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Posted on Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 5:59 a.m.

Electronic textbooks? U-M students may have lighter backpacks starting next fall

By Kellie Woodhouse

Students, ready to drop those textbooks?

Screen shot 2011-11-28 at 5.59.52 PM.png

AP photo

The University of Michigan wants to move the majority of its introductory courses to electronic textbooks.

“The big, slick, pricey textbooks that get used in courses that draw hundreds and thousands of freshmen: There’s a huge profit being made there,” U-M Dean of Libraries Paul Courant told the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs on Monday. “Candidly, we want to go after those profits on behalf of our students.”

U-M is in the midst of negotiations with publishers and will begin an e-book pilot program in the fall.

Currently, students can choose to buy a print textbook or the electronic version. Introductory textbooks average between $150 and $200 each, and electronic textbooks are typically between 20 and 30 percent cheaper, Courant said.

The university wants to negotiate with publishers to buy electronic textbooks in bulk and then provide them to students for a course fee of about $30 apiece. Students who prefer printed versions can pay an extra $20 to $35.

“Almost no student would be worse off because of that price,” Courant said. He said while sometimes used textbooks can be found online for a lesser cost, many faculty members require the latest edition of a textbook, forcing students to buy new and expensive editions.

A student at a public college will spend on average $1,168 on textbooks per year, according to 2011-2012 figures from the CollegeBoard Advocacy and Policy Center.

“There’s a public textbook crisis out there,” Courant said. “There’s a lot of money at stake.”

The electronic textbook model, Courant said, will allow professors to make pieces of several different works available to students. Currently, doing so is cost prohibitive or, if a professor does not use the proper channels, can violate copyright law.

SACUA chair Kate Barald noted that e-readers have access to “a very long list, particularly in literature, of free downloads.”

U-M has already tested assigning only electronic books to 170 students in five classes. That test was successful, Courant said.

“Students like electronic books just fine, but only if they’re at least as convenient as print books,” he said.

Figures from the National Association of College Auxiliary Services show that electronic textbooks are becoming more popular. In 2008, just 12 percent of college students had purchased an electronic textbook. By 2010, that number had grown by 42 percent. As of March 2011, about 13 percent of students owned an e-reader.

However in a March survey NACAS found that 75 percent of students prefer print textbooks to electronic ones.

U-M Provost Philip Hanlon said the university will not make a profit from the electronic textbook arrangement. It will, however, save money on financial aid by paying less for textbook costs in scholarships.

“What we want to do is save for our students,” Hanlon said.

Courant told SACUA that he also wants to see U-M professors publish their own electronic textbooks and make them available to students for free.

He also said that, as of now, U-M has no plans to force professors to switch to electronic books, but rather encourage them.

"We're not interested in creating a structure that’s going to impose something," he said.

Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-4602 and follow her on twitter.



Wed, Nov 30, 2011 : 6:15 a.m.

As a current grad student using online e-texts, I like the portability of the text, but there are a lot of times where I'd just like to flip the darn (I almost used another, more applicable word, but thought better of it) pages back and forth quickly without having to click an arrow and wait for things to load. I suppose everyone has their own preference, but those are both sides of my one cent.


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 10:18 p.m.

Academics moving the market is about as laughable as an academic in the white house. We see where that's gotten us so far..


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 9:51 p.m.

Textbook prices have been increasing far faster than inflation -- perhaps almost as much as runaway university tuition? If UM can negotiate down the price of textbooks by hundreds of dollars per term, that would mean the U could raise tuition by an equivalent amount and the students would be...well, no worse off. Textbook manufacturers have been fleecing UM's students for years -- UM wants to be the only one in that business ;) I'm only half kidding--publishers and universities definitely are in competition for student dollars--money that publishers charge for books is money universities can't charge in tuition. From a usability perspective, electronic textbooks (on laptops -- and especially tablets like iPads) are much better in many ways -- lighter to carry and searchable (or at least they should be -- I've seen some that aren't, which is really dumb).

Stephen Landes

Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 9:12 p.m.

Using ebooks in an environment where information is changing rapidly makes sense in itself even before considering cost savings, weight, and other issues. Where environment/sustainability issues are a concern I suggest the U use its own sustainability experts to assess the impact of ebooks/ereaders and make a systematic study and fact-based decision on "e vs p".


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 3:54 p.m.

This seems like a nice start towards improving thew college experience and reducing the cost of textbooks for students that are forced to pay too much for everything. Good job U of M.

