A Threshold Year For eBooks; eTextbooks…not so much

The digital turn in publishing became more acute in 2011 as readers took to Kindles, iPads, and other tablets. According to Amazon, over the past year, the sale of digital books for Kindle surpassed those of print copies. This is astonishing growth for a device that itself is only four years old and confirms that the world of publishing is currently undergoing an extraordinary transformation—a transformation that is affecting not only how reading materials are delivered and used but also how they are produced and maintained (see, for example, this recent article in the Wall Street Journal on the future of the digital text as a perpetually unfinished work).

And yet one could be forgiven for thinking that this digital publishing transformation has somehow bypassed the textbook market. While general readers were clamoring for Kindles and iPads, sales of digital textbooks last year remained at less than five percent. Ninety-five percent of students purchasing or renting textbooks last year chose to use the old-fashioned technology of the codex despite the fact that the digital versions are usually cheaper. And as more students in 2011 purchased or rented from third party online alternatives, this also meant that they typically preferred to wait for these physical materials—often receiving them after classes had begun—rather than have immediate access to a digital version.

How so? Why are general readers embracing digital books while most students still shun them? Students, and people of college and high school age generally, already read copiously on screens—Facebook, articles, email and text chats, and use the Internet as their primary reference tool. They, more than their parents and grandparents—the age demographic groups that are really driving Kindle sales—should be the ones far out in front of the digital text wave. So why aren’t they? And is this a trend we’re likely to see continuing through 2012?

As I’ve noted previously, students need to feel that the value of the digital alternative is higher. It’s not about price alone, but also about the relationship between the cost of materials and the perception that they will improve academic outcomes. Over the next series of posts, I’ll examine why eTextbooks did not win favor with students in 2011 but also the considerable shifts currently underway that indicate perhaps a different result in 2012.

  • Comments (1)
  1. Phillip Honstein,
    Interesting information here. It suggests that there's a huge opportunity still in the textbook market. Being a Web Developer who has worked in both textbooks and eBooks, I would say that the issue is the experience. eBooks are ideal for novels and magazines. But for long-form learning, more work needs to be done. In the late 1990's, the EveryBook two-panel eBook reader never got off the ground, but the designers of it appreciated that two facing pages are easier to read than one, especially when you are learning a new subject. You need to be able to preview, and recurse. It's easier with a standard textbook. That's one issue. Then there's the ease of highlighting, annotation, and finding your place 1/3 of the way into a 300 page physical book. These activities are easier with a pencil, a marker, and a physical text.

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