Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

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The e-textbook Explosion??

E-textbooks have become more and more prevalent in the university textbook scene. E-textbooks are less expensive than their print counterparts, which is a huge draw for students on a budget who can’t afford that $125 textbook that will be out-of-date and “obsolete” after one semester. Some textbook sellers even let you buy specific chapters rather than the entire book, and you can also “rent” books for 30-, 60-, 90-, 120-, and 180- day periods. These options make textbooks more affordable, more portable, and more available to students. Some students, however, still prefer the hard copy, because the hard copy is easier to mark up, annotate, and read without distraction. I once used an e-textbook for an intro religion course, and I had a hard time reading from the screen, remembering where text was located on the page, and reading deeply beyond surface-level comprehension. Some apps do allow noting and markups, but many students complain that such annotation is simply “not the same” as writing notes and underlining/highlighting by hand.

Various tablets/e-readers offer textbooks on their user interfaces, including the iPad and Kindle Fire. Students and professors mostly use third-party applications to buy and mark/annotate e-textbooks. One of these applications is Inkling for iPad, which offers interactive textbooks through major publishers–McGraw-Hill and Pearson, W.W. Norton, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, e.g. “Inkling allows publishers to create interactive content with video, interactive quizzes, 3D models and more that can be easily published across a variety of formats and platforms and updated just as easily” (

According to an article on Publisher’s Weekly, “E-textbooks on the Cusp?” (, 46% of students are interested in purchasing a textbook for their iPad, but only 10% use a tablet or smartphone for schoolwork. The article argues that because the interest is there, usage will increase as tablet prices (particularly the iPad) decrease and as professors and universities fully integrate e-textbooks into their courses.

Personally, I find that this prediction/projection is somewhat overly optimistic, unless the projection is for several years down the line. The majority of students are still reluctant to read e-textbooks on their computer or tablet. (I am one of them; I would spend more money for the print version than have to read the electronic version and not remember what I read). Students in the future may be more comfortable reading from a computer screen or tablet, but most current students have reservations about readings online. In a course I am taking right now, many readings are online, and most of the students in my class print out the electronic articles anyway to maintain their ability to mark/highlight the reading.

Also, the cost of tablets on top of the necessary laptop/computer for higher education may be beyond many students’ grasp. The iPad has no USB ports, so it cannot be connected to a printer or other drives. Its use is currently more for entertainment and less for education, and many iPad users see it as a leisure tool rather than a part of education. A tablet, particularly the iPad, cannot replace a computer for schoolwork, and buying an iPad specifically for Inkling and textbooks may not seem a worthwhile investment when the student can find the used textbook in print for less money. However, if schools provide iPads or other tablets because the university wants to integrate interactive textbooks, students may be more enthusiastic.

E-textbooks may emerge slowly as students who are more experienced in learning from a screen enter the university system and as the economy recovers, allowing students to afford expensive technology. Until then, though, I think that e-textbook publishers should not get ahead of themselves in prophesizing huge jumps in e-textbook sales.

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