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University Students Not Keen On eTextbooks


In March 2011, a study by the research division of the National Association of College Stores (NACS) found that 75% of college students across the United States still preferred to have a print copy of their textbooks rather than a digital one.  Although there was a 6% increase in digital textbook purchases over the previous year, digital textbooks are still quite far from taking over the college textbook market.

eTextbook sales are a significantly lower percent of book sales in that category when compared to the general ebook market. Amazon sells more than half of their books in Kindle form, whereas one of the national leaders in digital textbook sales sells only 1% of its textbooks in digital format.

Similarly, a study by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) noted that although student textbook purchasing decisions are shifting, the percentage of students choosing e-textbooks is still small. Smaller, in fact, than the textbook rental market, which is around 11% and growing.

Some of the reason students are snubbing digital textbooks are issues with device compatibility, the limitations placed on ebooks by publishers that don’t allow printing, copying or pasting, and the fact that most digital textbooks are licensed and tied to a device so they cannot be kept, sold or shared once the course is over.

Another problem with moving students to digital textbooks was illustrated by a Bowker (UK) market research survey that indicated that 48% of UK students who did use ebooks got them for free, either from the library or from file sharing sites.

While many expect anything digital to be free, adoption by students is not helped by the price point publishers are asking for the digital editions. In most cases, the digital edition is not significantly lower than the print edition, and students expect to be able to sell their print textbooks for 50% of the cover price after the course is over. Moreover, for textbooks in a student’s discipline, a 180 day rental is not really adequate. They would want access for their entire academic career, and perhaps beyond.

Additionally, although it would seem that digital textbooks would be a natural fit for students with disabilities, the format, structure and restrictions placed on them by publishers present significant challenges in terms of accessibility.

Even though students may not yet be jumping on the e-textbook bandwagon, some colleges and universities are attempting to force them into buying the digital textbook. Indiana University,  University of California-Berkeley, University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin, University of Virginia and Cornell University all have programs in place to force students to buy digital textbooks rather than print.

Students who participated in the etextbook pilot project at these institutions were lukewarm after the experience. According to the Pilot Report by Internet2:

The first series of survey questions asked students how well the eTextbooks met their learning needs compared to paper textbooks (rated on a 1‐5 scale from “not at all” to “a great deal”). The highest rated items in this area were that eTexts offered students “greater flexibility to learn the way I want” (3.22 mean) and “using eTexts has become part of my learning routine” (3.10 mean). Both means were in the “somewhat” meeting your needs category. In terms of the lowest rated items, students clearly did not believe the eTexts “helped me interact and collaborate more with classmates” (1.90) or “allowed me to interact more with my professor” (1.73).

Not a stunning endorsement, but more institutions are joining the initiative this year. Universities, it seems, like digital textbooks more than students do.

Publishers also like digital textbooks. As noted, the retail price is not significantly lower than that of print, but the associated printing, shipping and warehousing costs are eliminated.  Also gone is the pesky used book market which has plagued textbook publishers for decades.

However, if students remain reluctant adopters, publishers may need to rethink the way they price and relicense digital textbooks. Relying on universities to force the sale is not a good long term strategy, particularly in the face of new and free open textbook initiatives, which may gain traction in difficult economic times.

For More Info:

  • Abutaleb, Yasmeen. “Some Universities Require Students to Use E-textbooks.” The Ithaca Journal. The Ithaca Journal, 13 Aug. 2012. Web. 24 Aug. 2012. <>.
  • Bumgardner, Bryan. “Digital Textbooks Are Taking the Weight off Students’ Backs.” The Daily Athenaeum, 6 June 2012. Web. 24 Aug. 2012. <>.
  • Duggan, Fionnuala. “Online Academic Material Has Costs Too.” The Guardian Media Network, 24 Aug. 2012. Web. 24 Aug. 2012. <>.
  • Internet2 ETextbook Spring 2012 Pilot Final Project Report August 1, 2012. Rep. Internet2, 1 Aug. 2012. Web. 24 Aug. 2012. <>.
  • Mele, Christina. “Digital, Rentals Are Changing the Landscape for College Bookstores.” Daily Local News, 22 Aug. 2012. Web. 24 Aug. 2012. <>.

Wendy Woudstra is a writer, editor, publishing coach, book fanatic, print evangelist, crazy mom, and owner of

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