Digital textbooks to account for 1 in 5 textbook sales in 2014

digital textbook sales increasingA new study of digital textbook adoption estimates that in five short years the adoption rate will be high enough to disrupt the traditional textbook market. 2014 is the first year that Xplana, a social learning platform, estimates the sales of digital textbooks will reach a "tipping point" that leads to a shakeup in the publishing model and gives free open learning platforms a better chance at widespread adoption.

The study, which looked at information from several private surveys and studies concluded that in five years the sales of digital textbooks will reach 18% to 20% of total new textbook sales; a dramatic rise from the current digital textbook share of .5%. The study's author Roy Reynolds explains in an interview with Xplana that until these sales reach 13% or above, publishers will remain focused on the printed versions.

Given all of the coverage surrounding the iPad and other digital reading devices this year, students may assume that the transition will occur much faster; but there are plenty of hurdles for publishers to overcome before programs like Seton Hill's iPad for every student are rolled out nationwide.

First and foremost the current digital textbook solutions from consortiums, like CourseSmart, are generally nothing more than a poor resolution PDF conversion that doesn't even display nicely on the iPad's screen. As you can see in the example below, the text only fills up two-thirds of the screen and you can forget about turning the page with a flick of the wrist. Don't even get me started on how far behind the Kindle, CourseSmart's note taking features are.

The next issue that needs to be addressed before digital textbooks can be a significant force in the marketplace is the current usage restrictions. Until students can move digital textbooks from device to device with the same ease as moving DRM free mp3 files. Don't expect them to catch on.

This brings me to standards and devices. Right now the etextbook marketplace is a veritable Wild West of standards, readers and accessibility options. One concern that my students expressed about the current form of etextbooks is that they may not work on all devices and the restrictions outweighed the benefits. Of the 36 students I asked informally about etextbooks, only a few had purchased them for a current course.

The final nail in the coffin for most current digital textbook solutions is the fact that they often require an Internet connection
to read which means no more reading in the park or on the long trip home without a mobile hotspot.

These challenges won't kill the etextbook market, but provide solid reasons why it will take the industry so long to mature and meet the expectations and demands of professors and students.

The good news is that we are moving in the right direction; year over year sales of digital textbooks show substantial growth with increases in the 100-400% range. And while the current digital versions may not display well and transfer from device to device, the study predicts that we will see a convergence of standards over the next few years that allow students to read their digital texts on the iPad, mobile phones, Google Chrome powered notebooks and more.

Finally, and most importantly, the study finds that student demand will, "force publishers to create additional lower-cost digital alternatives." That's right; expect to see publishers offer even lower priced digital textbooks in the future; possibly supplementing their income with print on demand editions like Flat World Knowledge already does.

Currently digital textbooks cost 25-50% less than printed versions and CourseSmart's website puts the average savings per digital textbook at $62.50 for the month of April. In addition to the free digital textbooks, Flat World's online reader works much better on the iPad than CourseSmart's app.

Josh Smith is a adjunct professor of of business technology courses at Bluffton University in Ohio and writes about technology for WalletPop and

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