I had lunch on Monday with a mole deep inside the world of for-profit academic publishing. We discussed his industry’s current fascination with e-textbooks: everyone is developing them and spending gobs of money on them, but no one has figured out how to profit from them. (Like everything else on the internets, except for Pr()n and gambling!) Apparently, Texas–one of two states (California is the other) that pretty much dictate what K-12 textbook companies publish–demands now that all textbooks considered for statewide adoption have e-text versions as the price of admission. That is, having the e-text is a precondition for being considered at all, but they still have to print up the hard copies of the books, too.
The advantages to e-texts without hard copies are obvious to publishers: no paper, printing, or warehouse storage costs, and absolutely no competition with the used textbook market. (Used textbooks are Kryptonite to the textbook publishing industry: they have to make all their money in one year on a new edition–after that, there are so many used copies in circulation that they can no longer compete.) Mr. Mole said that given the minimal focus most college instructors put on textbooks, e-texts make a lot of sense, since in most disciplines they serve for the most part as expensive reference tools that aren’t read cover-to-cover but rather are consulted episodically on an as-needed basis. In those cases, e-text versions should be welcome substitutions for the 15-pound doorstopper.
But, would e-texts work in history or literature classes? I wondered if book-intensive (rather than article-intensive) disciplines in which reading is–or should be, anyway–not just a central methodology but also a pleasureable experience would be so eager to jump on the e-bandwagon? Mr. Mole and I both agreed that on-line was fine for short pieces (as on blogs) and perhaps magazine-length articles, but not for books that were meant to be read cover-to-cover. And, I would add, not even on a Kindle or other such gadget. (After all: who wants to spend even more time in front of a darn computer screen? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) Interestingly, Mr. Mole was one step ahead of me, and said that he had conducted a focus group with 10 undergraduates at his alma mater recently about e-texts. Here’s what he found out:
- The students said that history classes were widely perceived as the “most difficult” classes in the university. Why? Because they actually are required to do the assigned reading, and (in the words of my mole), “time + effort spent on coursework = the level of difficulty students assign to their courses.”
- When asked if e-textbooks would be attractive or useful to them, they responded enthusiastically–for all disciplines but history. Why? “Because they actually have to do the reading for their history courses.”
- My mole said that he was surprised at the strong interest students of generation Web 2.0 still have for print versions of their history books, but they were very clear in their preference for old-school technology for books which they’re actually required to read and know well.
What do you think? Have you assigned an e-text recently? Would you consider doing so? I don’t assign U.S. history survey textbooks even in my survey classes, in part because I found myself using them so little and wanting to read them myself even less. But, I would probably recommend a well-designed and reasonably priced e-text that students could consult for more background information or in case they missed some lectures. Here’s something else to consider: e-texts would presumably cut out the university bookstore as a broker for information–and it would be easier to assign recommended books, too, since students could just purchase access directly from the publisher instead of counting on the bookstore to track down a copy for them. E-texts might seriously cut into university bookstores’ business, but then I’m pretty sure there’s a higher profit margin on logo sweatshirts and insulated coffee mugs, so they might welcome the freed-up space.