Looking for ways to bring physical bookstores into the digital bookselling market, a national textbook distributor is launching a pilot program that will offer digital versions of textbooks from five academic publishers through 10 university bookstores—at a price it claims will be cheaper than a used textbook edition.

MBS Textbook Exchange, a 30-year-old textbook distribution firm owned by Barnes & Noble chairman Len Riggio, is launching Universal Digital Textbooks, with the hope of integrating the marketing and retailing of electronic textbooks—generally sold through online retailers—into traditional college bookstores. The pilot program will begin with 10 college bookstores (including stores at Princeton and Cal State—Fullerton) with about 275 titles from five publishers, among them Houghton Mifflin, McGraw-Hill and Thomson Learning. The titles represent about 20 courses across a number of subjects and there will be about 25 titles at each store.

Dennis Flanagan, CEO of MBA Direct, the textbook-fulfillment division of MBS, said UDT titles will be delivered in copyright-protected Adobe PDF format, with full text searching, highlighting, note-taking and a limited printout capability, along with audio readout functionality. The books have time-restricted DRM encryption that will only allow them to be used for the average length of a college course, about four months.

Used textbooks customarily are sold at 25% off the list price of new editions; stores in the pilot program have agreed to sell UDT e-texts at 33% off list. MBS concedes that as the program expands, it will be harder to keep store prices in line, but an MBS spokesperson said the pilot will provide important information on what levels of pricing students will accept.

The e-books will be sold through a UDT bookstore display alongside print textbooks. Students can purchase a small card that will be scanned at the point of sale to activate titles that the student can download later to his or her personal computer.

The program will be tested this fall and Flanagan expects to roll out a much larger program in January based on feedback from the students who buy the e-texts now. He also emphasized that MBS is not out to supplant print textbooks. Said Flanagan, "We're trying to bring bookstores back into the e-book equation and offer students another choice in textbooks."