Apple E-textbooks: What Does It Mean For the Used Textbook Trade?

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Category selling-more-books

By: Susan Scheck

Last week there was a big announcement by Apple that it is entering the textbook market, with “an upgraded 2.0 version of its iBooks app that now supports interactive textbooks, while also releasing a free Mac application, iBook Author, that lets people create electronic textbooks on their computers” according to Cnet.

One of the questions being raised is about pricing: how much cheaper will college e-textbooks be, and how will their sale impact the used textbook market? Apple has priced its high school e-texts at $14.99, however there’s still no word on the price of college e-textbooks. The price of a traditional text can run considerably higher, sometimes upwards of $100 for one brand-new book. (And as many college professors insist on the latest, greatest editions, sometimes there is no choice but to buy it.) Anyone who has a child in college, as I do, cringes every semester at this “cost of doing business”. As a parent, I wouldn’t mind paying 75 bucks or thereabouts for a semester’s worth of e-texts.

But what does all this mean to the online used textbook market? This time, answering as a publishing professional with 20 years in the business (nine of them at a university), I say: Old habits die hard. While many young people might feel comfortable with a software version of their texts (provided they or their parents could cough up an extra $500 for an iPad to read them on, while paying thousands already to attend school), their professors of a certain age may not feel as comfortable. And many professors have preferred texts – which, right now, I’m guessing are not among the Apple offerings. However, if these professors decide to write their textbooks on iBook Author, that could change.

The big three textbook publishers — McGraw Hill, Pearson, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who together make up 90% of the industry – have joined with Apple in this venture, presumably because they see recurring sales of new e-textbooks, and no resale market. E-texts must be bought new and students are not allowed to resell them, as with a traditional textbook. So there would be nothing cutting into their profit margins, as the used book industry does. Right now, though, e-textbooks are not much of a threat: According to textbook distributor MBS Direct Digital, only 6% of textbook sales will be digital this year. But, we can and should expect a heavy push from both them and Apple to open the e-textbook market wide open.

My gut feeling, though, is, for right now and at least a few years into the future, that the online used textbook market will still be viable. There are just too many used texts in circulation and too many students out there that need them instead of their outrageously priced brand-new versions. Still, keep your ear to the ground on this one: the speed of adoption of new technological paradigms can be lightning fast, as we all know.

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  • Thebrokedown

    This is the future, and it is disheartening to me. I am a relative newcomer, but I simply love the job of selling books and I feel I am quite good at it. It is just a shame that I am like the guy who decided to make buggy whips as Ford was working hard on his new automobile.

  • www.sellusedbooks.com

    Susan,
    Loved the topic choice, your insights and objectivity.  I have a life long affinity and love of books and am heartbroken when I see the writing on the wall with respect to the seemingly inevitable for most print media as we know it. I hope that there will always continue to be a strong core of book lovers that will help keep the love alive! http://www.sellusedbooks.com

  • Susansmail11

    Thanks so much. I agree with you, my gut feeling is that there will be a core, in some fashion. Maybe it will be the through the return of the independent bookstore. I’ve always seen the bookstore as one of those essential neighborhood meeting places, and there is a strong push to rebuild neighborhoods. My daughter asked me the other day, what happens if Barnes and Noble goes out of business, and my first answer was that the indies will come back – and my second was B&N would go purely online. I guess time will tell. 
    This discussion just struck me as a great topic for a future blog!! Thanks. 
    Susan