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Digital textbooks may not be cheaper, report finds

Online versions can't be sold back and may have expiration dates.

August 26, 2008|Gale Holland | Times Staff Writer

Over the past year, seemingly everyone from Congress to the California auditor have decried college textbook costs, which have soared to an average of $700 to $1,000 per student each year. Many of these critics have pointed to online digital textbooks, which typically sell for half the price of print editions, as an affordable alternative.

But a sharply critical report released Monday asserts that commercial publishers are going about the digital textbook revolution the wrong way. Commercial e-textbooks are no cheaper than hard-copy editions when you take into account that students can sell print books back to the bookstore for half the cover price, according to the report from a national coalition of student public interest research groups. And restrictions on printing and online access make commercial e-books unfeasible for many students, the report said.

"Right now, publishers are on a crash course with e-textbooks," the report said. "They are expensive and impractical for a large portion of the student population."

Frank Lyman, executive vice president of CourseSmart, which released 4,000 digital titles from major publishers this fall, said not all college bookstores pay 50% for used textbooks. And digital textbooks offer advantages such as cut-and-paste and search functions that make them an attractive option.

"My overarching question is: How does the availability of this new choice hurt students?" Lyman said.

The report was based on a survey of 504 students from Portland State University and the City Colleges of Chicago. Fifty commonly assigned introductory textbooks were also reviewed. The author of the study is Nicole Allen, campaign director for Make Textbooks Affordable, a public interest research groups project.

Perhaps the report's most surprising finding -- at least to parents who can barely peel their college-age children away from their Facebook or MySpace pages -- was that only one-third of students said they were comfortable reading textbooks on a computer screen. Three-fourths said they would prefer a print textbook to an electronic one if the costs were equal.

The report said commercial publishers, however, have made it cumbersome and expensive to print out digital texts. "Biology," 8th edition, from Pearson publishers, sells for $173, and the e-book goes for $86.50. But buying and printing out the text would cost $211.87, the report said.

"The cost is totally dependent on which book they're talking about, the cost of printer cartridges and other things," Lyman said. In any case, his company has heard from students who say they only want to print out short sections, for note summaries or other purposes. "A student who wants to print out a whole book should buy a whole book."

The report also dinged commercial publishers for setting expiration dates on digital book subscriptions. "Calculus," 6th edition, from the publisher Cengage, is priced at $207.95 for a new hard copy; the e-text version is $103.99. Access expires after 180 days, although students typically study the book over two semesters, the report said.

"Once a student buys a textbook, it should be theirs to keep and access wherever and whenever they want," the study said. "Anything less than complete access would make digital books impractical for large numbers of students with limited access to computers and/or the Internet."

Lyman said most subscription periods match how long students need a text, and discrepancies are subject to review. "Chemistry: The Central Science," 10th edition, from Prentice Hall goes for $90.67 for a 540-day subscription.

"It's not a bad deal," Lyman said in an e-mail message.

The report called on college systems and faculty to support open digital textbooks, which are given away online without restrictions on use.

Lyman said he doubted that free online textbooks are a practical solution.

"I know the work that goes into creating a textbook, from the authorship to the infographics," Lyman said. "Let's let the students decide what they want."

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gale.holland@latimes.com

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