E-books and rentals shake up textbook industry

Nan Turner
Staff Writer

While the beginning of a college semester has become synonymous with providing a fresh start, it also means buying a set of up-to-date textbooks, something that is rarely kind on the average college student’s budget.

The Student Public Interest Research Group (PIRGs), a group of independent statewide student organizations that work on issues facing college campuses released a study called “A Cover to Cover Solution: How Open Textbooks are the Path to Textbook Affordability.” The survey was conducted at 10 universities and polled more than 1,000 students on their thoughts about the affordability of textbooks and alternative textbook sources such as e-books and rentals.

The survey’s results showed that 75 percent of the students were in favor of the print format of textbooks, while 25 percent preferred digital. However, 47 percent of students said they would be comfortable using a digital supplement for at least one textbook.

When asked about the rental option, 93 percent of students said they would rent one of their textbooks, while only 34 percent said they would rent all of them, according to the survey.

The Student PIRGs said that the average student spends $900 on textbooks annually. Research conducted in the same survey also showed rental books cost 61 percent less than new print textbooks, e-books cost 52 percent less and e-reader textbooks cost 39 percent less. Used textbooks were not included in the study.

This year on campus several area bookstores offered rental textbooks as an option for students in a financial bind, but while on the outside it may seem like rental books are the best option, they have some unforeseen drawbacks according to Michael P’Pool, the operations manager at Virginia Book Company.

“Rental isn’t always the best solution,” P’Pool said. “Rental has a really good buyback program most of the time, but if (a book) gets used in more than one place it’s not a good deal to rent it.”

The VCU Barnes and Noble bookstore also saw an increase in the number of rented books. According to Amy Randolph, the bookstore’s general manager, renting is not always the most cost effective, but can be helpful to students trying to pinch dollars immediately.

“If you buy a used book you still have the option to sell it back at the end of the semester and sometimes that can be even less expensive than the rental,” Randolph said. “So students have a lot of choices to make. They have to be able to look at a book on the shelf and weigh all of their different options.”

With the advent of the Amazon’s Kindle, Barnes & Nobel’s Nook, and Apple’s iPad; e-books suddenly appear to have a future in classrooms. Both Virginia Book Company and Barnes and Noble offered some e-book options, but did have limited class coverage. Randolph said she thinks e-books could create their own niche in the competition.

“Our e-book platform, Nook Study, has this fancy little feature where if you’re writing a paper and you want to cite something, you can copy it, paste it into your paper and it automatically puts the bibliography information in there,” Randolph said. “Little features like that are really great, but you think of how many ways you use a textbook, do you open it up and write in the margins? Can you do the equivalent of that with an e-book?”

President of Virginia Book Company, Ernest Mooney, said he believes online books can end up being much more hassle than a paper edition.

“You can only get two chapters at a time on some of them,” Mooney said. “It’s difficult and then what happens is you have to end up using your own paper and ink to print the book, and you end up not saving as much as you thought you were going to save.”

Still, with all the new options on the market, both stores say the most popular option this semester continued to be the used book. However, with spring semester approaching students might have more time to compare prices and mediums, which could result in a new bestseller.

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