USA Today says demand for digital textbooks surprisingly low


An article that appeared in USA Today this week about the disappointing sales of university textbooks in digital form shows how uphill the battle can be for supporters of e-textbooks like Tracy Hooten and Eric Mack (among others). The article recounts how a Brown University student bought a textbook in digital format so he could save $30. How did he like the ebook format?

But after making the purchase, he noticed a few things amiss: He couldn’t run a highlight marker over key points or jot notes in the margins, nor could he curl up with the tome without printing out the pages.

He won’t rule out another e-book, but he’s not completely sold, either.

What seems to be missing from his experience? The Tablet PC, of course. Digital textbooks cannot offer the proper experience for students without the ability to work with the material on the screen with a pen. The article fails to mention this particular fact and in failing to do so creates a very incorrect impression of the utility of ebooks. I alsog got the impression from the article that publishers might be offering these ebooks in a proprietary format which makes the use of third party tools impossible. How do they think the ebooks can be used without creating them in some industry standard format (like PDF)? Not to mention selling them to students without Tablet PCs? The saddest fact I took away from this article is that the bookstore at Brown University offers a sum total of three textbooks in digital form. No, I cannot imagine how their sales are not achieving bigger numbers. :)


Hugh Sung

I’m on the faculty of a small classical music conservatory – two years ago i purchased my first Tablet PC and made the leap to using only digital versions of music for rehearsals, lessons and performances. The funny thing is, while some of the discussion here has highlighted the nostalgic ‘joys’ of turning a paper page, this has actually been the bane of performing musicians for centuries – either you have to disengage a hand, interrupting your performance, or you have to find someone to sit next to you and (hopefully) turn at the precise time (EVERY musician i know can recount at least a dozen page-turning horror stories!). By using a key-programmable USB footswitch, i’ve been able to turn pages with my foot without removing my hands from my instrument – i’ve become so comfortable with this system, that on the rare occasion that i have to sight-read a paper score, i find myself instinctively pounding the floor with my foot and waiting for the page to blink across!
One advantage the classical music student has over the modern academic student is the fact that a large portion of their library is public domain, resulting in CD libraries and online music scores that are much cheaper than their paper counterparts. CD Sheet Music and are two affordable vendor examples – i can purchase the entire collection of piano works by Chopin on a single CD for $20 – easily a tiny fraction of what it would cost to purchase (and track down!) all those works on paper!
And yet, despite the fact that i have students and musical colleagues who are always ‘wowed’ by my Tablet PC music library, only one or two have ventured to buy Tablet PC’s for themselves. The general resistance seems to be based on reasons pretty similar to what has been discussed above: price and format.
Classical musicians in general seem to be an extremely conservative group when it comes to embracing new technologies. Nevertheless, i can comfortably say that the Tablet PC has been the best musical investment i have made in my professional career, and having adapted to a virtually paperless system, i simply can’t imagine going ‘back’ to – as one Wired magazine writer put it, i think – those bound stacks of pulvarized plant fibers. It will take extensive – and imaginative – education to students and the general public, and more cost-friendly and easily accessible publishing efforts before we see a more widespread adoption of ebook technologies.

Josh Gupton

Sure paper books are DRM free – at least as we know it. I can copy the book freely for personal use. I can lend it to a friend. Last of all, the book doesn’t disappear at the end of a six-month term. When I take a class I become intimately familiar with the text of the course. As part of the knowledge I take away from my education I retain the familiarity with said text. Later I find that I wish to refer back to previous course materials. With a printed book I can do this. If my ebook has expired I’m out of luck.

The benefit of using ebooks for one’s education is not in the initial use. The benefit of having that ebook come later when want to refer back to old material – just think about the utility of being able to search all of your old course notes and texts instantly anywhere you go! With Onenote 12’s audio indexing you’ll also be able to include the lectures in searches as well. Anyway, back to topic – if the ability to search and refer to the text is disrupted then I agree that ebooks are simply a more costly and tempermental version of the original book.


