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Do Students Really Prefer Print Books to E-Books?

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A recent survey from the National Association of College Stores (NACS) is being cited in news reports, on Twitter, and in blogs as proof that students prefer print textbooks to e-book textbooks:

The OnCampus Research Electronic Book and E-Reader Device survey, conducted in early October, found that only 13% of college students had purchased an electronic book of any kind during the previous three months. Of that percentage, slightly over half (56%) stated that the primary purpose of their e-book purchase was required course materials for class.

The new survey also confirmed a finding of NACS’ 2010 OnCampus Student Watch survey, conducted last fall, in which 74% of college students preferred print over digital.

The survey is drawing the wrong conclusion by framing the question in terms of media choice. It’s not about print versus electronic. It’s about economics and selection.

Imagine if someone asked you if you wanted to pay more for something and have limited selection. Would you trade a cheaper format with a broader selection for something you’d calculate as more costly and less abundant? Only if you’re a devoted early adopter.

For the vast majority of students, print textbooks are economically superior to e-books simply because there’s a robust used book market for expensive print textbooks. Buy them new, sell them back. Want them cheaper? Buy them used. The market is much more favorable and robust.

As an example, would I buy a $52 e-book when I can buy a $115 print book that has, as its low offer, a used price of $84? With print, I can essentially “rent” a textbook for a semester for $31, an economic edge of $21 over the e-book — and with no upfront cost of an e-reader.

With these economic and retail advantages in mind, it’s easy to rewrite the headline:

Original: E-Books, E-Readers Slow to Catch on with College Students — Study Finds Preference for Print Continues

Rewrite 1: Students Are Practical — Economics of E-books Don’t Beat Those of Print Books, Selection Limited

Rewrite 2: Publishers, Bookstores Continue Chokehold on Students — Pricing, Limited Options Forcing Them to Buy Print

As an aside, I have yet to find this survey released in any form other than a press release. That’s not a good sign. It makes me think the whole thing was about generating the press release.

About the same time, Blackboard, Inc., released a study that hints at a huge potential market for classroom computing:

The report, Learning in the 21st Century: Taking it Mobile! shows that students now view the inability to use their own devices in school, such as cell phones, smartphones, MP3 players, laptops or net books, as the primary barrier to a successful digital education.

Students are willing to pay for technology when there is no analog competitor because the economics are unavoidable. And when there isn’t a viable electronic alternative, students will stick with print.

This isn’t about the media choice, but the economics of the print vs. electronic markets right now. And those economics will change.

Both surveys are to be viewed with a jaded eye, of course. The NACS has a vested interest in printed textbooks, both new and old. Spinning publishing surveys in a manner that extends their market makes sense for them. At the same time, Blackboard, Inc., has a vested interest in online learning moving forward. Their spin is equally self-interested.

Where does the truth reside? Neither of these reports tell us, but they definitely show us how vested financial interests are competing for our students’ pocketbooks. Right now, the economics and selection of print in the textbook market still beats that of electronic. But the Blackboard approach suggests that the premise of students relying on textbooks for learning may be what’s fundamentally flawed in any case.

(Thanks to JS and LS for the pointers.)

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About Kent Anderson

I am the CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., the home of the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, JBJS Case Connector, JBJS Reviews, JBJS Essential Surgical Techniques, the JBJS Recertification Course, PRE-val, and SocialCite. Prior to this, I was an executive at the New England Journal of Medicine. I also was Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Discussion

17 thoughts on “Do Students Really Prefer Print Books to E-Books?

  1. I think that physical textbooks are easier to use, read and and study from, and they come with a guarantee that you can always keep them, use them, and do with them what you wish. I’d rather have a physical, printed version of something that I want to keep for many years, than something that I may have to transfer between computers and lose on the way.

    That said, I think students should be learning from real papers and reviews, instead of textbooks. Though textbook illustrations can be helpful, it may be better to simply learn form the source.

    Posted by Cat | Nov 3, 2010, 9:11 am
    • “I think students should be learning from real papers and reviews, instead of textbooks.”

      The feasibility of that depends on your discipline, I suppose. The typical undergraduate in mathematics, for instance, is ill-equipped to understand “real papers”, even survey articles.

      Posted by Nat Whilk | Nov 3, 2010, 11:27 am
    • I hope there aren’t too many people out there saving their freshman biology textbooks for further consultation. This, like everything, is about context. Yes, I will keep a text used in college, say The Consolation of Philosophy, but that first year calculus book? No way.

      Posted by Martin | Nov 4, 2010, 3:44 pm
  2. Good analysis of the economic factors here, though perhaps the viewpoint of the students is a bit less sophisticated. From my college days, way back in the hazy past, I always appreciated that extra boost of spending money that came at the end of the semester when you could sell back your textbooks. Kind of like a bonus payment for finishing a course. Buy an unsellable eBook and you lose that extra chunk of beer money. Maybe it’s less about saving Mom and Dad money than it is about keeping one’s own pockets full.

    There’s also the inelegant means of taking notes in the text, still not as simple an interface as a pen and a book, and the apparent occasional loss of one’s notes to fear.

    As far as the second study, if students are allowed/encouraged to use their own devices, how does this affect poorer students who can’t afford those devices? Does it create a have/have not class system (pun unintended)?

    Posted by David Crotty | Nov 3, 2010, 10:20 am
  3. In my experience as a science librarian, I’ve found that many students will do almost anything to avoid buying their textbooks, even required core texts. They’ll buy used copies on the web, buy pirated print or e-copies, borrow and scan from friends, borrow a library reserves copy, or just do without. They hate to spend that money, they hate lugging them around, they hate the gouging bookstores and greedy publishers. In some cases they are convinced that the textbook is superfluous and unnecessary anyway. (Unless the test questions come directly from it.)

    It’s all about paying as little as possible for the minimum needed to get by. Obviously some students are more committed to their education than this sad example, but in my observation they are a small minority.

    So I agree with the above economic analysis. When e-texts become more economical than print, students will come over to them in a big way. Until then, they won’t.

    Posted by David | Nov 3, 2010, 11:34 am
    • I never felt that way, but my son does. He doesn’t order any books until the prof indicates that they are needed.

      The times they are a changin’

      Posted by John Spevacek | Nov 3, 2010, 1:51 pm
  4. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    One question: What about print textbooks that are revised annually, making it impossible to sell the old versions at the end of each semester?

    Posted by Nick Holden | Nov 3, 2010, 4:46 pm
  5. There’s no question that lower price could entice students to move from print to digital, but I think your economic (only) perspective misses a factor that does encourage students to currently prefer print over digital (so I’m inclined to accept the statistics the report provides). For now, many students still have an emotional attachment to books. See this NYT article for more on that http://nyti.ms/91qTui. Also, students don’t just read textbooks – which is what the economics argument assumes – that print and digital offer the same learning experience. Students INTERACT with their textbooks – they make notes, they dog-ear the pages, they put it sticky paper to mark important pages – and more. Other reports have suggested that until we have readers that offer much more interactivity with the content, students will prefer paper. I think the KNO has potential for this reason – lots more interactivity when the book is being used.

    Posted by StevenB | Nov 4, 2010, 2:05 pm
    • Well, reading that NYTimes piece, I was struck by how much of it IS about the economics — rentals, used books, etc. There’s very little about usability preference except for pretentious statements about “the codex” and such. Also, the article notes that a lack of availability tilts the tables toward print, another point I was making in the post. So, my reading of the same text confirms the premise I started with — that used-book economics and a lack of options are what are making print attractive still for college students.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Nov 4, 2010, 2:10 pm
  6. While the economic perspective is interesting, you are unfortunately suffering from the very problem you claim from the NACS study. The study claims that students still prefer print but does not explain why. The conclusion is accurate even if it is because of economic reasons. Interestingly, the economics of the decision was not studied thus the claim that this is the deciding factor is purely speculative. Considering e-books (non-textbooks) are generally cheaper than print kind of throws the economic argument into question too, especially since one may not need a specific reader now that most smartphones have apps for that.

    Posted by george | Nov 11, 2010, 10:40 am
    • One of the points I was making is that the “study” was released as a press release, with no study report I could find. This potentially means it’s a self-serving bit of propaganda, not an actual study. The economics were, I think, left out because then the motivation for the press release would be too brazenly obvious — namely, that bookstores and publishers want to keep print alive as long as possible because the economics work in their favor.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Nov 11, 2010, 12:58 pm
  7. One thing that this article ignores is that many students buy the analog equivalent (print books) thinking they can sell them back at the end of the semester only to discover that the publisher has come out with yet another pointless new edition (often where only a few words have been changed from the previous) so the bookstore won’t buy the book back. Depending on the professor for the class, they may be able to accomplish a private sale, to a student in the class the next time it is offered, but many professors insist on the newest edition, despite only minor changes. In this sense, the e-book is actually more cost effective, but since students don’t know in advance whether they will be able to sell back their book at the end of the semester, they take the chance on the print copy in the hopes that they will get some money back, but these days it’s more a game of Russian Roulette than a guarantee.

    Posted by thirtysomethinggrad | Nov 11, 2010, 7:14 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Print Textbooks Still More Economical Than E-Books « eCOLLEGEmics - Nov 3, 2010

  2. Pingback: Textbooks: It’s about economics and selection, not format - Nov 8, 2010

  3. Pingback: Print Book Sales Fall, E-Book Sales Rise, and E-Books Will Soon Join the New York Times Bestseller List « The Scholarly Kitchen - Nov 15, 2010

  4. Pingback: The market for eBooks among students « Edd Keating - Dec 10, 2010

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