The End of College Bookstores?

Are we finally coming to that oft predicted outcome of the digital age? That physical books will be no more?

I think so. 

My school recently launched a program that will move course materials for specific classes online to be made readable in eText format.

But this is nothing new, schools and publishers have been putting textbooks online for years now. What is new and revolutionary is that the school has negotiated a deal with a number of eText publishers that will reduce the cost …

  1. Andrew Johnson

    I actually work at my university’s bookstore and am chummy with most of the management, so I’ve listened in to their discussions about the way the “traditional book” (which is a weird term) is going.

    Part of the reason books are still doing well is because they’re just easier to use. More often than not, students in class while either be confused about how to access an online component of the course or claim that program won’t upload properly onto their laptop or tablet. With a book, you either have it or you don’t; it’s that simple. Apparently students are just deciding its not worth the hassle to work out the kinks.

    If cost is the concern, and you stated that the deal would cut prices dramatically, my bookstore now offers the option to rent your textbooks for nearly half the price. If you’re old-fashioned and want a physical book while saving some money, that’s your best option. There are limits to what you can do to them, but it’s reasonable.

    Just for kicks, here’s a link to a report a local news station did about textbooks, featuring me.

  2. Nico Perrino
    Andrew Johnson: 

    Part of the reason books are still doing well is because they’re just easier to use.

    I think you are right about this. I’m not sure the technology is quite there yet to make eTexts more desirable than physical books. However, I think with Indiana University’s latest move we are heading that way. 60 to 70 percent off the price of the book might make up for any inconvenience that may exist.

  3. Palaeologus
    Nico Perrino:

    What is new and revolutionary is that the school has negotiated a deal with a number of eText publishers that will reduce the cost of the different texts by 60 to 70 percent….

    The cost for these eTexts will be levied within the tuition bill, and the texts automatically uploaded to my school’s online course management system, Oncourse.

    Monopoly of product? Check.

    Price controls?  Check.

    Guaranteed sales? Check.

    Customers’ costs indirect & wrapped into some other bill? Check.

    Public-Private Partnership? Check.

    If it looks like crony capitalism, and smells like crony capitalism…

    I do agree with your thesis, Nico. This is probably the beginning of the end for the college bookstores. It will come through anti-competitive agreements like these, and even worse, idiotic legislative mandates.

  4. flemsipper

    E-books:   Less cost for individual textbook users, but tremendous long-term profit for e-sellers as they are guaranteed to sell the same book to many different devices over time.  And all powered by coal and susceptible to glitches and endless electronic diddling in the guise of updates.  Many is the time that I have come upon old textbooks, and had the serendipitous pleasure of discovering information where I wasn’t even looking for it, as well as yellow highlighted text and jotted notes in margins.  Never would have downloaded the book but found it by pure chance on a shelf somewhere.  And when the power goes off…(Here I will foment some paranoia)  or is intentionally shut off…. the book is still there.  Any titles come to mind which might accidentally disappear?  Worth thinking about. 

  5. The King Prawn

     After three years of online study at AMU I liked my ebooks much more than hardcopy. The ability to search for a bit of a phrase that stuck while reading is worth any hastle otherwise created by the format.

  6. Misthiocracy

    I haven’t been a university student for about 14 years, but I remember one of my pet peeves from my student days was how often I would be required to purchase a textbook only to find that the course or the professor only required that I read a portion of it.  Sometimes, the course required that I read about half of the text.  Sometimes, the professor was only interested in a few chapters.

    So that’s one reason I like the idea of eBooks. A well-designed system would allow the student to pay only for the amount of the text they actually need for the class.

    <devil’s advocate mode = on>

    On the other hand, the bookshelf in my apartment that holds all my old textbooks helps convince the babes that I’m really brainy.

