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Books Enter a New (Digital) Age

If you've picked up a student's backpack recently, its weight may well have surprised you. Those books can be incredibly heavy. Now, through the rise of e-textbook sales, that may change--lightening both the backpacks and the strain on pocketbooks. Sales of digital books for college students jumped almost 30% from 2006 to 2007.

This development has been taking place over the 15 to 20 years, but it is now starting to take off. During that time, college textbook prices have soared at twice the rate of inflation. Undergraduates at four-year public universities spent an average of nearly $1,000 on textbooks and supplies during the past academic year. Students have been looking for affordable alternatives, and the digital market seems to be offering an answer. For example, about 95 percent of McGraw-Hill's current college textbooks are available in the electronic version.

One way students access the books is to pay at the campus bookstore where they receive a code and access the book online with a username and password. They can buy a subscription for a set period of time such as 180, 360 or 540 days. However, unlike a traditional book, e-books cannot be accessed after their purchase period ends. Another restriction to their wider use is that they do not as yet have enough interactive features.

E-textbooks are still a small but rapidly growing part of the $5.5 billion college textbook industry. The National Association of College Stores found that 18 percent of students bought or accessed digital textbooks available to them on campus.

As one college senior said, “It's the natural segue for textbooks to go. I'm always on the computer and I'm always utilizing the Internet, and to have a one-stop shop where your textbook is on the computer is a fabulous marriage of multitasking.” Many of the e-textbooks have audio, video and search capabilities.

This development is still in its infancy. For those of us interested in the delivery of reading systems, it should be fascinating to watch its development.

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