Al Feldt

Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 2:54 p.m.

This promises to be a major way to cut the costs of education with the only persons losing out being the publishers and salesmen who contribute little to educational mix other than producing and distributing the work of others. That role will still be needed but it can now be performed at a much lower cost and all or most of the savings passed on directly to students. I'm proud to see UM as one of the early innovators in this area. I suggest that something similar be undertaken to replace the old course pack as well. These were exceptionally useful in providing unique combinations of ideas and material tailor made for each individual course but copyright laws and practices have been a major inhibitor to their use. By allowing a small royalty to each author or copyright holder for using an e-copy of their individual chapters and articles, the use of textbooks themselves may be avoided in some cases. Meanwhile, the actual creators of ideas, information, and literature will be rewarded directly as their contributions come into use without needing to go through the cost, delays, and tedium of agents, editors, printers. and marketing. .


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 9:15 p.m.

It happened to the music industry first, then newspapers and periodicals, and now the video industry and textbooks (finally!). Progress is slow, as people want to cling to their antiquated and inefficient way of doing things, but inevitable.


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 2:43 p.m.

I taught one of the 5 classes that piloted e-books last year. You can see/hear my comments on it here: <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> For now, though, it's enough to report that the commenters on here discussing UM profits and/or professors profiting from textbooks are ill-informed at best and paranoid at worst. E-books are most certainly driven by economics, but not on the school-side of the equation. Likewise those who see this is as somehow environmentally friendly are apparently overlooking all of the e-waste associated with computers and the fact that paper--from trees--is one of the most renewable resources available.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 4:55 p.m.

I was going to comment about how astonishing your comments about paper were as a prof, but noticed that you're a GSI, so perhaps you still have some learning to do :). Whether Michigan goes this way or not, technology is rapidly advancing and utilizing servers, firewalls, storage, etc. and creating lots of green waste. This effort isn't going to impact that really at all. Creating paper is not close to environmentally friendly, go visit a paper mill (by the way, they're closing by the droves)... Your feedback in the video is informative, but really addresses how the textbooks for your classes are behind the times, no? I understand the REAL BOOK desire, my son has it also, but getting a book for $65 or $70 under this new program is MUCH CHEAPER than any other options... You address that in your video, but in regardess to the e-textbook, not the paper book.


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 9:12 p.m.

The tree to paper process is very chemical and energy intensive but thats just the start. Add up the energy and other resources used in the book manufacturing process, distribution (shipping) and sales and compare that to one eBook reader that can hold hundreds of print books and do many other things. Notwithstanding you can use your laptop or iPad to read books too (no seperate device needed). Expect the amount of energy and resource savings migrating to eBooks to be quite impressive.

Daniel Soebbing

Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 7:39 p.m.

&quot;paper--from trees--is one of the most renewable resources available.&quot; Yes, pulpwood trees are renewable. But the forests that are maintained to grow paper producing trees are not the ecological equivalent of the old-growth forests that they have replaced. If you travel to northern Michigan and visit the majority of the forests in this state you will find vast monocultures that do not represent the diversity or species richness of the pre-industrial forests that existed in this state until the early 1900s. Tree farms are an ecological disaster, just as much as is the e-waste that is produced by the electronics industry.


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 2:39 p.m.

Just as TV did not replace radio, the reality is that traditional textbooks will not be replaced by electronic versions. Each format will find its own niche. Its amusing to read about an academics attempt to move the market, especially by removing the profit incentive. Market forces, rather than wishing and hoping will or will not move the textbook market toward eTextbooks over time. And by the way, the idea of &quot;saving trees&quot; by moving toward non-paper textbooks is misguided. The printing, paper and lumber industry has a vested interest in making sure trees are available. Print on paper gives landowners a reason to grow trees. With no financial incentive to grow trees, forests will be converted permanently to other uses such as urban sprawl.


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 9:09 p.m.

Uh.. what's a &quot;radio&quot;? Kids are on iPods, Spotify and Pandora and thus the &quot;radio&quot; will be effectively dead in the next few years. Also TV is done as kids watch &quot;TV&quot; on laptops &amp; iPads via Hulu and Netflix. Print is dead, long live the ebook reader (iPad, Kindle, laptop) which replaces tons of waste in book mfg, printing, distribution and sales. One eBook reader replaces hundreds if not thousands, of print books. But hey, hang on to your VCR, for it may be popular again some day too...