    <devil’s advocate mode = off>

  7. C. U. Douglas

    Ah!&nbsp; If only we had digital textbooks in my day as an option.&nbsp; I still remember getting to college, being told that we can buy used textbooks and sell our textbooks back.&nbsp; I also remember used books being understocked and being told my new textbooks couldn’t be sold back as used as a “new edition” was being released — which usually meant same as the previous edition with a couple chapters rearranged.&nbsp; Such is my cynicism.

    Hopefully, digital formats will create options for students.&nbsp; Of course, the disadvantage is that you can’t sell a digital format back.&nbsp; Textbooks can be re-used or given away.&nbsp; Ebooks can’t be transferred.&nbsp; Being from a family of readers, we like being able to share books we truly enjoy or find notable.&nbsp; I’ve found with my tablet Kindle app, I grab books that are $1 or better, free.&nbsp; New releases I want I still buy the hard copy.&nbsp; A slight digression, but it’s related to the concept.

    Ebooks won’t stop edition creep, I suspect.&nbsp; If anything it may even increase to avoid “illicit” sharing of e-texts.&nbsp; It’s all speculation on my part, really.

  8. Mel Foil

    I’m not sure I want a digital trail left behind for everything I read. If I pay cash for a hardback copy of “An Illustrated History of the Brassiere,” there’ll be no digital transaction (involving me) that needs recording. I haven’t bought that particular title. Just an example. Naturally, I’d only be interested in the history of fabric and engineering advances.

  9. Rob Long

    As I recall — and this was all back during the McKinley administration — professors could make a lot of money by writing textbooks and then requiring them in their classes. &nbsp;I wonder how this new e-book wave may change that? &nbsp;Will professors just bypass publishers altogether, “publish” a book as a PDF? &nbsp;

  10. CandE

    Had electronic books in college.&nbsp; Didn’t like ‘em.&nbsp; Gimme a real book any day of the week.&nbsp; And if your pocketbook is hurting, there are always foreign editions on amazon for 1/3 the price.&nbsp; It’s a nice (albeit horribly illegal for some reason *cough* monopoly *cough*) way of sticking it to the man.


  11. GadgetGal

    &nbsp;Funny, one my book reps and I were just talking about this the other day.&nbsp; From a faculty perspective, the ebook offers a lot of advantages:&nbsp; lower costs to students (yes, faculty really do consider this), opportunities for customization, and a more efficient supply chain.&nbsp;

    In the traditional model, the campus bookstore drives the process because they are competing with third party used book sellers, book renters, and external mandates.&nbsp; On my campus, as soon as the next semester schedule is finalized (I just made the spring semester assignments), the campus bookstore starts a relentless drumbeat of requests for textbook information.&nbsp; In my department (IT in a business school), information is constantly changing–it takes time for the conscientious faculty member to evaluate new texts/editions–so having an electronic delivery method enables us to be much more nimble in finding and using current texts.&nbsp; The reader technology is constantly improving–I’ve found the new readers easy to use.

  12. Boots on the Table

    I have to admit, being a seller of used books, I’m kind of biased towards the physical book.

  13. Joshua Riddle

    Just bought all my books….from Amazon

  14. Valiuth

    Maybe in physics then. In biology everything worth knowing you can get for free from Reviews. Well free to students at universities with subscriptions. I just feel like I never used my text books when I was in college. All the other books I bought I used/read but text books really they were kind of worthless and all of them i could have gotten at the library to look at.&nbsp;

  15. Christopher

    It’s been almost three decades since I was in college, but here’s my two-cents’ worth:

    I hope this goes through. Why? Because the print version will be cheaper.

    See, there are things I don’t mind reading on the computer: news, fun stuff (fantasy, scifi, etc.) Then there are the serious things. Textbooks have always been overpriced. Why? Because they were required. I’ll just ignore the etext and buy the much cheaper hardcopy. That way I can highlight, write notes in the margins, bookmark.

    Yeah, I know, supposedly computer software has made doing all of the above easy. When I was in 7th grade, Dad gave me an early 4-function calculator. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college (1978) that calculators were good enough to replace my slide rule. I’m not yet impressed.

