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Are E-Textbooks the Publishing World's Future?

The move to digital textbooks offers students many advantages, but it also comes with new challenges — like piracy.

Forget about checking to see if you have the latest edition — the future for textbooks could be a digital subscription model, according to a recent survey of book industry members.

At EDUCAUSE 2014, the president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education declared traditional textbooks "dead." And in a July survey by the Book Industry Study Group, 80 percent of publishers said they believe a subscription model for the textbook industry is inevitable. The BISG polled almost 4,000 representatives of libraries, publishers, retailers and others for its study, Digital Books and the New Subscription Economy.

Len Vlahos, executive director of BISG, said subscription models "have the potential to disrupt the industry" for better and for worse. The study is intended to help publishing professionals prepare for the change.

According to the National Association of College Stores, some students looking to avoid the high cost of new traditional textbooks are turning to digital editions as a money-saving option.

However, others are finding less legal solutions. A July 2013 BISG report based on a semi-annual online poll of college students found that higher-education students are increasingly downloading pirated textbooks.

"The percentage of students reporting they had downloaded course content from an unauthorized Web site has risen steadily to 34 percent from 20 percent when it was first measured in 2010," according to a news release on the study, Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education.

Some companies are already using digital subscription models and are even experimenting with digital rentals in higher education.

The 2012 startup PackBack prices e-textbook rentals at between $3 and $5 a day, allowing students to access to the books when they need them. Boundless, another startup that saw an opening in digital publishing, markets digital books created from free information sources, such as Wikipedia, in addition to books in the public domain and open-license academic papers. Students can buy a Boundless e-book on a subject, which comes with study aids, for $20.

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Nov 07 2014

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