CEO Talks Digital Textbook Rental

Digital textbook rental is on the rise at universities across the country, as students are looking to spend less on textbooks and are beginning to adopt eReaders and eReading on PCs. Joining the likes of sites like and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Study, Amazon recently entered the digital textbook rental game. We caught up with CEO Alan Martin to discuss how this space is evolving.

EBN: How does Amazon’s entry into the space change digital textbook rentals?

AM: It’s probably too soon to tell since this is the first real swing at digital rentals, but it is definitely raising awareness of the textbook rental space. eTextbooks have always essentially been rentals since purchasers never own the textbook indefinitely. Students simply license the rights to access it for a period of time, after which, it simply goes away or is no longer accessible. Amazon just shortened that period of time to as little as 30 days, which makes it feel a bit more like a true rental. Textbooks rentals are not a perfect comp to the eBook market. There are different problems eTextbooks need to solve in order to effectively penetrate the market. Watching closely how the Kindle is adopted will help illuminate the challenges that need to be solved for eTextbooks to reach widespread adoption.

EBN: How many students are actually using these kinds of services?

AM: We estimate about 20% of students are now renting physical textbooks for at least a portion of their classes. The amount opting for digital is much lower, still in the low single digits.  Since Amazon has yet to go through a semester, we’ll have to watch and see how well it’s received. Most people think of this landscape as black-and-white –digital vs. physical, eBook reader vs. textbook. That type of thinking doesn’t necessarily map to textbooks the way it does to casual reading materials. It all comes down to what we define as ‘use’. Technically a lot of students use electronic means and services in their studies, and that will continue to grow. The real question is when do digital textbooks actually take away meaningful market share from physical textbooks. And that depends on a lot of things; all the way from how quickly a platform is universally adopted and can work out all the thorny problems associated with building a good textbook eReader, to how quickly professors jump on board. At the end of the day, students follow the professor’s suggested materials, and the median age of professors in higher ed doesn’t align perfectly to the digital movement which adds another layer of complexity to mainstream adoption.

EBN: Which kind of digital textbooks are most popular for rental?

AM: As you can imagine, the differences between how a student studies for Organic Chemistry or Advanced Tax Accounting and English Lit are significant. Highly complex categories that require multiple sources of information become very clunky in a digital environment. Everyone learns differently, but most are accustomed to a physical learning environment where real spatial relationships exist between the student and the textbook (dog eared pages, notes in margin, finding the answer about half the way down the left side of the page, etc). This relationship to space no longer exists in a digital learning environment, and shifting from one environment to the other is more complex than it appears.  It’s likely that the learning curve required for current adoption of e-textbook readers, combined with the current limitations of e-textbook will cause adoption to be slower than people anticipate.  However, adoption rates will be directly correlated to how quickly e-textbook readers advance toward making the experience similar or better than the physical textbook experience.

There are also other factors to consider.  As mentioned, certain subjects are better suited to an e-book format.  Interactivity like video, audio and animation are much more efficacious for assisting certain types of thinking.  Rich interactivity would go along way to supplement the spatial thinking required by geometry, whereas the study of Shakespeare in an e-book format would benefit much less.

EBN: Which type of devices are students using?

AM: Students are still primarily using laptops and PCs. Very few report having a tablet type device for reading e books. The truth is, there is currently no single tablet-type device that is suited for all digital books. If a student wanted to go all digital, he/she would need to purchase a variety of tablets to maintain various types of content. It’s cost prohibitive for a student to buy even one tablet, let alone multiple, which keeps most students away. When factoring in price, and the clunky nature of having multiple devices, each with their own unique learning curves that need to be overcome to effectively study within each platform, it’s a tough sell. Which is why most students are still on laptops and PC’s.