    Of course, most textbooks aren’t worth being called ‘books’. They suck. If they weren’t ‘required’ I wouldn’t buy one. The hard sciences are the only exemption. One must keep up. English, Math, History, use original sources. Most of them are published quite cheaply by Penguin Press.

  16. CandE

    It sounds like there is general displeasure with textbooks in general more than displeasure with physical copies of textbooks.&nbsp; I sympathize; I have several that I have not opened since I graduated.&nbsp; However, some that have been extremely useful.&nbsp; Is that unique to my major (Chemical Engineering)?&nbsp; Perhaps it applies to lower level courses more so than Junior/Senior courses which require texts with greater depth?

    Just to specify, the textbooks that I still find very useful/interesting to have include: Heat Transfer, Separations, Fluid Mechanics, Energy and the Environment, Air Pollution, Calculus (differential and integral, not multi-variable or PDE [though I really wish a had a good reference for that]), and Material Balances.


  17. Percival

    My biggest problem with ebooks in general is that I’m not all that clear on what kind of backup exists.&nbsp; I’ll put up with not being able to lend a book I’ve paid for, but if my ebook reader bricks or my computer croaks, how will I be able to get my book back?&nbsp; A physical book may be lost or stolen, but at least I don’t have to worry about the vagaries of computing equipment (I get enough of that at work, thank you very much).

    And it would have changed my college experience considerably if ebooks had been available back then.&nbsp; Few memories are as dear to me as meeting up with classmates after the last final, stopping by the student co-op to transact business, then heading for the bars to drink my chemistry book.

  18. Michael Tee
    CandE:Is that unique to my major (Chemical Engineering)?&nbsp;

    Just to specify, the textbooks that I still find very useful/interesting to have include: Heat Transfer, Separations, Fluid Mechanics, Energy and the Environment, Air Pollution, Calculus (differential and integral, not multi-variable or PDE [though I really wish a had a good reference for that]), and Material Balances.

    Yeah, I think for the sciences and engineering fields, this model won’t work so well. Flipping pages back and forth to understand a derivation that takes several I would imagine would be a nightmare on a e-book.

  19. Cutlass

    The whole textbook racket was one of the biggest outrages of my college experience. &nbsp;I’m thrilled to see it crumble. &nbsp;To spend tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and then be forced to spend $60 on a water damaged used textbook with ripped pages, bathroom wall graffiti and indiscriminately&nbsp;highlighted paragraphs was an insult. &nbsp;The used books were a bargain, though, compared with the yearly “new” editions of textbooks, where they simply changed the cover photo from multi-ethnic whitewater rafters to the grand canyon and moved the page numbers around. &nbsp;

    Oh, and my absolute favorite was a professor who expected us to pay the bookstore $30 for a stapled batch of his xeroxed lecture notes.

    As for e-books, I doubt students will have much trouble with the compatibility issue. I use a program called Calibre to convert any file format to my Kindle. &nbsp;No matter what format and/or DRM protections the schools use similar softwares will arise.

  20. CoolHand
    Nico Perrino:

    What do you guys think? Do you think this type of model is the way of the future for colleges and universities?

    God, I hope not.

    You’re glossing over one super important aspect of physical books that cannot be replicated with a limited duration lease on an E-book.

    Reference Material.

    I literally have an entire bookshelf of nothing but engineering, process, materials, mechanics, kinematics, fluids, heat transfer, math, and physics text books from school that I break out any time I need a refresher (integral calculus is not exactly like riding a bike, you CAN forget how to do it if you don’t use it often enough).

    That’s not going to be possible with a one semester use e-book.

    With the e-book, you get to pay for it but not keep it.&nbsp; You know that prices will not be significantly lower if the platform is captive (as is the audience), and the actual cost is hidden.

    There’s no law that says proprietary e-books must be cheaper than their dead tree counterparts.&nbsp; With no alternative, people could easily find themselves paying more than they are now, but for a book that goes away at semester’s end.

    At least with the physical book, once you’ve paid for it, it’s yours until it rots.

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