college textbook marketThanks to Nate at The Digital Reader for sending this article my way. The write-up, from a blog called Fast Company has some interesting insights into why the college textbook market has not been taken over by ebooks yet.

I have long held my own ideas on this matter. I have taken one course which had an online textbook option, and the functionality was so limited that it wasn’t even worth bothering. Cut and paste was completely disabled, the books could not be read offline, they were scanned PDF and not OCR-searchable, and they expired the day after the course ended. The print book was only $10 more and could be kept forever. I regret not choosing that option. The crippled online copy was a waste of money and time.

But the Fast Company people make the very salient point that, unlike a Kindle fiction title which the customer chooses for themselves, the college textbooks are all chosen by the school or professor, not the end user student. There is little incentive for them to choose a cheaper option since they are not the ones doing the buying anyway, and often they will have a vested interest in what the customer chooses since some textbooks are authored by professors themselves.

As for the kids, they are often using their parent’s money to buy the books and so may not be terribly motivated to comparison shop.

I think many schools are becoming more sensitive to the price issue, but a lot can depend on the professor’s own preferences. I took a course last summer which had no book at all and used only online articles, but I am hoping to take another this summer from the same university, and it has three required texts in the course description.

Image credit: DRosenbach under a Creative Commons License

Previous articleSajid Javid appointment two cheers for UK culture?
Next articlePenguin Random House CEO makes great Dohle about growth, discoverability
"I’m a journalist, a teacher and an e-book fiend. I work as a French teacher at a K-3 private school. I use drama, music, puppets, props and all manner of tech in my job, and I love it. I enjoy moving between all the classes and having a relationship with each child in the school. Kids are hilarious, and I enjoy watching them grow and learn. My current device of choice for reading is my Amazon Kindle Touch, but I have owned or used devices by Sony, Kobo, Aluratek and others. I also read on my tablet devices using the Kindle app, and I enjoy synching between them, so that I’m always up to date no matter where I am or what I have with me."


  1. #1, one cannot take notes in an eTextbook with a pen or pencil.
    #2, one cannot share eTextbook either across a table or with friends
    #3, one cannot resell an eTextbook after the course is over.
    #4, one cannot buy a used eTextbook

  2. Speaking as a professor, I can tell you that Fast Company drastically overestimates the “vested interest” a faculty member has in textbooks. Not many of us write textbooks, not many textbooks are profitable, and most schools have policies that forbid faculty from making money off the books they assign. The reason to assign a book you wrote is that it has the resources your students need. (Think about it: if you went to the trouble of writing a book, it probably suits the classes you’re teaching.)

    I also suspect that relatively few college students are shopping with Mom or Dad’s credit card and oblivious to price. I sure don’t know any students like that.

    Professors assign books based on what is in the books. An e-book may be cheap but if it doesn’t present the material completely and clearly, it is no bargain. Not every class can be taught from a collection of online articles.

    Unfortunately, most ebook versions of textbooks are crippled, and many textbook publishers insist on selling their e-books at the hardbound price, rather than the paperback price. I wish that weren’t the case, because I’d like the convenience of a functioning ebook also.

  3. I agree with Martha. The ePublishing situation in Higher Education, is far more complex than Fast Company would have us believe. For example, they take no account of the rising trend amongst academics of providing students with eTextbooks sans DRM and at zero cost.
    I’ve just finished teaching an online class with 55 students from 13 different countries. The six primary chapter length eTextbooks plus 3 smaller eTextbooklets were are written by myself using iBooks Author and were provided at no cost to these students. I even revealed how to deconstruct these books and extract the video and audio files from them.
    For a more in-depth treatment of this subject, there is my 99 cent eTextbook entitled, “The Coming ePublishing Revolution in Higher Education.” Version 1.2 is on the iBookstore at and version 1.3, a free update, is in the works.

  4. Time-based media, movies, music recordings and even phone conversations, move easily from analogue to digital format. Some print sectors associated with timed delivery, such as news or genre fiction, move easily as well and can decoy us into thinking that analogue print not associated with timed delivery will also migrate one-way from analogue to digital format.

    But wait, what is going on with persistent analogue print sectors such as textbooks or the scholarly monograph or scripture? These sectors are especially NOT time paced in their delivery. The scholarly monograph has a perpetual long tail, and scripture is oddly perpetual as well. Textbooks are ambivalent either inscrutable or transparent to the given student with immensely different periods of engagement. The accumulated annotation and high-lighting in used textbooks are a clue to the persistent analogue genres.

  5. I offer my students the option of buying the printed version of the textbook, or renting the ebook version (the publisher offers both options.) I’m a huge fan of ebooks for my personal reading, yet no student to my knowledge has taken advantage of the ebook option for my course. Nor have I, even though the option is free for me. They are only about 20-30% cheaper, are made available on a semester basis only, and while they offer note-taking, highlighting, etc., moving around in them is far more difficult, even though searching for information is much easier. Students routinely sell their hard copy texts back to the bookstore at the end of the semester. Not possible with the ebook version.

    That being said, the price of textbooks is now such that for some courses, like chemistry, the cost of the text exceeds the cost of the tuition for the course at my community college. I am seriously looking at compiling a “text” of online resources for students that would save them a bundle. Lots of excellent multi-media options, original sources, and content are now available free online. I suspect we may see a transition away from physical textbooks, not to ebooks, but online alternatives. The publishers are pricing themselves out of the market.

  6. @Eric, community colleges are actually ahead of their four-year bretheren in the pursuit of open textbooks that cost students very little or nothing. That’s probably because textbook costs can easily equal 50% of tuition costs overall at CCs.
    Students don’t like the eTextbooks that commercial publishers offer but they love open textbooks where they are available.
    Openstax College (Rice U) will have a chemistry text in early 2015 (see: but there are many others available right now. Just search on “open textbook chemistry.”

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail