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Future or Fallacy? Renting University Textbooks Digitally

This week, Features editor, Jenny Kendall discusses how the future of studying at University may be changing, through the rise in digital books.

With the publishing industry as a whole evolving to embrace digital books, it’s no surprise that student textbooks are moving to digital too. With textbook prices in many cases being a few pounds cheaper as digital copies, many students appear to be demanding more of their course textbooks on Kindle, iBooks and other eReaders.

Often in hardcopy indexes have frustrated us students with random bookmarking or missing out words causing us to have to trawl through the chapter to find the one quote we needed, so this new ability to search a book directly is very appealing for many. Time saved trawling through unnecessary chapters can be spent on iPlayer catching up on The Voice if you missed it from having gone to ComePlay, also thanks to the newfound time you have thanks to your Kindle.

The problem I have found has been the lack of academic books on my Kindle. In my third year I probably would buy a fair few of my core textbooks on Kindle because it’s so easy to carry around and saves the stress of competing with the other 30 people on my module to reserve one of the two copies from the library – but that’s another issue entirely…

In fact, since buying my Kindle last Summer, just one of my core textbooks has been available (a fascinating textbook on forensic linguistics, which was a fab module by the way ENCAP), but apart from that I’ve been thoroughly disappointed. I’ve hit that ‘Tell the Publisher! I’d like to read this book on Kindle’ hyperlink tens of times now.

I’m not entirely sure who is to blame, perhaps the academic publishers stuck in their ways? I can understand libraries and old-fashioned academics are their biggest market but if they don’t have to pay to produce the hard copy it seems sensible they keep up. Students like me are wanting to save breaking our backs from the strain of lugging library books around, but also digital books simply are the future. In fact, recent statistics from Amazon.com’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, show “customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books – astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months.” This equates to 143 Kindle books being sold for every 100 hardcover books on Amazon.com. With figures like these it’s clear that textbooks need to be made available as digital copies, or publishers may start missing out on sales.

[pullquote]At least in a hardcopy it can be sold back to Blackwells or on Amazon or eBay for a slight return.[/pullquote]

Now what seems even more likely to be the future is digital textbook rental. In the US this has been rolled out for a couple of years now, I’m gutted this service was not available for my final year at University but maybe some of you first years will benefit if this becomes available in the UK soon.

This service offers students an option to rent and pay for their Kindle textbooks for the amount of time that they specify, with possible savings of up to 80 per cent off the hardcopy price.  But apparently the price isn’t the only way students will benefit. Dave Limp, vice-president at Amazon Kindle, said students will be able to “keep and access all of their notes and highlighted content in the Amazon Cloud, available anytime, anywhere, even after a rental expires.”

It’s not just Amazon changing the future of our textbooks though, in January Apple launched new e-textbook tools with new iBooks with leading global publishers on board such as UK-based Pearson.

When asked if digital textbook rental would work for students at Cardiff, Cathie Lunn, a third-year Genetics student said, “I’ve bought lots of hardcopy textbooks and I’ve used them about once each and even then that was when I was in the library, where I could have just read a library copy. In my opinion, buying a textbook is a waste of money but online rental would be a more tempting option.”

A third-year Criminology student, Mitchell Greenham said, “I would only pay for digital rental if I couldn’t just get it from the library for free i.e. it was 2am, when I really needed it.”

There is a problem though, Kindles cannot connect to the high security eduroam wireless network used at UK Universities and although this does not cause me any problems in my third year house with wireless, students in Halls could have some trouble getting around this.

If this issue could be dealt with simply then perhaps one day libraries will have Kindle copies we can rent instead of us paying for them, that seems to be the ultimate possibility.

There are still some students that seem happy with textbooks the way they are though, like third-year History student, George Dugdale, who thinks “Academia has survived with hardcopy books for hundreds of years and there is no need for digital.”

But with students able to carry more than 200 titles in a Kindle device weighing around 250 grams, I can see the appeal if rental becomes affordable in the UK, or available through our University’s library services.

Another issue is that the majority of students buy textbooks but don’t get the use from them; at least in a hardcopy it can be sold back to Blackwells or on Amazon or eBay for a slight return on what you paid.

[pullquote]Surely Amazon should consider an educational discount, like Apple offer on their laptops.[/pullquote]

A final problem I can see is that reportedly textbooks containing graphs do not read well on the Kindle. This seems a major setback for many mathematics, engineering and science courses, although with tablets and liquid ink readers evolving so rapidly surely this will become a possibility.

I admit for me, this whole concept is mostly novel (excuse the bookworm’s pun). I enjoyed reading chapters of my forensic linguistics textbook on the train home instead of carrying the much heavier textbook, although I still had to carry five other textbooks with me so it didn’t make a big difference. I think in a few years though students that can afford the rental may be tempted where, although this shouldn’t be the case, there is often too much demand for some vital readings in the libraries.

Surely Amazon should consider an educational discount, like Apple offer on their laptops, to tempt students to join the Kindle club when UK textbook rental becomes available. However the real change will come about when UK Universities, Amazon, Apple and other competitors open themselves to the possibility of having digital copies available to rent on students’ devices, where the University pays the subscription. Students don’t really want to pay to rent what their fees already provide in hardcopy, as novel as it is, so unless there is a way for Universities to subscribe, we’re at a brick wall. Watch this space…

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