Online Exclusive: Are eTextbooks the future?

It won’t be long before textbooks go digital, and it’s easy to see why. With all other media becoming more portable, the bi-annual trek to the bookstore to pick up 20 pounds of books seems endangered. No longer will students have to carry books back and forth every day, only to remember that they forgot the only one they needed for a certain class.

Why has this tradition carried on for so long? While library visits are still common, most of our work can be done online. Indeed, looking up an article in hard copy is a rarity for most students and many books are already available online. Are books the final frontier of tactile learning? Or are predictions of a revolution as doomed to fail as predictions of a proletariat uprising?

In fact, many textbook publishers have already begun offering eBooks. The question is not when the shift away from paper will occur, but the manner by which it will happen. Most obvious to publishers interested in going digital is how to learn from the mistakes of the music industry. Music piracy occurred for so long because it was easy to do, it wasn’t considered wrong and, perhaps the biggest reason, an alternative didn’t exist to encourage people otherwise. At least, until Apple’s iTunes and iPod made it easy to access quality music at a price that consumers are willing to pay.

There are differences between music and books, however. For most people it isn’t worth the time to digitally scan every page of a book to create a copy that can be distributed, so piracy is easier to control because it is harder to start in the first place. Also, even though many books, especially classics, are already available for free online, most people are willing to go buy the book instead of reading it on a computer screen or printing it off themselves.

What the iPod did for music, eBook readers are doing for books. They are the size of a magazine, the screens are much easier to read from than a typical computer’s and many include annotation tools. The technology is already available, and while they cost from $300-$500, the cost of online textbooks is usually half of paper copies. The difference in price, then, could easily be made up over a year, while the other advantages are many.

Perhaps the biggest change we will see is the continuing decline of physical retailers. Music shops have almost entirely disappeared and bookstores are witnessing declining sales as internet sites are seeing increasing growth. But as much as some will lament, the advantages of digital distribution are too many to ignore. Not only does the consumer benefit through less bulk to carry, but the cost for books is dramatically lower for the consumer, the risk is lower for publishers no longer worried about how many books to print and the environmental impact is much smaller.

Apple is expected to announce a tablet next month, which will change the industry dramaticly. The features it is likely to have, such as a colour screen, will make it more popular than its rivals — provided its cost is competitive. If publishers start selling books on iTunes, with the option of buying certain chapters instead of the whole book, then prices will be lower. Many classes don’t require the whole book be read, so if chapters could be purchased, like songs are instead of getting the entire album, it would be beneficial. For now we’re still waiting for the right technology, but when it comes the shift to digital will happen faster than expected.

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