Textbooks are hardly DRM free printed books. The publishers revise them frequently and schools/professors enforce the usage of the new textbooks. This can be seen as a form of DRM. This was a frustration even back in ’84 when I went to college.

People like to blame DRM for the lack of ignition for ebooks/etexts. But when was the last time you curled up by the fire with a 3lb Motion slate and read an ebook? The Sony can be curled up with but it doesn’t support casual mark up and I personally find it not as comfortable to hold as a more flexible book.

Ebook readers are not soft, they are hard and unyielding. There are at most 3 different ways to flip a page (and on many, only one) and those mechanisms are located in fixed unyielding locations on the device. They are designed to be held in the same way and have you twitch in some manner to read an ebook.

A book on the other hand is soft, yielding, can be held in any number of ways and a person can use many different means to achieve page flipping. But the important thing is that flipping the page requires more than a twitch. The muscles get exercised so they can relax.

I often find myself having to think about how to hold an ebook reader to get comfortable again. Find myself changing hands or trying to shift my grip on it.

I don’t know about other readers of this comment, but when was the last time you had to think about reading a book? The body finds it’s own grip on the book, the body finds its own way to flip the pages.

I’m one of those “autistic geniuses” afflicted with hyper-focus. I _can_ flip into focus mode and grunt my way through en ebook but I’m not anything close to normal when it comes to an ebook user. :-)


Before buying you have the alternative of borrowing from a public library. e.g. The New York Public Library ( )has tons of eBooks. You need a Branch Libraries’ card which “is free to anyone who lives, works, pays property taxes, or attends school in New York State. Others may apply, with payment of a $100 annual fee, for a nonresident library card.”

Josh Gupton

The biggest problem I’ve come across in the etextbooks is DRM. I’d be willing to pay money for a DRM-free PDF, but I don’t expect that to be an option any time soon. Some of the textbooks actually have expiration dates, which is a total dealbreaker – a 30% pricebreak is not enough to forgo use of the text as a future reference. Further, many of the books require non-standard readers which is also unacceptable. (If I had a non-DRM’d PDF I could just mark it up in PDF annotator, simple.) Further many of the book ‘readers’ are not able to be integrated into system search engines like GDS or Copernic.

So what am I doing for now? I’m buying the paper book – used of course – and taking pictures of the text with a camera. It takes much less time than one would expect and then I’m able to use the book as I would like without restriction or expiration. Basically the situation is this – when I buy a paper book I am able to use it however I please – I am unwilling to pay for anything less in ebook format.


Back in ’84 I was the college student with a Radio Shack portable and a computer in my dorm room that was literally the fastest computer on campus (I could take the VAX VMS system or the IBM 360 on any benchmark you cared to run.)

All textbooks were textbooks and the professors were nervous to have a student typing away during lectures.

I’ve had one of pretty much every ebook platform available.

At present I use a Sony EBR-1000EP and a Motion LE1600.

I have my own convertor tools to produce/migrate content for the above two platforms.

There are several major issues that I could see with any of these platforms if I went back to college.

Pitchers of beer. You can douse a textbook in beer, light it on fire and afterwards, after the hangover recedes, you can nuke it in the microwave and tape it back together with duct tape. And if your bender went too far you could always replace it for less than a Sony or a Motion would cost.

There is always tension when using the Sony or the Motion. Sure, with the Motion some of that tension is the 3 lbs of force in your hands building up your wrists to look like a fighter pilot’s wrists. But I’m referring to the tension that comes from the small things. When I go to tuck my Sony into a pocket I have to pay careful attention. Can’t scratch it on a zipper, button etc… Can’t miss the pocket and accidentally drop it. Your Sony or Motion make you a target. Someone would love to steal either of them. If you accidentally leave either on a table, they won’t be there when you run back.

