Rewired Reading

    Photo by Emily Chow / North by Northwestern.

    For your textbook to finally make it into your hands at the Norris Bookstore, it had to be published, printed, shipped back and forth to a warehouse a few times, shipped between stores, packaged, handled and stocked. It’s a rather inefficient process when compared with sitting at home, going to a website and buying a textbook that shows up on your screen — especially when the bookstore is sold out of that textbook you need for class tomorrow.

    eTextbooks have been available for larger books (think Intro to Psych or Chemistry textbooks, typically huge, hardcover horrors) for around three years. Charles Depondt, textbook manager for the Norris Bookstore, says with this “progressive program,” these titles are available to students at a steep discount: It varies by title, but can be about 40 percent of the price of a new, physical book.

    This past fall, with the help of Barnes and Noble and their NOOKstudy program, those 15 paperback books that history class assigned can also be found as eTextbooks. NOOKstudy is a free software that students can download to their computers, after creating an account on (which requires a credit card number, but won’t bill anything until a purchase).

    While you don’t get the satisfaction of turning the page (many e-books only allow you to print a fraction of the pages), NOOKstudy allows highlighting and sharing passages with others who also have the program. It also works only on computers, not on traditional e-readers like the Nook or Amazon’s Kindle. Depondt says that “real geeks will just love it — people who are familiar with learning new ways of doing things with technology.”

    Still, a large amount of people want that physical book and will probably continue to for a long time. The eTextbook percentage of sales for the bookstore isn’t huge, but Depondt says that it is a huge and surprisingly fast increase from last year.

    This shift towards more eTextbooks can be examined as a part of a larger shift in terms of innovations in teaching media. It’s going to be a difficult process, according to Medill Assistant Dean for Research Francis Mulhern. The burden lies most on the publishing industry. The traditional textbook industry is very profitable in a way digital textbooks wouldn’t be.

    “They’re getting there, but they don’t want to cannibalize the sales of their textbooks,” says Mulhern. “It’s destructive innovation, the transition to electronic. It destroys the pre-existing business model.”

    We are there technologically, according to Mulhern. “It’s really ridiculous that people carry round these big heavy textbooks.”

    When considering whether or not to grab that card at the bookstore instead of lugging a pile of paper, ink and binding back to the dorm, Depondt says it’s important to know what you’re paying for.

    “Every book is different. It’s important to read the fine print and know what you’re getting.”


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