Consumer Beat

A textbook ending?

College students lured to lower cost of e-texts

Email|Print| Text size + By Bruce Mohl
Globe Staff / December 9, 2007

The paper version of "Psychology," a popular college textbook by David G. Myers, weighs nearly 5 pounds and costs roughly $90 new and $70 used. The digital version is easy on a backpack and costs $55.

Which would you choose?

CourseSmart LLC, a new company backed by the nation's biggest textbook publishers, is betting that many tech-savvy students looking to save some money will select the e-textbook.

The Belmont, Calif., company is still in beta, refining its digital-book format and its business model. It offers about 2,000 e-textbooks now and hopes to have far more by next fall. But already CourseSmart is attracting considerable attention, particularly from college bookstores, which earn most of their revenue selling new and used textbooks and fear the publishers will sell directly to students and elbow them aside.

The National Association of College Bookstores issued a statement to its members last month saying it had directed its general counsel to review the antitrust im plications of CourseSmart and the potential for the publishers to exercise "unreasonable control over the release and pricing of digital assets to the higher education marketplace."

Frank Lyman, executive vice president for marketing and business development at CourseSmart, said bookstores will continue to play a vital role in the textbook market, but he acknowledged the relationship between publishers and bookstores is changing.

Publishers are "not looking to cut out the bookstores, but certainly there's some shaking out of their relationship that's going to happen as we migrate to digital," he said.

That migration is still in its infancy, but there is a growing belief in publishing circles that electronic textbooks have a real chance of catching on because of the savings, the convenience, and the features they have to offer.

Amanda L. Hyatt, a student at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis., said she is accustomed to reading off a computer screen. But she said it was still a "bit of an adjustment" studying an e-textbook.

"It's nice to have that solid book in your hands," she said. "With an e-textbook, you almost feel like you're not able to pull that information close to you."

Still, Hyatt said, she would probably buy another e-textbook and thinks students increasingly will go digital because that's the direction society in general is moving. She noted the healthcare company where she works during the day is converting from paper to electronic records.

Jim Hindman, a business major at Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kan., said he liked going paperless because it was cheaper, it meant one less book to lug around, and it was better for the environment. He said it was sometimes difficult working with an electronic book, but he said he plans to do it again.

The format of e-textbooks is still evolving. CourseSmart's product allows the user to highlight passages, type notes in the margins, and even search the text for a specific word or phrase. Users access CourseSmart books at the company's password-protected website, so Web access is essential. Lyman said CourseSmart will eventually sell downloadable books and possibly even downloadable chapters. A customer could share access to a book with another student, but CourseSmart officials say two students cannot access a book at the same time.

CourseSmart currently sells access to its e-textbooks for a limited amount of time, typically six months to a year. By contrast, CafeScribe, a CourseSmart competitor based in Salt Lake City, sells downloadable books that the user owns for good. CafeScribe's software allows users to share notes with other students at the same university or other universities.

Price is perhaps the biggest selling point for electronic textbooks. Textbooks currently cost students on average about $940 a year, or nearly $4,000 over four years. CourseSmart typically sells e-textbooks at half the price of a new paper textbook. Used textbooks can sometimes be found for less, typically selling for about 75 percent of the new-book price. A smart shopper who buys used and sells his book after the course is over can save the most money, but that takes work and luck. A new edition or a change in a course syllabus can diminish the value of a resale.

"Part of the premise of CourseSmart is reliable savings," Lyman said. "Students are really looking for that."

Leslie Holcomb, a student at Lansing Community College in Michigan, said she had the choice of buying a new textbook for $140, a used one for $87, or the CourseSmart version for $75. She chose the CourseSmart book.

"I like that it was no hassle. I didn't have to wait for it to arrive in the mail or go and pick it up," Holcomb said. "I will use it again unless it's a book I want to keep for future reference."

CourseSmart is attractive to its member publishers because it allows them to sell books without the costs of producing and distributing them. It also allows the publishers to save money on faculty review copies of textbooks. Instead of mailing hundreds of thousands of textbooks to professors across the country, the publishers can now make the textbooks available for electronic review on CourseSmart.

Joe Melcher, a psychology professor at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota who describes himself as a "gadgety, geeky kind of guy," has reviewed several e-textbooks and has assigned one for a class next semester. "It's really cool," he said.

The six publishers behind CourseSmart are Pearson Education; Bedford, Freeman & Worth; McGraw-Hill Education; John Wiley & Sons; Houghton Mifflin, and Cengage Learning. The six will become five soon with last week's announcement that for $750 million, Cengage is buying the college textbook division of Houghton Mifflin.

Together, the publishers control 70 to 80 percent of the $6.5 billion college textbook market, which is why competitors and college bookstores are nervous.

The competitors worry CourseSmart will deny them access to most textbooks. The bookstores worry CourseSmart will sell direct to students and cut them out of the loop. Right now, most college bookstores offer e-textbooks as an option to students. Industry officials say the bookstores receive about 6 percent of an e-textbook sale compared with 25 percent or more on the sale of a new book.

Used textbook sales account for about 20 percent of sales, and none of that goes to publishers. If sales of e-textbooks were to increase, sales of used books would likely decline, largely because there would be fewer for sale.

Lyman says CourseSmart wants to work with college bookstores, which can offer students one-stop shopping for new, used, or electronic textbooks and every type of payment option, including use of financial aid. "I'm a believer that there's a shared goal there and we can make it work," he said.

Jerry Murphy, president of the Harvard Cooperative Society, which sells textbooks to many students in Greater Boston, said the concept of e-textbooks hasn't been proven yet. He said few titles are available electronically and relatively few students are asking for them.

"A lot of people, for whatever reason, like to have touchy-feely paper," he said.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at

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