Will print textbooks become obsolete?

Q: “Are print textbooks likely to become obsolete soon in favor of digital ones?”

A: Elizabeth Boepple, Presenter of the TAA-sponsored workshop on how to prepare camera-ready copy:

“I think this depends on the intended function of the book and the time-critical nature of the content. We’re using electronic books to retain control over frequent updates, include Internet Hyperlinks for recent changes in research, and to easily distribute corrections and revisions. At the moment, I’m preparing an electronic version so that I can include movie clips of screen captures with audio for tutorials. It’s a great medium to eliminate the exorbitant cost of color printing, also. (A lot of great graphical material fits on one CD.) We have also found that we can self-publish more easily and get to press more quickly with electronic versions. On the other hand, marketing is time-consuming when you self publish.”

A: Stan Gibilisco, TAA Member:

“I do not think so. Reference books such as dictionaries and encyclopedias have been affected by the Internet. For quick reference, especially while writing on a computer, the Internet is an unbeatable resource. With a high-speed connection such as we have here in the Black Hills ‘technology corridor,’ it is easier to go to the Internet than to the dictionaries and encyclopedias I have right here in my office.

Textbooks, however, are somewhat different because lots of people still like to study from a device that requires no boot-up (taking about the same length of time as an old tube-type radio from the 1930s), acquires no viruses or other malware, does not compromise their privacy, and does not result in cumulative trauma disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome. One can put a good old printed book in a backpack, go to the library or a cafe or wherever, and work without any of the electronic muss and fuss that goes along with any computer.

That said, digital works will adversely affect textbook sales, especially for textbooks that are priced high by anybody’s standards (let alone those of a student). This sort of thing encourages piracy, which is nigh impossible to prevent. But, just as libraries did not cause the demise of hardcopy-book stores, so I believe that digital textbooks will not render printed matter obsolete.

There is another thing, too. I suspect the reverse may, over time, prove true. Word processors and text viewing programs change so often that, in 100 years, a book printed on acid-free paper may be the only recourse for someone who wants to study history. Digital files have a tendency to *evolve into obsolescence* within years or decades. Floppies and ZIP disks from the 1990s are almost impossible to read nowadays without a legacy machine; DVDs are already taking the place of CDs. Yet right now I am reading a wonderful book printed in 1895 (yes, the last decade of the 19th Century), from the library here in town, and it was last checked out when Harry Truman was President. In another 110 years, people might see our CD media and think they were some sort of minuaturized frisbee. I can see students of 2112 throwing those things around their dorm rooms and making fun of us.

The troubling aspect is, if the media becomes fluid, will not the very content become volatile as well? Hmmm. I had better stop now, and save the remainder of this rant for a full-length article. On paper as well as digital media.”

A: Steven G. Krantz, Professor of Mathematics and Deputy Director, American Institute of Mathematics:

“Stan, I’m inclined to agree with most everything you say. However, today many frontline publishers have aggressive e-book programs. It’s clear that those programs are valuable for keeping books in print, and for ‘print on demand’. As you indicate, it’s not at all clear that people are ready to curl up in bed with an e-book.

Every few years, and right now is one of those times, there is a big push for handheld electronic devices to read electronic books. Many millions of dollars have been invested in these programs, and they’ve all been a total bust. People don’t seem to want this yet. My guess is it will change, but I don’t know when.”

A: David Lancy, TAA Member:

“I’ve thought about this question a lot…I have authored both conventional texts and texts prepared for delivery on CD-ROM. Re the former, it kills me to see all the Used stickers on the texts my students bring to class. On the other hand, the CD-ROM texts — far cheaper — have zero resale market. The number of units sold is rarely less than the number enrolled. The production and distribution costs of the CDs are minimal compared to a conventional text.

Five years ago my students groused about the CD-ROM texts and would have preferred conventional volumes.Today, the grousing has all but ceased.

And yet publishers (in social science) seem oblivious to these issues. I would have thought that every textbook published at this point in the evolution of technology would have electronic or digital components whose purpose was to enhance instruction AND nullify the resale market.

The only foray in this direction that I’ve seen (and I don’t recall the book) was a password protected supplementary website. The password encrypted in the new textbook would expire in 6 months. I don’t have a sense that this strategy was about to catch fire.

I think that electronic publishing provides a pathway taking us back to the good old days when publishers and authors got a decent return and students did not have to sell their first-born to pay for their textbooks. But I do not hear these sentiments echoed by textbook publishers. What gives?”

A: Ronald C. Roat, Associate Professor/Coordinator Online/Print Journalism University of Southern Indiana:

“I love this discussion, but like most of the other 800-plus on the list, I don’t see a solution unless and until 1) publishers make decent money on CDs and 2) authors make decent money on CDs. Until we step out of the pixie dust world and consider these two goals, discussing CDs and the Internet as solutions misses the entire point we write and someone else publishes.”

A: Richard Hull, Former TAA Executive Director:

“I’ve covered some of the reasons why e-books have not caught on both with publishers and with students in one of my Richards’s Blogs. See the one for 2007-1-16 titled “Is Your Textbook Digital? Do Your Readers Want It To Be?” You can access it here.

I have a professionally published paperback textbook for which I retained digital edition rights. I get requests for the digital edition, and have used the technology described elsewhere in this thread by Elizabeth Boepple that encripts the CD-ROM so that it can be opened on only the first computer that opens it, preventing resale. The instructor requested a CD-ROM for his students that would allow them to print out sections to bring to class, rather than the other form in which I provide the e-book, as an uploaded document. The latter is cheaper for the student because there is not an intervening bookstore that adds its profit to my sale price. The CD-ROM could be mailed individually to each student, but that does take additional time and postage and there is an added cost of producing the CD-ROM. All considerations to be factored.”

A: Kevin Patton Ph.D., Professor of Life Science, St. Charles Community College (SCC):

“My most recent revision of a textbook includes a downloadable e-book version as part of the package when a student buys the book.

Being a technophile when it comes to learning new learning technologies, I thought it was pretty cool . . . But also thought my students wouldn’t like it or use it and the whole idea would whither and die.

I suggested on the first day of our class that the students should bring a printout of Chapter 1 instead of the book, which weighs fully 10 pounds. However, that first chapter printed out at over 100 pages! In the printed text, it’s 36 pages (still a big chapter). It’s a text on human anatomy and physiology, so of course they wanted the COLOR versions of the heavily illustrated material. They can’t print that out on campus, and many can’t or won’t at home. Per page, printing it out themselves on a nice color printer, it can cost them twice the original price of a new book to print out the e-book. (It’s 1200 pages and under $200)

On the other hand, our e-book software lets them highlight portions and save their highlights (even several different sets of highlights) and print only the selected sections. Or print only certain figures or graphs, which they can then insert directly into their notes. I give ‘open book’ online tests, so they can do a word or phrase search of the whole text. Or print out a ‘study guide’ of their highlights of the stuff they know I’ll be focusing on in the test.

So the bottom line is that few of my 200+ students actually READ the e-book. But they do USE it heavily for things you just can’t do easily with a print book. Despite the bulky size, the paper book is still less bulky than a laptop and doesn’t have batteries to recharge.

My take? We’re on the verge of a sea-change . . . But not quite there.”