mean, it’s almost zero,” Liu said. Electronic textbooks are cheaper for bookstores and students, but University of Minnesota Bookstore Director Bob Crabb said they have yet to catch on with students. Electronic books have been offered for only a few semesters, but Crabb said he is surprised that their sales trail so far behind traditional books. The bookstore sells about 500,000 books every year, and Crabb estimated that only 2 percent to 3 percent of these are electronic books. “It’s a slow go,” Crabb said. “It’s catching on a little bit, but there’s still an awful lot of resistance from students.” Crabb said students have cited eye strain and their familiarity with using regular books as problems with electronic textbooks. But even if students are resistant, publishers are pushing forward; Crabb said more than 500 textbook titles are currently available in digital versions, and more appear each semester. DynamicBooks, a new project launched by Macmillan, one of America’s largest textbook publishing houses, offers a further innovation in electronic texts. Using DynamicBooks, textbooks would become living documents, with professors able to reorder, edit or delete entire passages or chapters. Beginning in August, 100 of Macmillan’s books will become available to students on DynamicBooks.com and through university bookstores. These books could be read online or using an Apple iPhone. Among the textbooks offered will be popular selections in chemistry, psychology and astronomy, such as “Discovering the Essential Universe” by Neil F. Comins, which is currently used in some introductory astronomy classes at the University. Liu said he would be interested in the program but would want to poll his students before making such a decision. Liu said that whenever he can, he opts for smaller, more concise versions of textbooks. With many students studying a given topic for only a single semester, he believes that an expensive and lengthy textbook is often not the best option. “I think most instructors find that a very thick textbook containing many, many chapters is sort of a waste for students,” Liu said. Like the digital books currently available through the University Bookstore, DynamicBooks will be considerably cheaper than printed textbooks. A 2005 report to Congress from the Government Accountability Office found that textbook prices had nearly tripled from 1986 to 2004. Crabb said he saw electronic books as a “significant force” in the future, but as long as students are willing to spend nearly $150 for a printed textbook rather than $40 for its digital version, the market will be limited. “Whatever the students want is what we need to deliver,” Crabb said. “The jury’s still out. Everyone in the industry is still waiting to see whether students would really end up wanting to read their material on a device or on paper.” Liu said that in his meeting with the McGraw-Hill salesman, the representative told him that the publisher’s online textbook prices had come down significantly — in some cases offering a 50-percent discount compared to the original, which Liu described as “a movement in the right direction.” “The objective is to save students as much money as possible,” Liu said. “I mean, they spend a lot of money on textbooks.”