UBC student Leora Courtney-Wolfman is tired of having to buy expensive textbooks and lug them around campus. According to the sociology student, “Being able to access e-books would be extremely useful.”
In a phone interview, Courtney-Wolfman told the Georgia Straight that digital textbooks aren’t available for the four courses she’s taking this semester. But despite recognizing the potential advantages of e-books, she’s wary of the pitfalls that may come with the technology: she fears that prices won’t drop with e-textbooks and that students will no longer have the option of buying used books or sharing books with friends.
Courtney-Wolfman’s concerns come as the Canadian textbook industry is poised to undergo dramatic changes. The proliferation of e-books and the unveiling on January 27 of Apple’s new iPad—a tablet computer that will allow users to read books, watch videos, play games, and more on the go—have the potential to transform the way textbooks are designed, purchased, and used.
The anticipation surrounding Apple’s latest product has had many speculating about the future of textbooks in classrooms. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Apple has been “exploring” electronic-textbook technology.
However, Colleen O’Neill, executive director of the Canadian Publishers’ Council, noted there are no guarantees that e-books will be more cost-effective than traditional textbooks.
“A lot of investment goes into producing both print and electronic content, and the cost associated with traditional printed books does not make electronic-content publishing less expensive,” O’Neill told the Straight by phone from Toronto.
In 2008, the Concordia University Bookstore became the first academic bookstore in Canada to join Nebraska Book Company’s Jumpbooks program and offer digital versions of textbooks. For about half the price of a new textbook, students can lease an electronic version for one to three terms.
But e-books still aren’t an option for many students, who turn to more old-fashioned ways of getting around the high cost of textbooks.
SFU professor of applied ethics Mark Wexler noted that students have always found creative ways of saving money when it comes to textbooks, such as photocopying rather than buying the book itself. He said employing software that gives students free access to information typically found in textbooks would cut costs for students.
“The textbooks don’t become the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Wexler told the Straight by phone. “They symbolically take on a different tone and meaning, because of course there are few ways to go around the rise in fees but there are numerous ways to go around the cost of textbooks.”
Wexler, who is the author of the textbook Confronting Moral Worlds: Understanding Business Ethics, explained that publishers often put pressure on professors not to use open, Internet-based systems to distribute textbooks to students because the companies have little to gain. However, he noted that rising prices lead to “greater black-market or grey-area usage” of textbooks.
“I’m not saying the ethics on any of this is good, but it really is changing the manner in which a pretty stale and formatted commercial market is presently being altered,” he said.
Simon Fraser University Bookstore manager Mikhail Dzuba has had a front-row seat from which to observe the landscape of the textbook industry shifting. “There is no question that our future looks uncertain,” he told the Straight by phone.
Dzuba believes that people’s perception of the value of books and learning materials has changed. “People don’t value what it takes to develop that intellectual property and the high costs it comes with,” he explained. “There is no question that the emergences of certain digital technology, like e-book readers, are starting to really put some pressure on the industry.”
Courtney-Wolfman knows that e-textbooks may become widespread in the near future, but she’s still apprehensive about the technology. “I’m concerned that, as we move towards e-books, instructors will choose course materials based on what’s available in e-book form instead of what the best text for that class is,” she said. “It seems like it would give you more options, but in fact it could be just the opposite.”