The Rise of Digital Textbooks

November 24th, 2011

I have already started giving thought to my texts for next year. I am highly inclined to put together some kind of custom course packet available on Kindle, PDF, and through on-demand print. I would love, in time, to make a true digital textbook, as discussed in this article in the Times.

“Textbooks as e-books ought to be seen as a stepping stone to the future,” said Mark Majurey of Taylor & Francis, a textbook publisher in Britain.

Digital textbooks are any books that can be downloaded to an e-reader or computer or those that can be read online using a Web browser. While no one keeps precise numbers of digital textbook sales globally, a number of companies have seen similar growth patterns and nearly identical market share.

According to the Student Monitor, a private student market research company based in New Jersey, about 5 percent of all textbooks acquired in the autumn in the United States were digital textbooks. That is more than double the 2.1 percent of the spring semester.

Simba Information, a research company specializing in publishing, estimates that electronic textbooks will generate $267.3 million this year in sales in the United States. That is a rise of 44.3 percent over last year. The American Association of Publishers estimates that the college textbooks industry generated a total of $4.58 billion in sales last year.

Kathy Micky, a senior analyst at Simba, said digital textbooks were expected “to be the growth driver for the industry in the future.” Her company estimates that by 2013, digital textbooks will make up 11 percent of the textbook market revenue.

Though some textbook publishers made some of their textbooks available in digital formats a decade ago, it is only recently that the market has picked up. Responding to the new demand, many academic publishers have made almost everything they sell available in electronic format.

“All of our books are available as digital,” said Bruce Spatz, head of digital development at John Wiley & Sons, a major academic publisher.

Though there are some problems:

Some experts question whether textbooks are ready to follow regular books onto tablets, readers, laptops and other devices.

“Electronic textbooks will eventually be the norm, but it’s going to be quite a bit more time than folks anticipate,” said Charlotte P. Lee, a professor at the University of Seattle.

In May, Ms. Lee released the results of a study of graduate students showing that a majority eschewed portable devices after trying them for some months. Students complained that the traditional reading, scanning and note-taking habits — developed and honed by learning from paper textbooks — were not easily applied to tablets.

Ms. Lee explained that while the popularity of digital textbooks was sure to expand, learning from digital devices — especially standard consumer devices like the Kindle or the iPad — presented problems.

While traditional linear narratives, like those contained in a novel, can easily be transferred onto an electronic device, textbooks cannot as easily be transferred because they are rarely read from the first page to the last page. Ms. Lee said cognitive mapping of a textbook — knowing where certain information is contained, on the page or within the book — was needed to help students navigate such large amounts of text.

“We need to design devices that are specifically made to support academic reading,” she said.

This is why I would allow students to access printed out versions. IDK. Still gotta give this a lot of thought.