Across the globe, paper textbooks are slowly being relegated to “thing of the past” status to make way for enhanced digital textbooks. South Korea has already put into place an initiative to digitize all textbooks in public schools and higher education. India has rolled out several models of minimalist cost-effective tablets aimed at public school students, even in outlying areas. So why has the Book Industry Study Group (BISG)found that only 11% of higher education students in the U.S. have utilized digital textbook rental services? Why did 75% of those students surveyed in American universities say they still prefer print over digital for their school reading?
“As with every part of the publishing industry, the college textbook market is undergoing exponential change,” explains Kelly Gallagher in Bowker’s survey findings report. Gallagher is the Vice President of Publishing Services at Bowker Market Research, the company who teamed up with BISG on the survey, Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education. “Trying to keep up with, let alone stay ahead of what students expect and need related to an enriched learning experience will continue to pay big dividends to those taking the time to understand this ever changing market.”
In part two of the report from the survey, Gallagher explains that the entire landscape of digital textbooks at the college level is confusing. On the one hand, students expect value from their textbook purchases, which for many students translates into purchasing older editions and used texts with the intention of reselling the titles once the course is completed. At the same time, with as many as 46% of the students who responded to the survey citing that they are at least interested in having their textbooks on a tablet such as the iPad and with almost 15% of the students already owning a tablet PC, why aren’t more students using the digital resources that are already available?
Several factors play a role in how the attitudes translate into real-time use of digital texts. If a textbook has simply been formatted for an e-reader, tablet, or smartphone, where is the increased value for the user? Why should a student pay full price for a digital edition that doesn’t offer anything more than its print counterpart? Tech savvy students are aware of the capabilities of ebooks, including embedded videos and full-color graphics, easy search and annotation capabilities throughout the text, even online social reading platforms through the textbook that allow interaction with other students and professors. Why pay for a full-price ebook if it won’t do the very things that make it an ebook?
Also, textbook publishers have already come out in favor of maintaining what many see as artificially high prices for digital textbooks, stating that the real expense in textbook publication is not the paper they’re printed on but the team of doctoral level researchers who authored the titles. If students will be paying the same price for the digital version as they would have to for a brand-new print edition of the same book while knowing that there is no option to purchase a used text or to resell the texts later, where is the incentive to go paperless?
In order to make a broader-scale transition to academic ebooks, the hurdles of our current attitudes about textbooks in general will have to be overcome. While BISG clearly showed that price still continues to be one of the main concerns for students when it comes to selecting where and what they purchase for class, publishers need to understand that the only way to win students over to digital textbooks will be to incorporate all the things that students know an ebook can do.