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U of T Bookstore Chad Saunders thinks digital books could reach a
Illustration by Cristina Diaz-Borda.

Digital Books Look Great on Paper

Students haven't embraced electronic textbooks, but a rumoured device from Apple could change everything

A decade into the digital music revolution, university students have largely forgotten about CDs. But they are showing little enthusiasm so far for electronic textbooks, says Chad Saunders, vice-president of University of Toronto Bookstores.

A survey conducted by the U of T Bookstore in September found that despite a rapidly evolving market for electronic texts, virtually no student has purchased a digital book, and that only 17 per cent of the students indicated they were likely to do so in the future. Saunders added that many of the students said they preferred the touch and feel of a book.

I found out as much in my own conversations with students and recent alumni. Heather Falikowski, who graduated with a BA in psychology earlier this year, says she prefers printed books because she can easily underline and highlight passages and they don’t hurt her eyes. “I hate reading things online,” she says.

Forestry student Jessica Stokes also prefers the feel of paper. “I spend so much of my time writing emails, papers, and working online, that I’ve come to really appreciate the time I spend doing readings without having to use machines,” she says.

There are other reasons why students may not be ready to ditch their old textbooks quite yet. For a start, print versions of textbooks are still much easier to come by.

Although U of T Bookstore has begun selling digital textbooks, none of five texts I purchased recently for courses were available as e-books. Nor were they available from CourseSmart, the largest source of e-texts online. CourseSmart offers almost 8,000 titles, with a discount of up to 50 per cent off regular print book prices. The site says users save about $60 per book on average.

But it appears such economic benefits aren’t enough to sway even cost-conscious students. Falikowski, said she was content to “spend more for a book if [the alternative] was to read it off a screen.” She mused that she might be interested in e-books if she could print them herself.

Another downside to e-books: CourseSmart only sells them to be used for one or two semesters – essentially, students have to rent them. In the case of single-semester subscriptions, access lapses after 180 days, making the books useless for long-term reference.

These issues make e-books impractical, but Saunders speculates that this won’t be the case for long. He expects the business model for e-books to change quickly over the next year. “We expect that there will be a tipping point where the technology and demand takes a leap forward,” he says.

He could be right: Apple is rumored to be working on an e-book reader and adding e-books to its iTunes store. Such a foray could certainly attract students in droves.

Even in the absence of such a chic device, some students are early fans of electronic textbooks. “I already pretty much use digital stuff exclusively,” says Cameron Kroetsch, an OISE grad now studying at the University of Western Ontario. “There’s less to carry around, it’s all on my laptop, and it’s simple to copy, paste and highlight stuff for making notes – when I do that sort of thing, that is.”

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  1. 2 Responses to “ Digital Books Look Great on Paper ”

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I have to read a book for a discussion group next month. I never wanted to own it, so I reserved it at Toronto Public Library. I've been waiting for seven weeks. It's a popular title, and not yet in a paperback edition. So I signed up for Adobe's ebook reader (for free), which entitles me to install an ebook on up to seven computers/handhelds. I bought the ebook at a discount in an introductory sale at KOBO.

    Now the book is on my iMac and my iPhone, and I'm reading it on both. I'm a fan of books on the iPhone, which is very handy when you're in any "waiting" situation, but I still love a real paperback in my hands. However, the savings on the digital edition are enormous.