Reading Between the Lines

Incoming freshman have already been warned of the long lines they’ll likely face as college students – lines for dorm showers, lines in the cafeteria, lines for athletic event tickets, even lines for the relative quiet of the library’s study rooms.  One line they may no longer have to stand in is the line for purchasing textbooks.  Breaking from the traditional pattern of purchasing textbooks from the campus bookstore at the beginning of the semester and then selling them all back a few months later, many students are finding new options.  Whether checking out textbooks from library reserves, purchasing used books from other students via the internet, purchasing online textbooks for a fraction of their traditional costs, or even using open-source texts, students are finding creative and cost-effective ways to obtain the course content they need.

As Eric Gorski of the Associated Press explains:

Like the music and media businesses, the textbook industry has been revolutionized by the Internet.  Although used books have long been an option for students, the Web opened up a world of bargain hunting beyond the campus bookstore.

A robust online marketplace of used books and recent inroads by textbook rental programs give students more options than ever.  The prospect of digital books and slow-but-steady growth in free online ‘open’ content loom as developments that could upend the textbook landscape and alleviate the perennial problem of rising prices.

As we’ve mentioned before, e-readers have been growing both in number and usage.   That ubiquity has not gone unnoticed. Many publishers have already begun the work of making e-content more widely available; and a number of retailers have developed business models around the idea that students may no longer be satisfied purchasing the materials they need from one expensive retailer.  Companies such as Chegg, BookRenter, CollegeBookRenter, and textbook publisher Cengage Learning, to name just a few, have all taken notice of this trend and are now renting textbooks directly to students.  Other companies have gone a step further and ventured into the open-source textbook market.

As the NY Times reports, Texas and California are leading the way in this status-quo challenge. Texas has “passed a law promoting the use of open, digital texts and is reviewing material that might be used in schools.”  While California is “studying whether open texts meet state requirements.”

While it’s likely that the shift from traditional textbooks to alternative sources will not take place overnight, there’s no mistaking the growing trend.  Textbooks are just one more form of content.  As with all forms of content, consumers have shown themselves increasingly unwilling to settle for just one source.  As publishers and distributors develop creative solutions and alternate models for distributing textbook content, we can look forward to continued market expansion.  Students are likely to benefit from this expanding marketplace, as the list of ways they can obtain the content they need becomes as long as the lines they used to stand in.

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