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Textbook Tinkering

Books2This article from BYU's website notes that "the average college student spends about $850 to $942 per year on textbooks and supplies."  With two kids currently studying at Purdue (Boiler Up!), I can vouch for that fact.  And while I'm delighted to see the industry looking at e-book alternatives, including the Kindle, I can't help but think everyone is too focused on applying the old rules to the new potential models.

The perfect example is the used textbook market, which is discussed in the BYU article.  In the current model, used textbooks sell at a price lower than new ones.  Makes sense to me, but why do used textbooks have to go away in the e-world?  I would argue that they can not only exist, but that they could be sold at a higher price than the "new" e-textbook.  Huh?

Let's say you're taking a class and you just bought the e-textbook for $X.  As you use that e-textbook throughout the semester you wind up adding notes from the class, tips you learned along the way and maybe you even wind up embedding audio segments from the instructor's lectures.  In short, you're creating your own mashup of the original e-textbook. (Kindle Version 1.0 obviously isn't built to handle or support all this, but I'm hoping a future version will!  And yes, I realize the IP management issues that would be involved in this as well, but hear me out...)

The semester ends and you're left with an e-textbook that you might never need again.  Why not sell it to a student taking the same course next semester?  In fact, since you've incorporated diligent notes and other goodies throughout the semester, why not sell it at a price that's higher than the e-textbook was originally?  After all, you've added valuable content to the product.  Next semester's students are free to buy the original for $X, but if they value the content you've added to it, they'll pay you more than $X.

On the surface, the other stakeholders in the textbook transaction (publishers, authors, retailers and the schools themselves) wouldn't support this because they wouldn't want to lose out on the used e-textbook transaction.  So why not include them on the deal?  You're keeping whatever you can sell above $X and passing the rest ($X) along to the publisher, author, etc., so they're indifferent to new and used e-textbook sales because they earn the same amount either way.  It sure beats the alternative of you being stuck with a useless e-textbook from last semester, don't you think?

I realize an entire platform would have to be built to support this...but it wouldn't be that hard!  Amazon is in a great position to build something like this, but so are other e-retailers.  We just need to stop assuming that all the old rules need to remain in place.



Hi Joe! I've really been enjoying your blog and just wanted to chip in my two cents on an issue that I have some experience with (I'm an undergrad currently).

1. The idea of e-textbooks makes me cringe. I and my circle of friends at least haaaaate reading assignments off a screen, and not just because it makes flipping over to facebook easier. I believe that technology can and will address the issue, but perfecting that technology and making it cheap is absolutely a prerequisite.

2. Your idea of added value is interesting, but I'm skeptical of whether it would really ever work beyond a small segment of the population. The ultimate virtue a textbook can possess is cheapness. I think that's really at the heart of all the problems in the textbook market: no CDs, updates or online content will convince me to willingly pay more for a book.

3. Personally, I only annotate my books when I'm really invested in the subject, and as a result I tend to keep the books I've marked up. I've added value to them, and I don't want to lose that.

4. Finally, when I'm picking books I'm generally looking for the cleanest copy for the lowest price. In this case I am willing to shell out a few extra bucks for a cleaner copy. Generally this is because I don't want someone else's thought-process (the student's or the professor's) interfering. Granted, technology could take care of this by simultaneously offering a clean and marked copy, but it just makes me wonder how desirable those notes would be. Ignoring any great issues of academic integrity, the previous student may have marked up the passages Professor X used to demonstrate that the Oresteia is about the development of justice and law, but this quarter you've got Professor Y the feminist...

I should note that I'm a History/Classics major. I can see where e-textbooks make sense in the sciences and I think this scheme could work well there. But outside of technical fields I'm really skeptical of e-textbooks and the value of those mashups. I do agree though that e-books change the rules!

Ann Manby

Hi Julie, I work for a technology company in the publishing space and I'm curious to know what you and your friends might think about purchasing a textbook with one or more advertisements in it, assuming the ad(s) would significantly reduce the cost of the book.

Joe Wikert

Hi Julie. Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply on this post. Here are my initial comments on the four areas you called out:

1. I totally agree that e-textbooks won't be for everyone and I think you make a compelling argument that the adoption rate will vary by subject area as well. However, for those courses where it makes sense and for those students who like the concept, I think the future is bright (as long as we don't limit ourselves to yesterday's rules!).

2. Again, your mileage (and interest) may vary on this. This though is another example where technology can make it quite interesting. For example, rather than having the notes linked to one copy of the book, how about a model where a server houses all notes from all readers of that book? Further, all those notes can be selectively filtered so that maybe I only want to see those from my school, or just those with my professor in my school or maybe even just those in my smaller recitation class within that professor's larger course. My point is there would be a calibration capability to show as many or few comments as I'd like.

3. Here again I think it depends on the student and the course. That said, I'd also like to think that technology could help us get to a point where more people see the value in e-notes in their e-books. I too used to shudder when thinking about making any marks whatsoever in this pricey textbook I hoped to resell one day. Maybe that fear goes away with a great technology solution that not only allows this, but encourages it.

4. Yes, the notes could be considerably different based on which instructor led the lectures. Then again, it might be interesting to see notes from other professors, particularly if yours happened to skate through this particular topic and you'd like to see what another had to say about it.

Julie, I'm glad you brought up the advertising-subidized model. I'm curious to hear what others think of that...


I used to spend even more than this on textbooks until I started using www.cheapesttextbooks.com


Here in Australia academic text books are extortionately expensive. This market is ripe for the picking.

Rebecca Burgess

I'm currently finishing up a PhD program in psychology. As you may imagine, I've bought and read a considerable number to textbooks and I agree with Julie on many points:

-An added CD or links to online content has never enticed me to pay more for a text. The CDs and links that have been provided in my books (and the books of almost every classmate I've ever encountered) go unopened, and unexplored unless the professor (and they almost never, ever do) have set up assignments that incorporate this media.

-Added content by other users is actually a huge drawback as far as I can see and I don't think I'm alone on this. Just take a look at used textbook sales on Amazon and you will see that we pay a premium for books with no highlighting and no mark ups. Books that I have purchased that are marked up (because the seller was not truthful) drive me crazy. Rarely (and almost never) is this "added content" something that I would have found noteworthy and especially relevant.

Furthermore, the act of physically taking the notes (or highlighting text yourself) is actually part of how relevant information gets hardwired into your knowledge base. Simply reading another's notes is not as effective for retaining information long term as taking those notes yourself.

-I differ from Julie in that I would welcome a usable e-text book reader (not my laptop) like the Kindle so that I could have all of my texts with me at all times in a small, lightweight unit. The book should obviously be cheaper than new and used versions of the paper tombs making the rational for reselling unprofitable. (If you can use the terms "profitable" and "resold texts" in the same breath without laughing.)

And finally, to answers Ann's question--I personally would have zero problem with a reasonable amount of ads within a text so long as the ads were relevant, not overly intrusive and did indeed reduce the cost of the book significantly.


I only paid like 250 for my textbooks this semester because I bought online at www.cheapesttextbooks.com


Nice article....Mostly I love to buy my textbooks from TextbookX store through Couponalbum.com site at most discounted prices......!

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