A recent article in The Washington Post explained why most students prefer print textbooks over their digital equivalent. There’s no disputing the fact that print still dominates the textbook sector. That article correctly identified the “what” but I’m not convinced they thoroughly uncovered the “why” behind this phenomenon.
Here are a few key points I don’t think the article explored:
Students grow up with print – Today’s college kids might be the most digitally active ever but they grew up using print textbooks. Print books have been a critical component of a millennial’s study life, so what makes anyone think a student will magically shift from print to digital when they get to college? Today’s college students simply aren’t digital natives when it comes to textbooks.
E- is just like p-, but with fewer benefits – Why would they want to switch to e-textbooks anyway? I know there are some exceptions but when you get right down to it the e-textbook has fewer benefits than the print version. Here’s one great example: Sharing. Plenty of college students (my own kids included) have managed to save a few bucks for beer/pizza by sharing print textbooks with friends taking the same class during the same semester. Good luck trying that with an e-textbook.
Prices – Speaking of fewer benefits, is there really a financial incentive to go with the e-textbook over the p-version? I’m not talking about e- being marginally less expensive than p-. Think about the huge impact the $9.99 price point had on the broader ebook market when the Kindle first arrived several years ago. Here’s a (pardon the pun) textbook example: This Calculus book is available as a new product in print from Amazon for $264. The Kindle edition is $230, a whopping savings of just under 13%. Really? And we expect student so go with the Kindle edition that they can’t share but still costs more than $200?
Debunking distractions – The Washington Post article notes that distractions are inevitable on the digital screen and how distractions are one of the reasons students prefer print editions. How many of those students reading print textbooks also have a smartphone right next to the book? They’re not distracted by the flashing and ringtones it puts out? Please. That said, if today’s college students are so easily distracted by Facebook and pop-ups I think it’s safe to say society is doomed.
User experience – Let’s also not overlook the device these e-textbooks are most likely to be read on. Pretty much every college student these days has a laptop and a phone; fewer have a tablet. So if they want to read their e-textbook most students are stuck reading it on their clunky laptop. The phone experience is awful for larger format, fixed-layout textbooks and probably not that effective for reflowable ones. I’d prefer print as well if my options were limited to the e-textbook on a laptop or a phone.
Dumb content on smart devices – This, I believe, is the most important point of all. Most of these e-textbooks are nothing more than a print-under-glass experience. They’re a digital replica of the print edition with no real digital features. The Kindle editions certainly don’t leverage the capabilities of the smart devices they’re read on, for example.
Until the market evolves from today’s mostly print replica model and offers compelling reasons for students to go digital, including a more attractive price point, we’re unlikely to see movement away from print textbooks. And let’s face it… The major players in this space love the fat margins they’ve always generated from print products. Those same players have enormous control over the ecosystem so what’s their incentive to offer a more compelling product and value proposition?