Students, textbook authors, and publishers have reason to look forward to a growing demand for electronic textbooks. Students, or at least their parents, will welcome the cheaper cost. Digital textbooks will eliminate the chronic complaints of students schlepping around multiple 900-page textbooks. And authors and publishers have to be thrilled that electronic texts virtually eliminate the unfair and relentless competition from used-book sellers.
There are other reasons to like e-textbooks. First, a textbook typically has a three-year cycle before a new edition replaces it. The Copyright Act of 1976 includes a provision prohibiting the payment of royalties upon second or subsequent sales of a book including a textbook. Because of this provision, a used-book industry has arisen that captures about 50% of all textbook sales. Looked at another way, 50% of what would otherwise be author royalties and publisher revenues instead becomes a windfall to a corporation that neither created content nor manufactured the product. The creator of content (the author) and the manufacturer of the product (the publisher) must recoup all their costs and earn any profit within the first or the first two semesters following publication.
Second, as a primary means of marketing their product, textbook publishers give away thousands of new textbooks—"sample copies" or "examination copies"—to professors to induce purchase for the classroom. The used-book industry rubs a little salt in the wound by regularly going around at the end of the semester to collect sample copies from professors. Paying the professor a small sum, they then resell the books.
The perceived student savings from buying lower-priced used books is deceptive, because the used-book industry essentially forces publishers to prematurely publish expensive "revised editions" for the primary purpose of reducing their losses from used-book sales. Actually, without the 50% loss of market to the used-book industry, only a few disciplines would require the expense of a new edition every three years.
More benefits: a student can download a copy of the digital textbook to his computer, but can't transfer it to another computer, and so can't resell it. The electronic copy can be programmed to be inaccessible after a certain date, effectively creating a timed lease of the copy to the student for the semester or school year. And with electronic texts, a faculty member can download an examination copy to his computer, but can't upload that copy to any other computer—or resell it.
Rather than the abbreviated three-year pattern of publisher sales, an e-textbook will in effect be continuously sold until publication of the new edition. This represents a staggering 90%–100% increase in sales for the publisher over the same three-year life of an edition. Since the publisher is allowed a full three years of sales to recoup its costs and to realize a profit, the new sales model will deliver a number of benefits: cheaper textbooks, increased royalties for authors, and less money wasted on middlemen. Publishers will no longer be driven by the used-book market to prematurely publish the next edition. New editions will be published only as changes in the discipline warrant.
Further cost savings and corresponding price reductions may be available if publishers opt for a continuously updated textbook. Rather than a whole new textbook every three years with content that's dated before it hits the market, a continuously or periodically updated textbook will always be current.
Finally, some of these new electronic platforms permit individual instructors to modify the text for their own classes' use, eliminating material that isn't required and adding the instructor's own material, such as video clips, study aids, or self-test material.
In addition, with the use of electronic textbooks, the net cost of instructional materials will be substantially reduced due to elimination of printing, binding, warehousing, returns, distribution, and other publisher costs. Students, professors, and educational institutions as well as authors and publishers all stand to gain through use of the digital format.
Richard T. Hull has served as the executive director of the Text and Academic Authors Association for the past five years, and was a philosophy professor at the University of Buffalo for 30 years. Michael R. Lennie has been an authors' attorney for the past 25 years and is president of the Lennie Literary Agency.