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The Freakonomics of Digital Textbooks

It seems counter intuitive, at first glance, that students are still using paper textbooks. With iPads, Kindles and other e-readers as common as pizza on college campuses, it’s not a stretch to envision rows of unsold backpacks lingering in bookstores as students add just one more aspect of their lives to the electronic age of the 21st Century. However, that’s far from the case now – though there’s reason to believe that change might just be around the corner where digital textbooks are concerned.

A wide range of costs

By not having to pay printing costs, those sizable savings can be passed on the consumer, in this case the student, right? Well, the answer that is most correct is – it depends. While some of the more sought after textbooks can be had digitally at savings of up to eighty percent compared to bound copies, studies that include other, less popular titles suggest that savings are negligible. Those who’ve finished their schooling, memories of lugging around heavy books around campus, probably have a hard time understanding why anyone would choose a traditional book over an e-book, but there are actually good reasons why adoption has been slow up to this point.

Converging realities

If you’re just entering college, the bottom line is that the future looks bright for your ability to access cheap textbooks. To support this silver lining, though, you need to understand a few key factors in why those costs aren’t already lower, starting with demand.

For many university students, the previous twelve years of their academic life was spent holding, carrying and reading traditional books. Hopefully by the time they began to matriculate into colleges, those in the pipeline had figured out how to really extract a lot of knowledge from a textbook. While their games had mostly moved to the electronics realm, the students didn’t have digital textbooks as part of any tradition. Some of these people became early adopters of digital texts, but most never switched, even for a try. Of those thirty-nine percent who did, roughly one third returned to their familiar, bound texts.

Other reasons for students not trying, or trying and then rejecting, e-texts has to do with the still lingering problem of overall computer skills. Uncomfortable with the interactive features of digital texts, some students made a conscious decision to learn their course skills, but not updated technology skills. In the end, these realities combined to produce low consumer demand for many e-book titles and publishers priced the products accordingly higher as a result.

As college goes, so goes the books

You don’t have to look too far back to find graduates who know the pace of acceleration college has experienced. Now, it’s likely that a graduate received an online bachelor degree, albeit using bound textbooks. Colleges have gone digital in ways unthinkable only a decade ago and Ivy League schools are well known to offer completely-online courses. But while students adapt to digital classrooms, there is still a bit of a lag in adapting to digital textbooks.

A leading reason many students still prefer paper to digital materials has to do with the lack of value added features on even discounted e-books. Students simply aren’t interested in electronic copies of a bound text. However, when a publisher adds value to a text, students respond with their wallets, saving themselves money and providing the demand publishers like to see as they invest more in products that don’t have printing and paper material costs to drive up prices.

Publishers are responding to student quality expectations, and they’re being rewarded by higher sales numbers. The cycle of demand driving down price is already showing up, and for that freshman, this means book costs are almost certainly bound to fall dramatically while he or she is still in college.

Today’s guest article was provided by Joseph Baker.

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