The paper version of "Psychology," a popular college textbook by David G. Myers, weighs nearly 5 pounds and costs roughly $90 new and $70 used. The digital version is easy on a backpack and costs $55.
Which would you choose?
Course Smart LLC, a new company backed by the nation's biggest textbook publishers, is betting that many tech-savvy students looking to save some money will select the e-textbook.
The National Association of College Book stores issued a statement to its members last month saying it had directed its general counsel to review the antitrust implications of Course Smart and the potential for the publishers to exercise "unreasonable control over the release and pricing of digital assets to the higher education marketplace."
Frank Lyman, executive vice president for marketing and business development at Course Smart, said bookstores will continue to play a vital role in the textbook market, but he acknowledged the relationship between publishers and bookstores is changing.
Publishers are "not looking to cut out the bookstores, but certainly there's some shaking out of their relationship that's going to happen as we migrate to digital," he said.
That migration is still in its infancy, but there is a growing belief in publishing circles that electronic textbooks have a real chance of catching on because of the savings, the convenience, and the features they have to offer.
"With an e-textbook, you almost feel like you're not able to pull that information close to you."
The format of e-textbooks is still evolving. Course Smart's product allows the user to highlight passages, type notes in the margins, and even search the text for a specific word or phrase. Users access Course Smart books at the company's password-protected website, so web access is essential. Lyman said Course Smart will eventually sell downloadable books and possibly even downloadable chapters. A customer could share access to a book with another student, but Course Smart officials say two students cannot access a book at the same time.
Course Smart currently sells access to its e-textbooks for a limited amount of time, typically six months to a year. By contrast, Cafe Scribe, a Course Smart competitor based in Salt Lake City, sells downloadable books that the user owns for good. Cafe Scribe's software allows users to share notes with other students at the same university or other universities.
"Part of the premise of Course Smart is reliable savings," Lyman said. "Students are really looking for that."
"I like that it was no hassle. I didn't have to wait for it to arrive in the mail or go and pick it up," Holcomb said. "I will use it again unless it's a book I want to keep for future reference."
Lyman says Course Smart wants to work with college bookstores, which can offer students one-stop shopping for new, used, or electronic textbooks and every type of payment option, including use of financial aid. "I'm a believer that there's a shared goal there and we can make it work," he said.
Jerry Murphy, president of the Harvard Cooperative Society, which sells textbooks to many students in Greater Boston, said the concept of e-textbooks hasn't been proven yet. He said few titles are available electronically and relatively few students are asking for them.
"A lot of people, for whatever reason, like to have touchy-feely paper," he said.
©2007/THE NEW YORK TIMES