E-Textbooks: Better? Cheaper? Obsolete(r)?

by | Nov 9, 2013 | 0 comments


Charles Lyons, University at Buffalo

Charles Lyons, University at Buffalo

Two years ago, Charles knew only that textbooks were too expensive for students, and the library did not purchase them.  Then the Provost established an “innovation fund”, and the library submitted a proposal for an e-textbook initiative.  The library would have the advantage of leveraging its buying power for reduced pricing on e-textbooks as well as obtaining improved licensing terms.  The Provost reacted very positively to the proposal and granted funds to the library to proceed.

4 pilots were tried.

  • E-Textbook pilots have been running for 2 semesters–buying textbooks in bulk for all students in a course.  Publishers liked the plan because they got sales of many more books.  (Most students buy used books, rent new or used ones, or share books, for which the publisher gets no revenue.)  Because of the plan, the library was able to negotiate discounts of up to 80% off list price.
  • The library sought to increase its buying power by offering e-textbooks at more campuses.  The big problem with that was to find another campus where the same textbook was being used.
  • A student-based pilot offers access to a library of textbooks.  For a flat fee, students can choose up to 12 textbooks and download them.  The key challenge is whether they can find the books they need. The average student downloaded about 6 textbooks.
  • An IP-authenticated pilot with Nature Publishing was tried.  For $50 a student would receive lifetime access to a customizable book.  To purchase this option, the student would click on a link that takes them to the e-textbook platform.  No individual passwords are needed.  This option was not very popular with students.


  • Some publishers wanted an exclusivity clause in contracts making them the sole provider of textbooks on the campus.
  • Most e-textbook platforms do not work well on an accessible platform.
  • Bulk buying.  The library did not want to continue buying e-textbooks for students but wanted to develop a process to transfer the costs to students. One suggestion was made to have a course fee to cover the cost of the textbook, but many students are hostile towards fees.
  •  The faculty did not like mandatory nature of the program because it would not allow them to use the textbook they want.
  • Piracy is a problem. It is easy for students to find illegal copies.

Lessons learned:

E-textbooks are a somewhat cumbersome or clunky.  We need to be careful about comparing purchase prices and must factor in the buyback price.  Students still prefer printed textbooks, providing print and electronic prices are equal.  Price is the main influencer; as the price of print goes up , students will use the electronic version, as this graph shows.

Effect of prices on print vs. e-book purchases

Effect of prices on print vs. e-book purchases

Students like searchability, portability (weight), and the environmental friendliness of e-textbooks.  They do not like navigation (the need to flip back and forth to refer to other parts of the book), distractions (other things on the Internet are too close if you are using an electronic resource), and reading on a screen (eyestrain).


E-textbooks are about to become more popular as devices become even more ubiquitous and screen quality improves.  Growth will focus on functionality.  We need to encourage students to use e-textbooks.  Students are frustrated when professors do not use chapters in expensive textbooks.  E-textbooks could help if publishers move from selling entire books to book chapters.  There are roles that libraries can play because they work with publishers and know how to negotiate licenses, etc.



Sign-up Today!

Join our mailing list to receive free daily updates.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest