Nicole Allen, a spokeswoman for the campus activist group Student Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), said that as a consumer advocate for student interests, she approves of giving students more options, but she remains skeptical of the eBook model.
“We all know that the digital format has a lot of potential,” Allen said. “But prices [could] be a lot lower, and [the publishers] are not maximizing the potential of the digital format to reduce costs.”
For now, print textbooks offer some affordable options because “students can buy books used, can share them with friends, or can sell them to someone else taking the class—but you can’t do that with eBooks,” Allen said.
Allen said she fears that eBooks are a “slippery slope.” eBooks are often cheaper to produce and distribute, but most publishers restrict students’ ability to share content.
And if the market changes so that only eBook rentals are available, students may never be able to own their own books.
“When you put publishers in total control of the market, that translates to very high prices,” Allen said.
Allen suggested that Flat World Knowledge, the largest commercial open-source textbook publisher, has a much better business model. Flat World publishes texts for free online, and then students can buy print versions in black and white or pay more for color.
Students can choose the option that best fits their needs—and that’s how it is in every other market, Allen said.
Angela Pontarolo, communications manager for Chegg, said that the price of eBook rentals is “completely dependent on the market.” Pontarolo pointed out that the course review and selection services are free, and the homework help services have free subscription options.