US: Despite the hype, e-textbook sales remain low

From the amount of attention the iPad, Kindle and other e-readers are getting, it would seem that the majority of higher education students have exchanged the printed word for its digital equivalent. But a recent study by OnCampus Research, a division of the National Association of College Stores, NACS, shows this is not the case.

"If you believe everything you read you'd think everyone is walking around with a Kindle or an iPad and everyone is reading e-books," says Charles Schmidt, director of public relations at NACS. "We didn't think this was so among the college crowd and that's what the survey proved."

In fact, e-books are still lagging behind printed textbooks. They make up only 2.8% of textbook sales, according to the NACS survey, though they predict an increase of 10% to 15% by 2012.

What's more, the OnCampus Research study found only 13% of students had purchased an electronic book of any kind during the 'rush' period of the semester, the three-month period that the survey targeted. Of that percentage, just over half stated that their e-book purchase was a required course material.

The slow growth of e-textbooks seems to point to both the rate at which content is becoming available and the need for improvement in the technology to read that content.

"It shows there's a lot of room for growth in this market," says Schmidt. "Students are probably being savvier customers than the general populace. They realise that the content is not quite there yet and neither is the technology to read the book. So rather than going out and spending their money on this technology, they're waiting until the technology on both sides becomes more perfected."

San Diego State University bookstore director Todd Summers agrees. One of the largest sellers of e-textbooks in the country, the university bookstore started offering the digital option in 2008 but has seen little growth in digital sales since then.

"This is mainly because digital content in the textbook space has not improved much in quality in this time period," says Summers, who notes the bookstore is still selling more printed textbooks than e-textbooks.

Some suggest that the popularity of e-textbooks will begin to take off once they start to incorporate more interactive tools, which Summer expects soon.

"We will begin to see more vibrant content with embedded video, 3-D images, the ability to change and update content more frequently, the ability for customisation at the local level, the ability for faculty and students to post notes and interact with each other within a platform, and much more," says Summers.

In addition to the technological drawbacks, students currently enrolled in higher education are still more comfortable with printed textbooks than their digital counterparts.

"I had the perception that college students today are digital natives but the results point to that not being the case," says Schmidt.

"While they are intrigued by technology and use it, they are not the digital natives that are required to make these textbooks take off," he says, noting that true digital natives are students in elementary and high school, where the electronic book is more common.

Summers believes that however long it may take to catch on, it is just a matter of time before e-textbooks become the rule rather than the exception.

"The industry is moving to digital content and the pace will probably begin to accelerate within the next year," says Summers. "Bookstores will probably be places that offer digital content to students with a print option rather than the other way around."