Article: Kindle Textbooks – Are Universities Going to Lead the Way to a ‘Paperless Society’?


Sometimes, an idea will seem great on first glance, but the more you think about it the less sense it seems to make. I call it the “wait a minute…” factor, and it can’t be avoided when talking about bringing college textbooks to the Kindle.

Recently, Amazon announced a new, larger version of their Kindle device, the Kindle DX. More importantly, along with the product introduction, they announced a pilot program with certain schools to use the Kindle to replace traditional hard-bound textbooks.

This actually isn’t the first time college textbooks have been made available on the Kindle. In fact, in July 2008 I did a story for KGO Radio AM-810 in San Francisco about how Berkeley (the University of California press more specifically) was offering a very small number of textbooks in the Kindle format. That story can be found here.

However, in that case, students needed to buy their own Kindles, and very few books were available. With this program, Amazon will be supplying the Kindles, and the institutions can distribute them to the students who can best make use of them.

The schools on board with Amazon are Arizona State, Case Western Reserve, Princeton, Pace, Reed, and the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, and with this initial program, Amazon will only provide 50 Kindles per school, or 300 Kindles in total.

This is a very small number, but it hasn’t stopped people from getting excited at the possibilities that come with electronic textbooks. It’s easy to see why.

Probably the most appealing thing about putting textbooks on the Kindle is the device’s size and portability. Regular textbooks are almost always large and heavy, and for this reason they are rarely carried from place to place. The Kindle is small and light enough to throw in a bag and carry around everywhere, so students can have access to all their textbooks anytime. That is a big convenience, and will definitely prove useful to a lot of students.

Having books in an electronic format also allows for things that just can’t happen with paper textbooks, such as searching the full book text (which will make it much easier to find things than poking around the index) and immediate word/item lookup using the built-in dictionary or wikipedia. These are fantastic capabilities, and give students ways to study that they haven’t had in the past.

Unfortunately, it’s right about here that the pros start turning into cons and the “wait a minute…” factor kicks in. For all of the advantages to electronic textbooks, there are as many disadvantages.

Color is one of the most obvious ones. As of now, e-ink screens (the type used on most ebook readers, including the Kindle and the Kindle DX) are only available in black and white. This can be a huge downside when it comes to many types of textbooks, especially science textbooks with many diagrams or art textbooks which include numerous examples of artwork. Color e-ink screens should become available eventually, but it might be a long time before they do, and it is uncertain how much cost they will add to the devices that feature them.

There are disadvantages when it comes to notetaking as well. With the Kindle, it is not possible to highlight your notes in 30 different colors, or to underline passages, or to quickly write notes in the margins, or to do any of the hundred different little things students like to do with their textbooks to help them absorb the information. The Kindle does allow for students to highlight sections (in one color only), to add notes with the little keyboard, and to digitally earmark pages, but these don’t come close to the speed, ease, and functionality that comes with marking up your book by hand.

Additionally, having all the books on one device like the Kindle makes it impossible to have two (or, if you’re unlucky, more) textbooks open side by side, which is unfortunately sometimes necessary. It also means that a student would be unable to loan a textbook to another student without loaning out all their textbooks.

However, what is going to be the biggest obstacle to widespread adoption of Kindle textbooks is price. College students usually have little money and so are very price sensitive. While the $489 dollar price point for the Kindle DX is a drop the bucket relative to most students’ tuition payments, it is still a lot of money out of pocket. But, the real price factor with the Kindle will be the costs of the textbooks themselves.

Theoretically, Kindle textbooks should be cheaper than regular textbooks – after all, they are eliminating the publishing costs of the textbook, so some of that will be passed on to the consumer. However, the high prices of textbooks are only in part to do with the cost of actually producing the textbook. Most of the cost of textbooks comes from the markups that come from the market that the publishing companies have to themselves.

In order to be published, college professors need to go through one of a limited number of companies that publish academic journals or textbooks. Being published is a necessity of the profession and usually a requirement of employment at most colleges and universities, so professors are willing to sign contracts with these companies that grant them exclusivity rights to the publishing and award the professors relatively little in royalties. At this point, these companies have a monopoly, as they have customers who must have a specific textbook for their classes, and therefore must buy it from the one company that publishes it. Thus, monopoly pricing ensues and a markup is applied to textbook prices as these firms look to maximize profits.

While electronic textbooks will eliminate the publication costs, they will not affect the monopoly that these companies have or the pricing that goes with it. What this means is that textbooks for the Kindle would likely be slightly less expensive than their physical counterparts, but not enormously so. Whether this discount will even justify the upfront cost of the Kindle device remains to be seen.

In real life though, Kindle textbooks will never be cheaper for students, because they would have to be less expensive than second hand textbooks, less the price of reselling them at the end of the year. Because textbooks are so expensive, most students buy them used from other students, and then resell them to the students who will need them when the course is over. As long as new editions of the textbook don’t come out, this method helps students acquire textbooks for dramatically less than buying them new.

With electronic textbooks, there is no such thing as buying a “used” copy, and they are impossible to resell. It is doubtful that textbook publishers will want or be able to undercut the second hand textbook market with their e-book textbooks, but if they don’t it is hard to see Kindle textbooks becoming widespread.

With the drawbacks of Kindle textbooks, at this point they seem to be better suited as companions for regular textbooks than as replacements. The Kindle can go in the backpack to be carried around for quick reading and reference, but the regular hard-bound textbook can be still be used for serious studying and note taking. However, no one would want to pay twice for a textbook, so this scenario is not conceivable anytime soon.

At this point, it’s impossible to see Kindle textbooks catching on with most students. The convenience that they provide is great, but there are too many drawbacks, and the cost is too high. We’ll have to see if future versions of the Kindle, or competitors from other companies, can make e-textbooks more compelling, and get them to make sense financially.

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