Can Kindle and Nook replace physical textbooks?

Text books have not seen any radical changes for a rather long time. While we have had Wikipedia and eBooks and lots of other very interesting developments in related fields, textbooks continue to plod along.

As Kindle and Nook and eBooks transform the book publishing industry, the natural question that comes up is – Can Kindle and Nook replace physical textbooks?

Let’s start by looking at the advantages and disadvantages eReaders have over textbooks.

Advantages of eReaders over physical textbooks

  1. Portability. eReaders are lighter and it is easier to carry a single eReader than it is to carry a whole bunch of textbooks.
  2. Cost. The cost of each digital textbook ought to be lower than that of the corresponding physical textbook. The raw material costs, printing costs, handling costs, shipping costs are all either removed or greatly reduced when we shift to digital textbooks.
  3. Low Priced eReaders. The price of eReaders has come down drastically - from $399 in 2007 to $79 today. We can expect eReader prices to go down further if eReaders are adopted on a large scale by Schools and Colleges. Note: eReaders for textbooks would require larger screens and probably be twice or thrice the price of the cheapest Kindle (which is $79).
  4. [Never going to happen category] Once school and college libraries are digitized, it will be possible to lend a copy of the same textbook to many students. Note: This depends on publishers so we can safely assume this is not going to happen. A related benefit is that we can offer as many textbooks as we want when we have digital textbooks – We aren’t restricted by the number that were shipped to us.
  5. Public Domain – Students, Professors, and Researchers can access public domain textbooks and research material easily and freely using their eReaders. Many public libraries across the world are already digitizing the public domain educational books and material they have.
  6. Readability and Larger Audience – The text is always legible and clear and the font size can be increased or decreased as required. There is also a Read To Me feature available with the Kindle. This will allow digital textbooks to cater to lots of groups that have been denied access – dyslexic children, blind readers, readers with weak eye-sight, and so on.
  7. Saving Trees – All the photocopying of books can be avoided. Not only do we avoid using trees to make textbooks, we avoid using trees to make copies of the textbook pages.
  8. Easy Reference – Dictionaries and reference materials can be loaded onto the Kindle and Nook and students can instantly access them whenever required.
  9. Internet – Students can connect to the Internet directly from their Kindle or Nook.
  10. Renting – Renting textbooks is easier with eTextbooks and eReaders. Amazon has a digital text-book rental option that enables students to save up to 80% of the cost of the physical text books. If other major publishers can also come up with such schemes, cost of buying and using a textbook over a limited time period (like one semester) can be brought down drastically.
  11. Students’ Familiarity with Technology – Students are familiar with technology and better able to adapt to a new technology. That makes it easy for them to understand and use Kindle and Nook.

Limitations of eReaders (When compared to physical textbooks)

  1. Most eReaders that are cheap are too small to be used for eTextbooks. Kindle DX has a suitable size but it’s far too expensive.
  2. Note taking, marking, underlining, etc may be possible with eReaders, but they are a lot more difficult and unwieldy with eReaders than physical textbooks.
  3. Students are not able to browse/skim through their textbooks quickly.
  4. E Ink technology can currently display only black/white/shades of grey. Back-lit LCD displays can display multimedia content and rich graphics, but it is difficult to read from them for a long time (unless you’re LCD compatible). LCD based tablets are also more expensive than entry-level E Ink based eReaders.
  5. Color eInk has been around the corner for the last 5 years. It might be just around the corner that happens to stand in a distant part of the Universe. Even when it does arrive there will be cost and usability issues for a few years.
  6. Students need to handle eReaders more carefully than they handle textbooks. Replacing broken eReaders will cost a considerable amount of money.
  7. Sharing Textbooks will be difficult as they will probably be locked down to a user account.
  8. eTextbooks have little to no resale value.
  9. Students won’t get enough exercise from carrying just eTextbooks. ;)
  10. Digital book publishers usually display books using proprietary formats and DRM. There is the very real possibility of getting locked up with a certain publisher or eTextbook store. A marriage you can’t really get out of unless you are willing to give up all your past purchases.
  11. Not all textbooks are available in digital formats and some publishers may not want to digitize their books.
  12. Actually, that’s the biggest one – Why would Publishers want to make less from eTextbooks?
  13. Lack of Specialization. It would be good to see specialized screens/devices made exclusively for the education segment by major eReader manufacturers.

There are lots of limitations including some really hard to navigate ones (Textbook Publishers). It’s hard to say which of these will be overcome,  or when/how they will be overcome.

Can Kindle and Nook replace physical textbooks?

At the moment the answer seems – No, definitely not.

We could extend that to say – Given the direction of evolution of eReaders and eBooks, it seems very unlikely that eReader makers will provide a device suitable as a Textbook Reader and it seems even more unlikely that Textbook Publishers will agree to go with eTextbooks in a form that improves the status quo for students.

Truthfully, Kindle DX was a bit of an experiment (to try to corner the textbook market without really putting in the effort to make a device optimized for students) and B&N hasn’t even tried to make a Textbook eReader. Once one or more companies actually go all-out after the eTextbook and eReader markets we’ll have a better idea. At the moment there seems little hope.

Textbook Publisher Cengage to rent textbooks

After all we’ve had recently in the world of textbooks i.e. Amazon adding McGraw Hill to its Kindle DX roster, Barnes & Noble buying back its college bookstores, etc. here’s another news item -

Cengage Learning has said it’ll start lending out textbooks to students at 40% to 70% less than the suggested retail price.

This is courtesy the Associated Press.

Details of Cengage’s Textbook Renting Plan

  1. Cengage have said that several hundred titles will begin being rented out in December 2009 and more will be added in July 2010.
  2. Students who rent books get immediate access to electronic first chapter. 
  3. Rental Book is shipped to students. 
  4. End of term – students can choose to purchase the book, or return it to Cengage.
  5. A site called CengageBrain.com will be launched. The site goes on top of the existing iChapters.com website which offers paper and electronic textbooks and chapters.

If the prices are really 40% to 70% off retail prices it’s great news for students.

What happens to Chegg and BookRenter?

This is probably not the sort of validation of their business model textbook renting companies wanted.

While there’s a chance they might be able to compete on logistics and domain expertise, it wouldn’t be a surprise if textbook publishers edge them out of the market.

There is a press release from Cengage with more details, including the standard CEO talk -

With the launch of our rental program on CengageBrain.com, we are adding another lower cost option for obtaining the high-quality content students and instructors have come to expect, designed to enhance student engagement and improve learning outcomes.

Perhaps it would make more sense for Publishers to tie-up with a company like Chegg – however, that would just make Chegg a new middle-man.

Makes sense to go it alone.

What about impact on the Kindle DX?

Hard to tell at this point.

  1. One of the main attractions of the Kindle DX to students would be lower textbook prices, and if they get that via textbook rentals some of the utility is gone.
  2. On the other hand it’s a really good sign that textbook publishers are open to renting out books at low prices. It might mean that they’ll be ok with similarly priced kindle textbook editions too.

The DX still has a lot of advantages like low size, convenience, buy anytime, etc. so its definitely not affected as much.

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