University students turning to downloadable textbooks

Some students are saving money (and their backs) with e-texts

Like most university students heading back to school, Kerry Alvarez is preparing to make her annual donation to the campus book store.

The third-year sociology student at Hamilton’s McMaster University says she expects to shell out more than $400 on textbooks this semester alone.

“I don’t really like it,” said Alvarez, 23. “Money is really tight, especially with the economy and all.”

It’s perhaps no surprise that the dwindling bank accounts of students like Alvarez, coupled with the popularity of technology like Apple’s iPhone, has led to the emergence of a cheap alternative to the bulky tomes of days past: downloadable digital textbooks.

Download one from CourseSmart LLC, an online marketplace for digital textbooks, and you’ll gain access to a document that’s got all the charts, tables, and graphics as a physical book – for about half the price, according to the company.

The National Association of College Stores – a U.S. group that also represents 72 Canadian stores – predicts that digital textbooks, while currently representing only a tiny portion of the market, could account for 15 per cent of all university textbook sales by 2011-12.

In 2007, Montreal’s Concordia University became the first post-secondary institution in Canada to offer e-textbooks, as they’re also known, in its bookstores.

“I think it’s a very good trend,” said Colleen O’Neill, executive director of the Canadian Publishers’ Council’s higher education and trade division.

E-textbooks have been available in Canada for four or five years, mostly through pilot projects, said O’Neill. Their overall market share is currently about five to eight per cent, she said.

While there’s a good deal of optimism about the shift to electronic learning – which O’Neill believes will also reduce the publishing industry’s environmental footprint – not everyone is ready to tear down their bookshelves.

Earlier this month, social media blog Mashable shared its thoughts on why it might be a while before students abandon traditional textbooks for good. The No. 1 reason was cost-effectiveness: even though students might be able to save 50 per cent by purchasing an e-textbook, they can save even more by selling their old books at the end of the semester.

That appears to be the reality for now at Concordia, where sales of digital textbooks are up but still “embryonic,” said Daniel Houde, the university’s director of campus stores.

Digital textbooks account for less than one per cent of book sales at Concordia, said Houde, although 10 per cent of all course reading material is now available for download.

Houde says the price of digital textbooks – set at Concordia by the university’s Nebraska-based distributor – needs to come down before they make a serious dent in the traditional textbook market.

There’s also the fact most e-textbooks are only available on a subscription basis – say, for a semester or an academic year – and that’s a problem for Brock University student Rob Lanteigne.

While Lanteigne, 23, believes the shift to digital textbooks is an “absolutely positive” trend, he also feels upper-year students might regret not having that first-year e-textbook to look back on, once the licence expires.

“With a digital subscription, it’s not possible (to go back and review),” said Lanteigne.

“The publishers haven’t yet offered the option to pay and keep the licence outright for life.”

Yet those concerns don’t seem to have slowed growth at CourseSmart, where sales are up 600 per cent this year compared to the same period in 2008, said executive vice-president Frank Lyman.

CourseSmart offers more than 7,000 university and college textbooks for courses in Canada and the U.S. The California-based company recently made waves when it released a new application for the iPhone and iPod Touch, allowing students to peruse their newly-downloaded reading material with a simple flick of the finger.

Lyman doesn’t buy the idea that the “‘buy a used book and hope to sell it back at the end of the semester’ model” is keeping students from saving a guaranteed 50 per cent up front.

“There are other students for whom that’s a hassle – they’re not interested, it’s time-consuming, they’ve been burned,” said Lyman.

Digital textbooks also offer features that traditional textbooks simply can’t match, like being able to search for a particular word or to download just one chapter, said Lyman.

As for the subscription model, it’s necessary to protect publishers from having their material passed along, free of charge, to other students, said O’Neill.

O’Neill concedes some industrious user could find a way to pirate e-textbooks the same way music files and movie clips are shared, but believes students will pay for information they find valuable.

“They need to think of themselves down the road: are they going to give away their intellectual property for free when they’re finished their education and out in the workforce? No. They want to be paid,” said O’Neill.

As for Alvarez, who has downloaded novels onto her iPhone but never contemplated storing textbooks there, she’s intrigued by the option of going digital – which would quite literally be a big weight off of her shoulders.

“Carrying books to school is not easy . . . I’m a very small person, so anything off my back is fine with me,” Alvarez said.

– The Canadian Press