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 2:11 p.m.

Why doesn't somebody protest the HIGH cost of text books? Schools and Professors are as bad as the Wall Street people!


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 2:41 p.m.

You want us to, what?, Occupy the Library?


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 1:39 p.m.

There's a huge profit being made there," U-M Dean of Libraries Paul Courant told the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs on Monday. "Candidly, we want to go after those profits on behalf of our students." Seems to be an overly negative emphasis on &quot;profit&quot; in Mr. Courant's statement. Spoken like a true academic. He also suggests that UM professors write their own electronic textbooks and then make them available for free. There is certainly nothing wrong with his attempt to reduce the cost to the student, however Mr. Courant should realize that high-quality textbooks, whether electronic or traditional paper based books, would only be made available if there is a profit incentive.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 4:47 p.m.

Ricebrnr: Is WIFI free at the U? Yes, of course it is. I don't think you'd find a college in America without free WIFI for the students. Most students have laptops. Those that don't can get a netbook for under $300, which isn't free but is very inexpensive when compared to the cost of education at U of M, which runs over $20k per year for in-state (including room and board) and over $40k per year for out-of-state.


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 7:09 p.m.

cgerben, While I applaud your thoughtfulness, I have run across a number of your colleagues who are not so inclined to think of their impact on the students. I have sat through courses on more than one occasion where the professor required 2, 3 and sometimes 4 textbooks, only to announce midway through the course that one or more &quot;required&quot; book wasn't going to be needed after all. And then there's the aggravation of selling a textbook back to the bookstore for 15% of what you paid for it new, only to have it turn up on the shelf for the next semester, priced at 90% of the original cost. Or worse, not being able to sell a book back at all because the professor is using a new edition next semester. And I've purchased plenty of textbooks written, contributed to, or reviewed by the professor teaching the course. It's always aggravating when your textbook contains an acknowledgment by the author of your professor's &quot;contributions&quot; to the text. Perhaps I'm cynical, but I've always assumed in that case that my professor's &quot;contribution&quot; was requiring his students to purchase that particular textbook. And let's not forget the publishers that introduce a new edition to add a new cover, correct typos, graphics captions, indexes and other minor errors, but leave the body of the text verbatim from the previous edition. I'm sorry, but the whole college textbook system is riddled with abuse. If it weren't, would you be working to change it?


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 2:57 p.m.

It's really quite sad to see so much misinformation feeding on (apparent) latent anger towards university systems. As a university instructor for the past 9+ years I've attempted in every course to offer free, easily accessible, readings for my students. I've likewise offered up my personal course materials via Creative Commons licenses on the Internet so that others can use them for free, too. I also sit on an editorial board of academic publishers trying to create and disseminate free, open-source textbooks that instructors (and students) can modify and print at will. Anyone writing about the economics of assigned readings in college classrooms on this board should provide direct (contemporary) evidence or cease to be so reactionary before posting. Though it may be hard to believe, *most* instructors have their students' best interests in mind, including saving them every penny possible.


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 2:19 p.m.

The problem is that professors pick the books while students are stuck with paying for them. Professors have little incentive to economize and publishers have every incentive to exploit that. The primary alternative is for students to not go to college, which is a very attractive option these days. There's a lot to be said for professors collaborating to write their own textbooks to serve their courses, especially since writers aren't paid much by publishers. Self-publishing is the way to go these days: <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> It's all about driving out wasteful overhead. Come to think of it, universities are terrible at that so we'll probably end up with an electronic version of the same dysfunctional system.


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 1:56 p.m.

Agreed! As usual with academics, theory and reality are usually 2 different subjects. Who is going to write, convert, disseminate and support these &quot;free&quot; eTexts? For students to see these eTexts, what platforms do they have to buy into and what supporting gear are they going to need? iPads go for $400-500 bucks. Droids are somewhat cheaper possibly but still pricey but tablets are the way to go for multifunction capability. The new Kindle and Nooks are in the $250 range and do have a lot of features but still are essentially Droids. Do they need a tablet? Certainly a laptop is the most versatile of the bunch if the least convenient. Not to mention you likely need an internet connection to download these texts. Is wifi free at the U? There is no free lunch.


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 1:31 p.m.

I wonder if these electronic book, like traditional books, are going to be outrageously overpriced by our corporate overlords.


Thu, Dec 1, 2011 : 3:03 p.m.

