Many college students won't start school for a few weeks, but the thought of looming expenses has probably set in. There's room and board, meal plans, and those essential reading items: textbooks. They're required for most courses, can be quite heavy... not to mention pricey and typically yield a low buyback value at campus bookstores at the end of a semester. Yet it looks like one company is looking to change the textbook game.
Students can rent textbooks for up to 360 days, and will only pay for the "specific time they need a book," the company said. Rental times can also be extended day by day.
The e-textbooks can also be accessed via the Kindle reading app on PCs, Macs, and smartphones. Now, textbook rental isn't new. When I was in college, which was less than 5 years ago, I remember one off-campus bookstore starting a rental program by the semester. From a student's perspective, it seemed more cost efficient than purchasing even a used textbook. As for the publishing companies, well, they were just starting to get on board. And with more companies making the foray to e-textbooks, many other challenges are on the horizon, in terms of accessibility and finding clients.
In order to get a firsthand perspective from someone working in the business, I chatted with Vikram Savkar, Director at Nature Education. He's working with Nature Publishing to launch Principles of Biology. Once purchased, this e-textbook gives a student lifetime access to a constantly-updated textbook for Biology. Just like the Amazon Kindle program, students can access everything they would in a normal textbook on different digital platforms.
To date, about 15-20 colleges have signed on and will be using the e-textbook in their biology courses. So, what's the advantage of reading from an e-textbook, aside from it weighing less? In Savkar's case,
"It's a series of interactive modules . . . based on flexible digital content. We try hard to find opportunities to find simulations and exercises. Teachers get real-time feedback on how students are doing as well as a class as a whole. We tried to create a textbook that is rigorous and thorough, but also active in nature."
I wondered if the business model would change drastically. Savkar said:
"It was a challenge. We went through months and months of planning. Our hands are really tied. We know where the industry has to go — [selling] $50-$75 textbooks rather than $150-$200. We know that it has to go digital...but if you're a textbook publisher, it's hard to get there. It's really tough to cut prices by 30%."
But not every student has access to the latest technology. How does a company make sure they won't exclude anyone? He replied:
"Students have a temptation to focus on the latest and greatest ... Students don't have PCs at certain community colleges. It's important to not create digital divide. We've made it [the e-textbooks] more accessible. Students with disabilities can access it easier through browser — dial it [the uploading rate] up and down. You don't have to wait for big heavy videos to get cued up."
Now, it's time for you to weigh in. Parents, students, teachers — are American colleges ready for the advent of e-textbooks? As for those in the textbook publishing business — is now the time to go digital?