MultiGrain Discussion: Are E-Textbooks Ready for Primetime?

by | Oct 3, 2011 | 0 comments

By Tom Gilson, Associate Editor (

An article from the Pittsburg Post-Gazette recently caught our eye by claiming that the e-textbooks “that the major publishers have been offering … don’t save students that much money.”   That kind of surprised us.  The article moved on to pointed out other disadvantages.  Many e-textbooks are set to “expire at the end of the semester, preventing students from reselling them” and “there are often digital rights management restrictions on e-book access and printing that restrict sharing.”  For example “CafeScribe, sells a 180-day subscription” to a textbook entitled Principles of Economics for $113.48 that in hardcover sells for $181.50.  However, the subscription “limits printing and copying/pasting to 30 percent of total pages and allows subscribers access on only three devices. Plus, after 180 days, customers are left with nothing to resell or refer back to.”

Another article, this one from the Chronicle of Higher Education, points to other problems for e-textbooks.  The article “New Forms of Reading and Publishing Take Center Stage at Ithaka Conference” discusses a survey of humanities Ph.D. candidates at Columbia and Cornell Universities that notes among its findings that students and scholars want to use e-books the way they use print texts. “They want to underline, they want to highlight.”  These are things not easily done using current technology.  The article from the Pittsburg Post-Gazette also notes this concern when it quotes Alexander Thayer, principal author of a paper on student reading preferences at the University of Washington: “What we know about academic reading is that it’s more complex than an e-reader can support as currently designed.”

Of course E-textbooks still have the advantage of being somewhat cheaper and they are definitely easier to carry around.  There is far less back strain toting an iPad than a backpack full of books.  They also have a certain cache given the newness of the technology.

This is a fascinating issue with implications for publishers, students, faculty and librarians and ATG wants to know what you think.  Are e-textbooks truly ready to replace their print counterparts? Or will there always be a place for print? Will publishers beginning offering more attractive subscription plans? What, if any, technological developments will finally enable students to underline, highlight and take notes in e-textbooks just like they do in print textbooks?  Take a little time and give it some serious thought – then let us know what you think.

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