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E-Books' Latest Bid to Send Paper Packing;

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Toronto Star, August 15, 2005, courtesy of Torstar Syndication Services.

Virtual textbooks offered cheaper than hard copies but students worry about controls on access, expiry dates

Move over hard copies

Starting today, there's a new item on bookstore shelves.

Ten U.S. university bookstores are stocking digital versions of popular textbooks alongside the paper products. The digital version will sell for approximately 33 percent less than a new, paper copy.

The pilot project will include approximately 200 titles from McGraw-Hill Higher Education, Thomson Learning, Sage Publications and Houghton Mifflin Company.

"We're interested in measuring student demand for digital content," said David Serbun, director of partnerships for Houghton Mifflin's college division. "We're also interested in offering students a choice."

Once a digital textbook has been downloaded to a student's computer, sections can be highlighted and pages can be printed. Students can also search their digital book for keywords.

Downloadable books have been available online for years, but according to Jeff Cohen, advertising and promotions manager for MBS Textbook Exchange Inc., this is the first time that digital books will be featured on stores' shelves, right beside the traditional, bound versions.

It was essential to get the digital products into brick and mortar stores, Cohen said, because "the majority of textbook purchases still take place in a physical bookstore."

Cohen insists that no student will be forced to buy the digital version of a textbook. Bookstores ordered the same number of paper copies as they would have without the pilot project. The digital books are simply another option available to students.

Here's how the system works

The digital books are represented by small, plastic cards that look much like credit cards. The cards are stocked on shelves, beside their paper equivalent.

Each book card has a unique bar code that identifies it.

The bookstore adds a sticker with a second bar code to the one that designates a particular textbook.

When someone buys the book, both bar codes are scanned at the checkout counter. The information is sent to a central computer system.

The buyer visits the website and enters one of the bar codes into an electronic form so they can download the book to their hard drive and read it onscreen. (The downloading process will not work unless both bar codes have been scanned at the point of purchase, thereby thwarting thieves.) Princeton University, University of Utah, Morehead State University, University of Oregon, Portland Community College, Bowling Green State University, Georgetown College, California State University-Fullerton, the Co-op Bookstore Inc. at Louisiana State University and the Book Exchange Inc. at West Virginia University are participating in the electronic book endeavour.

Shane Gerton, associate director of the University of Utah campus bookstore, said digital books should save the store money because they won't have to buy stock up front.

"We don't get charged for the book until it's purchased by the student," he said. "It's also just easier to maintain. All we have to do is put out a little card instead of shelving books."

Cohen said portability and price are the major advantages for students.

While the initial price of digital books will be lower than paper books, questions remain about the real value of the electronic product. Some stores offer as much as 50 percent off the purchase price to students if they sell their paper books back to the store once they are done with the book. But the bookstores say they won't buy back the digital versions.

Digital rights management software also controls access to the books. Originally, the pilot project was set up so that the books would become unusable after 150 days. Students complained about the expiration dates in online forums, stating that a book with such a short life span wouldn't be useful. In response, three publishers extended the useable life of their books for the pilot project. Digital books by Thomson Learning will be readable for a year after purchase and buyers will have unlimited access to titles by Houghton Mifflin and McGraw Hill.

"The publishers are sensitive to what students feel they need to make this work," Cohen said.

He also pointed out that digital textbooks come with customer service. If a student downloads their book and their laptop breaks down a few weeks later, technical support people will help them reinstall their book on a new computer.

Chris Tabor, president of the Canadian Campus Retail Associates, said several Canadian bookstores have experimented with offering digital books on their websites and the amount of technical support required was sometimes "frightening." The CCRA is a consortium of Canadian university and college stores that come together to develop technology for their businesses.

"We were surprised at the number of calls we got for very simple problems," Tabor said, especially considering the purchases were made by what he'd thought was a tech-savvy demographic.

But, he said, the CCRA's experience with electronic books has been positive in terms of sales.

In 1998, the Queen's University bookstore started offering free downloads from the store's website of books in the public domain.

"What we've noticed is that after uploading or downloading thousands of titles, the sale of the ink and paper version actually goes up," Tabor said, adding that he couldn't quite explain why sales went up by more than 10 percent that year. He admits though, that it might have had something to do with other features the website added at the same time, such as lists of competitor's prices.