Is digital really better than print? Authors share their perspective

ebook tablet on bookshelfWhile the debate over print versus digital textbooks (etextbooks) is not new, the content of that debate has shifted in recent years to which is a more effective learning tool for students. As publishers, instructors and students push towards offering more digital textbooks and learning products, will the benefits outweigh the negatives? Several studies have found that it not only takes readers longer to read text on a screen, they tend to skim much more and thus absorb and retain less information than reading from a physical book. Other etextbook readers have reported the tendency to multi-task while reading. One study reported that 90% of students said they were more likely to multi-task when reading onscreen versus 1% who said they multi-task when reading a print book.

In a recent discussion in CONNECT, TAA’s online member community, members shared their experiences with textbook publishers’ trend toward more digital products:

Kevin Patton, a textbook author and Professor of Life Science at St. Charles Community College:

“I think publishers are moving in this direction for several reasons.

One is that theoretically a publisher can derive more revenue from a digital edition than from a print edition, assuming that digital edition has about the same market size as a print edition. This is partly by eliminating printing/binding/shipping costs and partly from reducing resale of the used product by consumers.

Another reason is that digital is the direction in which the world, including education, is moving. My middle schooler has all his textbooks online and does much of his homework online, in platforms linked to the textbook. Although today’s college students are uncomfortable with digital (vs. print), publishers know that upcoming students will feel more comfortable with digital. Even if professors (and authors) still lag behind in their preferences.

Another reason is that digital offers interactivity, animation, accessibility, and adaptability that print cannot offer. These enhancements may include links to information and tools that cannot fit in a print book. A digital book is more versatile than a print book. Although I like using a manual screwdriver, and it took a while to get comfortable with a power screwdriver, I find that I can do more, faster, with the power tool.

That being said, there are some things for which a manual screwdriver—and a print book—are better suited. So perhaps one is not “better” than the other for ALL uses. But one is likely to be more widely used—and more widely purchased—than the other. Perhaps not now, but soon—and many publishers are trying to stay ahead of that curve.”

Mike Kennamer, a textbook author, Director of Workforce Development at Northeast Alabama Community College, and President/CEO of Kennamer Media Group, Inc.:

“This is a great question and one that I am contemplating also. I have a book that is in its second edition and for the third edition, the publisher has indicated that they would like to move it to a digital format. However, when they sent me the reviews, I learned that at least 50% of the reviewers (who are current adopters of the book) have indicated that they would NOT be interested in a digital product, but needed the physical, paper book. Some indicated that they wanted more digital resources, but there was not a clear (or even cloudy) mandate to move toward an all digital product.

When I asked the product manager how they would figure royalties on the digital [book] I was told that they would like to move it to a work-for-hire and that I would be compensated based upon expected revenue. This opened an opportunity for a conversation about how the industry has changed and how I felt that a royalty model incentivizes ownership and buy-in from the author and that a WFH does not carry equal incentives.

So to your question as to whether digital is better…I would argue that digital has its place but it is up to the customers to determine in which format we offer course materials. And for this particular book, the customers are saying they want a print book. I suppose it is up to economics to see if the customers get what they want or simply get what they get.

In contrast, the same publisher has just released the second (print) edition of another one of my books: textbook, quick review guide, and workbook, and will release the online content soon, so I think it is more about sales projections (and in the case of these revisions, actual sales) as to whether or not we see a print or digital product. My guess is that smaller market books will be released in digital format only and consumers will continue to have an option on larger market books.”

Janet Salmons, an independent researcher, writer, instructor and consultant:

“Please keep in mind that many schools are requiring that e-books be given priority. If your book is not available in an electronic format, it may be excluded from the list of required textbooks. My first book was not available electronically and that was a real problem for adoption.

So better or worse, we need digital formats.”

Lorraine Papazian-Boyce, author of ICD-10-CM/PCS Coding: A Map for Success, and Pearson’s Comprehensive Medical Coding: A Path to Success:

“I’ve heard all the issues, benefits, and concerns mentioned by others. However, I’ve also heard from an editor very familiar with all the large publishers, and directly from one major publisher who recently reorganized, that digital sales are lagging far behind expectations. Hmmm…”

What is your take on this trend? Is digital really better than print?

Recent articles on this debate that are worthy of reading: