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Digital textbooks will save you money – Hah

I was playing around with a textbook search engine today and I kept seeing one of my theories about digital textbooks being proved over and over.

I’m sure has been around for a while, but I only just heard about it when they spammed my old college email address. Normally I delete spam like this and forget about it, but the email mentioned that also covered ebooks. I couldn’t see where anyone had posted on this part of before so I thought it worth looking into.

The sole purpose of is to help you find the cheapest textbook possible. Search options cover both rental/purchase, paper/digital, and you can track down your required textbook by school/dept/class. It works rather well, and I can’t see that are padding the price so they get a commission. They even quote prices with shipping included. is good, but back to the main topic.

One of the arguments made for digital textbooks is that they sell for less than retail so students save money. This is true, but it is not the whole story. Go use for a while and you’ll see that for most titles, the paper price is cheaper. And that’s the buying price, not rent. (Oh, and if you do find a cheaper ebook make sure it’s not a rental.)

Even when you find a cheaper ebook, chances are that it’s still not cheaper than a paper copy. How much is that paper copy worth when you sell it back to the bookstore? Subtract that and you’ll get the actual cost.

So far as I can tell, digital textbooks are surviving for 2 reasons: college textbooks are frakking heavy and most college students don’t know how to shop effectively. Price is certainly not a reason to get a digital textbook.

image via HarrisinMI

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Mark Long January 27, 2011 um 4:48 pm

The pricing structure for digital textbooks is very odd as I discovered at the Kindle store a while back. Basically, digital textbooks–once you culled out the books that were manuals as opposed to textbooks–tended to be 15% to 20% cheaper at the most than their printed counterparts. And, as you noted, used hard copies are usually cheaper than that anyway.

I think it comes down to the fact that textbooks–as opposed to trade titles–have a pricing structure that’s based on people choosing the books–instructors–who aren’t paying for them–students. So, you wind up with a pricing/payment disconnect that has lead to record margins for textbook publishers that trade publishers can only dream of. Therefore, textbook publishers will not make digital versions easily available unless they can keep those profit margins built in . . . which will ultimately come, I think, from cutting college bookstores completely out of sales loop.

Nate the great January 27, 2011 um 5:00 pm

The disconnect is bigger than that, actually. It’s my guess that most textbooks are bought with the parent’s money, not the student’s. I think that’s why students didn’t seem to care about price in the survey I covered a few weeks ago.

Mark Long January 27, 2011 um 5:35 pm

In addition, one of the biggest scams, I think, is that with the "official" on-campus bookstore students can typically buy books directly with their financial aid with no money actually changing hands . . . with the effect being that there is a big smokescreen concerning real cost vs. ease of buying.

The problem we’re seeing is that–for example–one of the local college bookstores we sell to is jacking up the retail price on one of our titles so that a $24 book (wholesaled to them for $18) is going for $38. But, at the same time, that book is available from Amazon for around $18.

With the price of education continually rising, I think students will ultimately take advantage of online retailers with deep discounts and 5-7 years from now college bookstores will be selling almost exclusively shot glasses and t-shirts with school logos on them.

Finally, with the defacto industry standard of $9.99 for frontlist trade title ebooks, I think at some point you’ll see digital textbooks prices settle at something like $19.99 to $29.99. But probably not any time soon.

reality check January 30, 2011 um 1:22 am

Ever try "Ctrl + F" on a paper textbook?

Nate the great January 30, 2011 um 9:57 am


True, but I’m talking about economics in this post, not usability.

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