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E-textbooks not making the grade

The electronic book market reached a significant milestone last month when Amazon reported that, for the first time, sales of Kindle e-books outsold hardcover books. However, it looks like the surge in popularity of e-books hasn’t yet translated into higher sales in the one category that we might have expected to lead the way: textbooks.

As millions of high school and college students prepare to return to their studies, a recent survey by the National Association of College Stores found that digital textbooks account for just 2 to 3 percent of total sales. Part of the difficulty is the sheer complexity of presenting a textbook in digital form. Many are infused with illustrations, graphics and detailed references, which often require the student to jump back and forth between pages or even other books, something that is hard to do on an e-reader.

Although today’s teens and 20-somethings adapt easily to e-readers and devices like Apple’s iPad, they can still tire of constantly staring into a screen. Plus, catalog limitations and a variety of different publishing formats makes it hard for a student to find the one device that will fulfill all of his or her needs.

However, these hurdles haven’t stopped the established booksellers from trying to bridge the e-textbook divide. Both Amazon (Kindle) and Barnes & Noble (Nook) have made hundreds of e-textbooks available through their online bookstores, with a goal of reaching a double-digit share of the market by 2012. Barnes & Noble has also added Nookstudy, a free application that allows tagging and highlighting of e-books using a PC or Mac.

Other specialist e-textbook ventures like CourseSmart have seen big jumps in the last two years in both sales and the number of available titles, while Google continues to build a vast library of classic texts, particularly those that are no longer subject to copyright protection.

Whatever the current sluggish state of the e-textbook market, don’t bet against the sellers finding a way to make digital work. Even if the product’s not yet ideal, e-textbooks will continue to enjoy the one advantage over print titles that has been so effective in other categories: a cheaper price. That’s one quality that every student can appreciate!      

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