Training and Development

The Tipping Point for Digital Textbooks

Students who go to university in London and don’t live with their parents can get a full living-cost loan of £7,751 ($13,265) per annum, next academic year. This sum must cover rent, bills, food, entertainment, text books… everything.

To provide a bit of context, the cheapest Halls of Residence accommodation at University College London (UCL) work out at £5,292 ($9,064) for the year (based on 40 weeks).  Many would argue, this makes the price of textbooks obscene.

Of course, not all textbooks need to be purchased. And the type and volume needed entirely depends on the course students choose to pursue. But many of the print-based scientific tomes weigh in at around the £50 ($86) mark, and these are precisely the books which are subject to numerous revisions and updates.

Surely this is where digital versions should make a big difference?

June Jamrich Parsons, who has been producing digital textbooks for decades, describes herself as a “digital textbook pioneer” and earlier this year released a SlideShare report on digital textbooks in 2014. Based on information compiled from a range of sources, this provides a fascinating insight into what is going on in this market at the moment, and how things are liable to change.

Parsons shows that the total US textbook market is worth a mammoth $14 billion at present. Yet whilst increasing numbers of students are purchasing eTextbooks, the price of digital versions is almost the same as the price of print. She demonstrates that last year, in 2013, the average price of a print textbook was $64, whilst the average price of its digital equivalent was only $3 less, at $61.

This is leading to many changes within an industry which has historically been dominated by a handful of extremely large publishers. Popular digital formats offer different educational features which provides the opportunity for agile new entrants to challenge traditional market leaders.  Free textbook suppliers like bookboon (42m downloads), Boundless (1m downloads), Flat World (300k downloads) and OpenStax (170k downloads) are proving extremely popular. Yet this “open and free educational software is mostly experimental… for now”.

There is actually a lot of space for interactive publishing. Parsons herself produced what was possibly the first interactive textbook, nearly 20 years ago. However, this has never been solidified.

Overall, popular perception is that the cost of textbooks is ridiculously high. Many students are renting standard books rather than buying them. And the majority who are buying, are doing so from large eRetailers, rather than the old fashioned college store. This highlights a lot of changes to previous, established models and Parsons’ big fear is that students may stop buying textbooks altogether, to rely instead on (often inaccurate) materials sourced via Google.

It is hard to predict the future. Although it is certainly true that children who have grown up with iPads are likely to have different expectations on how they access information. But perhaps digital textbooks really have reached a tipping point moment?

Free sites are destined to provide precisely the type of disruption they have for all those forms of publishing like fiction, magazines, newspapers, you name it. Maybe the time has come where the old guard of textbook publishers must either cut their digital costs, offer something that print books don’t provide… or frankly, do both.


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


« Africa: The Animation Industry is Sprouting


Top Tips: 5 Security Tips to Prevent Cyber Attacks »


Do you think your smartphone is making you a workaholic?