Friday, October 21, 2011

The future of the textbook

Principles of Molecular Virology Earlier this week Jonathan Crowe from Oxford University Press gave a talk to the Biological Sciences Pedagogical Research Group about the future of the textbook. Among the issues discussed were new distribution models, in particular eBooks versus print, and rental versus purchase. As someone who has just published a new edition of a textbook, these issues have been prominent in my attention recently.

One of the nice things about moving our student network from Friendfeed to Google+ is that on Friendfeed almost all of the content was public and so could be discovered by search, even with anonymisation and sharing text as images. This meant that I could not share direct quotes from students since that would reveal student identities. On Google+, almost all the content is being shared within Circles, i.e. semi-privately, and is not visible to search. For this reason, I can happily reproduce here the discussion I had with students on Google+ after the session:

I've just come out of an interesting meeting about the future of academic textbooks in universities. Approximately how much have you spent on textbooks so far and how do you feel about it?
  • I spent over £100 on 2 text books - the Campbell biology one and Stryer biochemistry. Bit expensive really - students should get a much better rate.
  • If you could buy textbooks in electronic form, e.g. for Amazon Kindle, would you do it, or would you still want printed copies? (question for everyone)
  • I spent about £150 to £200 on textbooks over two years. I feel Stryer was excellent value but I'm not sure about some of the others as they turned out only to be useful for one module. If I get a Kindle, I'd definitely want electronic textbooks but not many people have them yet. To be honest, paying a flat rate of £15 or so to rent one for the year would be much more attractive to me than ebooks.
  • You mean rent a Kindle/eBooks or rent printed copies of textbooks? See: and:
  • Renting printed copies - I don't have an eReader and I hate reading for hours on computers. Thanks, though, that looks pretty great on both scores
  • Gosh, I haven't spent that much! I bought Stryer (new) in my first year which I have used quite a lot and then in my second year I bought Alberts' Molecular Cell Biology but this was second hand from eBay. I always check out eBay or Amazon before buying any books because the previous editions are usually all we will need and I don't fancy shelling out lots of money when a slightly older edition will do! I've also picked up other Biochemistry and Genetics textbooks along the way but these have been second hand and not that expensive!
  • I think buying Stryer from the library bookshop in my first ever week of uni scarred me for life and I will search high and low before buying a brand new textbook!
  • I have an Amazon kindle and I find reading on it great for book, but not text books. Tablets, like the iPad are much better for this. Though I have found the books to be sparsely available and just as expensive.
  • I don't think e books are very good for this kind of thing as they aren't as easy to flick through and find different topics quickly. I also find it harder for the stuff to sink in when reading e books compared to actual books.
  • I spent £103 on two text books during my first week - Campbell Biology and Stryer Biochemistry, as mentioned previously its very expensive for a new student. Have to admit that they have come in useful!
  • In my first year I bought three or four books, including Stryer and Campbell's Biology. In second year I got a couple from charity shops and borrowed from the library. This year there was only 1 recommended book for each module - I got one £45 book for £6 in a charity shop, and another £45 book on amazon used and new for £20. I like having a physical book in front of me rather than ebooks, as I think I spend enough time staring at a screen as it is, and 'real' books seem to make it easier to absorb information, and if its yours you can underline/highlight etc bits in it.
  • Personally I'd rather have the actual book - much easier to flick through and its nice to have to look at a screen all the time! Don't have a kindle and don't plan on it anytime so wouldn't suit me to get e books!
  • I spent about 90 pounds, I think it's great since I bought all the ones I needed and extras online.
  • I find online tools much easier and faster to use than e.g. glossaries and indexes in physical books.
  • I appreciate smaller, specialist science books much more than textbooks. I'm avoiding where possible spending on textbooks. £25 so far.

From this the future is clear. Short term, the majority of students want print. Beyond this, I am far from convinced that the "print advantage" will survive the price differential of hundreds of pounds which we will see in in 2-3 years, at which point "print premium" will become the model.


  1. Interesting feedback, Alan. Thanks for sharing. One question, though: what do you have in mind when you talk of the 'print premium' model?

  2. That the standard delivery channel for textbooks will be ePub3 (or whatever comes after it). if you pay more (lots more), you get the printed version. This is what's happening in the music industry, download = standard, premium pricing gives you download + CD/vinyl with artwork, sleevenotes, etc.

  3. Additional thought: Unless HTML5 kills ePub3 (let's hope so ;-)