If it starts raining you have to think: is my Sony or Motion safe? If your super hot girlfriend suddenly grabs you and demands your attention you can’t drop your Sony or Motion, well you can, and you probably will but…

I don’t believe etext books will really take off until they are available on a platform that is either very hard to damage or very cheap to replace/repair.

I very much look forward tot he new Sony to be released shortly. But that unit will have no annotation/search capabilities. And its PDF convertor makes rasters out of PDF’s, and hard to read rasters… I predict it will be a zero in the educational market, especially at $350 a pop and nearly as delicate as a piece of glass.

Andrew Ferguson

I’m not really suprised that demand is low. Why? First and foremost, no one has bothered marketing them. I had an impromptu chat with an Barnes and Noble exec ( and she said that while digital books are availible, it’s up to the teachers to make them availible. So I talked with my Chemistry professor and he had no idea of the process (he just finished his doctorate at Texas A&M and focuses on distance learning techniques, he also uses a Tablet PC). Second, almost all the digital books that could be sold through our book store would be severly cripled: forcing the user to access the content only online and limiting printing to only a certain percentage of the total pages.

Jason Dorko

As a student with a Tablet PC and experimenting with two different ebooks this semester I really wish I could say I love the ebook idea but to be honest I just ended up printing out my ebooks because I feel a paper version offers things the ebook just can’t capture.

Because I saved money with the ebook printing out the ebook vs buying the original text is basically a draw but having the ability of clipping those pictures and having the ebook with you wherever you go is a plus but I feel it only supplements what you can get from the paper version.

Steve Yalisove

Hi James,

First, thanks for the Linenberger book, it arrived yesterday. I appreciate it.

I just bought a digital text from Amazon. Unfortunately, it is a protected pdf that can only be read by acrobat reader or acrobat professional. Hence, I cannot open it in pdf annotator and mark it up. I am limited to using the highlighting tool in acrobat or their lousy pen tool. Too bad pdf annotator can’t read it.

I do plan on using a e-text book in my Materials Science and Engineering class next Fall published by Wiley. Wiley has a nice system for many of their textbooks. The text is online but they allow you to print it, section by section. Hence, you can print to pdf and then mark it up all you want. The best news is that they charge 60% LESS than the cost of the book ($120.00) if a student opts for this version. I am glad I don’t have to pay for textbooks any more! If I did, I would definitely use an e-text. Here is a link to the text book site. If you click on “view demo” you can try it out on a sample chapter.,pageType-techsol,page-6.html

Wiley also offers automated homework which is NOT in the instructor’s manual. This is important because the students can get the answers to homework on e-bay. However, e-bay announced yesterday that they would no longer permit such items to be sold.


Stephen Brandon

I teach early American and Native American literature at the University of New Mexico. Since much of the material I teach isn’t out there in textbook form, I scan and post in pdf from the original texts, and I then use the university e-reserves to distribute the material to students.

Some students love the etexts; others hate them. I use a Tablet to access the material, and I love having much of my working library always with me.

However, there are problems. There are copyright issues to consider. Thankfully, most of the material I teach is out of print or not under copyright. In class, it takes me longer to get to a particular page or passage I want to discuss, that is, unless I index the material, investing time. Students without Tablets, that is, almost all of them, complain about the cost of printing the material, problems with printers on campus, eye strain, etc. SOme of this is just SOP carping, but some is justified. Yes. If you’ve got a Tablet, the etext is a boon. Without, it requires an extra investment in time, something most students have less of than cash.

From my perspective, there’s much time spent in scanning the material. I use an OmniBook 3600, which makes the task of scanning books much easier. However, students rarely say thanks for the time I’ve spent or the money they save by our class using e-reserves; and on student evaluations, they cite having to print out the pdfs as a hassle.

The upshot? At present, for almost all the students, it’s easier in terms of time and effort to use a printed text, and it’s easier on the prof to go with this flow.

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