New Report Finds That E-Textbooks Are More Expensive, Less Practical for College Students

For Immediate Release

PORTLAND, Ore. (August 26, 2008) – Textbook publishers’ digital “e-textbooks” do not give students any relief from skyrocketing costs, according to a new report released by the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs).  With textbooks already amounting to a $700-$1000 yearly expense, the report criticizes publishers for offering yet another unaffordable option.

“E-textbooks can be just as expensive as traditional books, and heavy printing and access restrictions make them impractical for a large number of students,” said Nicole Allen, Textbooks Advocate for the Student PIRGs. “Digital textbooks could be a solution to the textbook affordability crisis, but unfortunately publishers are still heading in the opposite direction.”

The report, entitled “Course Correction: How Digital Textbooks Are Off Track, And How to Set Them Straight,” outlines three criteria that digital textbooks must meet in order to deliver savings to students – affordable prices, reasonable printing options, and practical accessibility.  The report finds that e-textbooks, the digital textbooks offered by major publishers, fail to meet all of these criteria.  In contrast, the report also identifies an emerging type of digital textbook called “open textbooks” that are a far better option.  The report concludes that major publishers should take a lesson from open textbooks and change their e-textbooks to be affordable, printable and accessible.

The study consisted of a survey of 504 students from Illinois and Oregon and an analysis of the print and e-textbook versions of 50 commonly assigned textbook titles.  Among the major findings are:

Digital textbooks should be affordable, but e-textbooks are priced too high to yield any significant savings.

  • The average e-textbook surveyed cost exactly the same as a new hard copy of the same title bought and sold back to the campus bookstore.  
  • The average e-textbook surveyed cost 39% more than a used hard copy of the same title bought and sold back online.

Students should have the option to read digital textbooks on paper, but e-textbooks are difficult and costly to print.

  • Three quarters (75%) of students surveyed would prefer to read a print textbook to a digital textbook.
  • The e-textbooks surveyed can be printed only 10 pages at a time, and printing half the pages of the average e-textbook we surveyed would bring the total cost to three times as much as buying a used hard copy of the same title and selling it back to the bookstore.

Digital textbooks should be accessible, but heavy restrictions on e-textbooks make them impractical for many students.

  • Most (75%) of the e-textbooks surveyed expired after 180 days, leaving students with nothing to sell back or access in the future.
  • Online and offline access to e-textbooks on CourseSmart are sold separately.  A student has to choose between reading the book online or downloading it to a single computer.

Over the past 5 years, Student PIRG research has exposed practices the publishing industry uses to inflate costs – bundling, undermining the used book market with unnecessary new editions, and withholding price information from faculty.  In July of 2008, the U.S. Congress took steps to limit the practices that the Student PIRGs identified by passing a federal law requiring publishers to disclose prices to faculty and offer textbooks unbundled.

A full copy of the report can be found at

About the Student PIRGs

The Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs) are a network of state-based, student-directed and funded public interest organizations active on over 200 college campuses in 20 states.

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