Many of the costs remain the same do develop e-books vs. paper books. The costs of distribution are different for electronic vs. physical. but still are substantial. So e-textbooks will still be costly. And unlike paper books, not legally re-sellable even if there is a market.

Angry Moderate

Wed, Nov 30, 2011 : 2:21 a.m.

Importing textbooks is not and never has been illegal.


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 3:11 p.m.

No, not an expert. But I do know that they banned importing textbooks from England and Europe, where the same text book is a lot cheaper. Enterprising Entrepreneurs were going over there, buying textbooks for a lot cheaper, and then coming over here and selling them for cheaper than the textbook companies were selling them. It quickly became illegal to do that. Corporate Capitalism at work.. = 'you will take what we want you to take, at prices we set, which have nothing to do with supply and demand, and if you try to find a way around it, small-business owner, and provide a better service for cheaper, we will shut you down.'


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 2:01 p.m.

O my word. Why must there always be a boogeyman? Do you have any expertise in the publishing field? Do you know that the publishers other than the hard costs of printing, binding and distributing texts also have to pay out copyright fees? How do you know they are overpriced? Why can't it be simple supply side economics?


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 12:47 p.m.

I like the idea of not having to lug around a load of books, though it's been many years since I did. I also like that it might save a few million trees from not having to print on paper. However, there is an Achille's heal that the U or any other institution will need to address: electrical infrastructure. I don't think there are enough outlets in classroom buildings to allow students to charge these units. I'm sure they have a relatively long battery life, but I notice students always looking for outlets for their laptops, cellphones, etc. Being humans, students are not always thinking ahead.


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 2:07 p.m.

e-ink readers like the Kindle can go for weeks on a battery charge if you turn wireless off and they're as easy on your eyes as paper. The larger screen Kindle DX would be a good way to go. The problem is that flipping between sections of a book is awkward on e-readers. Less so on PCs where you have a mouse and larger screens. Since almost all students have laptops anyhow this is the direction I'd go, battery problems notwithstanding, but the same e-book infrastructure can serve e-readers and PCs, Macs, Linux, etc.

Kara H

Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 12:38 p.m.

I love electronic books, but for textbooks to work well online, the e-readers need to offer better support for multiple color/style highlighting and comment types so that they can be annotated more flexibly. Hopefully the software will also catch up with the model.


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 1:57 p.m.

Check out for their app. Their a local Ann Arbor company too. CourseSmart and Inkling also offer pretty good capability in eTexts. Inkling is new but I think their app gets the nod


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 11:49 a.m.

Ann Arbor Public Schools should get on this bandwagon!!!. The major problem is holding kids accountable for books and e readers. Can the UM help out the public schools and negotiate one big deal??


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : 11:43 a.m.

&quot;many faculty members require the latest edition of a textbook, forcing students to buy new and expensive editions.&quot; That's because the Prof sells more books by requiring students to buy the new edition each time, and they scratch each other's backs. I would love to see U of M do this, the textbook industry is a game that rips off students. And stores do poorly, witness two of the major sellers in town (owned by the same company, Nebraska Book) are in bankruptcy. They own Michigan Book and Supply as well as Ulrich's and at EMU they own Ned's, Mike's and Campus Books. <a href="" rel='nofollow'>;code=MI</a> They also own 4 locations at Michigan State.


Fri, Dec 2, 2011 : 4:43 p.m.

Ricebrnr: The profs benefit when they require the newest edition of a colleague's book, in what's referred to as &quot;you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours&quot;. I've easily found past editions of books at Amazon for both of my son's classes, and then when new editions came out found it hard to sell the old books. The entire industry is a racket. Don't even get me going on state-specific versions of public school books, or the profs at U of M that got their book packages through specific bookstores in town only, like Common Language Bookstore for a Sociology course, or Shaman Drum. I have a problem when the prof picks some obscure book, and orders it through one store only, giving the student no choice. While it's laudable that he/she may want to support a local store, it's not reasonable to eliminate all choice for the student by picking something obscure that you can't find anywhere else.


Tue, Nov 29, 2011 : noon

The profs only benefit in your scenario IF they authored the textbook they are requiring for their class. So the percentage of this case is pretty low. In actuality the issue is supply. Many profs would prefer to keep the older/same editions they already are teaching out of. After all none of them would prefer to revise their syllibi fr page numbers and other references bcause of new editions. The problem is when new editions are released the publishers stop selling the older. Finding enough copies of a previous edition for a standard sized class after that point is extremely difficult.