Jan. 27, 2011


After adding the book rental option last fall, University Book Store gave students the option of purchasing e-textbooks for spring semester. Photo by Bob Elbert.

E-textbook sales are off to a good start

by Anne Krapfl

In University Book Store's (UBS) first semester of offering textbooks in electronic form, 1 percent of the texts sold were e-textbooks. As of Monday (two weeks into spring semester), bookstore officials said students had purchased 458 e-textbooks from the 245 titles the store offered in electronic format. They're pleased with those results.

"We had been advised that we'd probably sell between 100 and 200 e-textbooks the first semester," said John Wierson, a textbook buyer for UBS who coordinated the addition of e-textbooks to the store's services. "I am really happy with the results so far."

Wierson said last year, a little less than 3 percent of all textbook revenue nationally was for e-textbooks. Some expect that to grow to 10 or 12 percent over the next two years.

UBS decided to sell e-texts because students have been asking for the option, he said.

Variables in expanded use of e-textbooks

  • Making them more interactive
  • Making them viewable on more kinds of portable devices, including e-readers and smartphones

They're less expensive -- as little as half the cost of a new hard copy of the same title and typically less than a used copy as well -- and less cumbersome to haul around, Wierson noted. E-textbooks include features such as highlighting, note-taking on specific pages and a read-aloud audio feature. And, Wierson said, nationally, 25 percent of college students prefer reading online to reading a printed page.

The downside? They have no buy-back value at the bookstore, textbooks aren't yet compatible with Amazon's Kindle or Barnes & Noble's Nook e-readers and, depending on which electronic publisher offers the title, there may be an expiration date -- six or 12 months out -- on your "ownership." The least expensive e-textbooks typically come with an expiration date.

How e-textbooks work

A student who purchases an e-textbook is equipped with several purchase codes to log into the digital textbook website of the bookstore's wholesaler, MBS Textbook Exchange, Columbia, Mo. From there, MBS directs the student to one of three electronic publishers, CourseSmart, VitalSource or Xplana, for the e-text. When more than one offers a title, MBS selects the one with the lowest price.

All publishers offer a "view online" option; an internet browser and Adobe Flash software are the basic requirements. VitalSource and CourseSmart offer an alternative: download the e-textbook to a personal computer or laptop. CourseSmart's download option also lets clients read the book on an iPad, iPhone or iPod with the right application. But Wierson noted the publishers are working on improvements and options constantly.

At the time UBS sells an e-textbook to a student, it also generates a purchase invoice with the electronic publisher. The bookstore pays the publishers monthly.

Looking ahead

Wierson said the bookstore expects to stay in the e-textbook business. Where there's a match between a faculty member's textbook request and the wholesaler's e-textbook catalog, in most cases UBS will sell it.

He noted that two evolving variables may influence student interest in purchasing e-textbooks:

  • E-textbooks that are increasingly interactive
  • E-textbooks that are viewable on more models of portable devices, including e-readers and smartphones

Cost comparison: New, used, rental and electronic

Introduction to Engineering Analysis (Aerospace engineering 160)

New $  53.00
Used $  39.70
E-text $  23.70

Chemistry The Central Science (Chemistry 178)

New $218.60
Used $163.90
Rent $  75.00
E-text $149.30

Nutritional Sciences (Food science and human nutrition 265)

New $154.00
Used $115.50
E-text $  79.40

igenetics (Agronomy 320)

New $175.00
Used $131.20
Rent $  76.00
E-text $  77.80

Real Analysis (Math 516)

New $132.00
Used $  99.00
E-text $  55.90

Hard Evidence (Anthropology 524)

New $  57.40
Used $  43.00
E-text $  24.30