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Digital textbooks are a smart idea, can save big bucks

Napster started a revolution in the way we buy music by allowing us to purchase a single song without buying the entire album.

The movie industry is also going through a revolution as well, offering customers the ability to buy movies legally online and offering a digital version for the iPod.

Why hasn’t the textbook industry moved into the digital age — why are we still stuck with hard-cover texts?

A report issued in July 2005 by the Government Accountability Office found that the price of college textbooks has increased at twice the rate of inflation. Students spent an average of $898 in books during the 2003-04 school year, the report stated.

Textbook pricing has so gotten out of hand that Congress recently passed a law requiring publishers to sell textbooks unbundled — without the CD-ROMs and guides that many students and professors do not use. Rice University in Houston offers free textbooks in some classes and charges the normal fee for a print edition.

There are several ways to save money on textbooks — most prominently by downloading them.
One Web site, CourseSmart.com, offers 5,000 textbooks available for download and is backed by major textbook publishers. One example, “Diversity Amid Globalization: World Regions, Environment, Development”, used for GEOG 1003, is available for download on CourseSmart.com for $62.67.  The LSU Bookstore has the same book for $118, a savings of $88.50 if you’re lucky enough to snag a used copy and $55.33 over a new physical of the textbook.

The textbook offered for BIOL 1001 course, “Biology: Life on Earth (8Th edition)” is available in both hard back at $127 and as an eBook version at $70. That’s a savings of $57 dollars.

You can either read the digital form of the textbook on your computer or on an eBook reader.

Sony has an excellent eBook reader that is the size of a regular paperback. The new version, available in November, will feature a touchscreen and supports the PDF as well as Word documents. The downside is the Sony eBook reader at $399. That might be expensive, but if your textbooks are available in digital form, the savings will let you break even in a single semester.

E-Textbooks can be a great item for students, publishers and authors. Students don’t have to carry heavy textbooks around and can save large amounts of money. Publishers lower the cost of making the textbooks, especially since the cost of paper keeps rising and the authors’ books can be edited more easily.

But, in some cases, the digital form of textbooks comes with restrictions on e-textbooks.

Many of the textbooks available for download have vicious restrictions on the eBooks such as how long you can view the book.  Books on CourseSmart.com had either 90 or 180 day restrictions. Some eBooks won’t allow users to print pages.

One problem with eBooks can be technical — this format could last or could just as easily go down the route of HD-DVD or Betamax.

Another problem is the legal aspects of CourseSmart.com.

In a Dec. 2007 article in The Boston Globe, The National Association of College Bookstores was evaluating whether to proceed with legal actions against the Web site, claiming “antitrust implications of CourseSmart and the potential for the publishers to exercise ‘unreasonable control over the release and pricing of digital assets to the higher education marketplace.’”

In this fragile economy where students don’t have several hundreds of dollars to spend on textbooks, it’s nice to have the ability to save money while studying this semester.

This column appeared in the Daily Reveille newspaper on Friday, October 10, 2008 called "Digital textbooks are a smart idea, can save big bucks"