E-textbooks offer students a thinner, cheaper alternative

Grant Welker

Few courses offer downloadable textbooks at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth this semester, but some students say they would prefer the cost savings and the convenience of not carrying books from class to class.

The university bookstore stocks about 1,500 titles, but only 37 are available as "eBooks," which allow students to download a virtual textbook to their computers, said bookstore manager Catherine Hickey.

“It’s relatively new,” Hickey said. “Hopefully it catches on. More and more students are bringing laptops to class, so it’s like they have their book right in front of them.”

eBooks come at a discount of 40 percent or more compared to printed versions of the same texts. They work like retailer gift cards — they must be activated at a register before they can be used. Students who buy an eBook are given a code to enter on a Web site,, where they download the title. The Web site offers 1,600 books, with more added regularly.

At the UMass-Dartmouth bookstore, options for a biology class are a new book for $161, a used book for $120.75 or an eBook for $61.

“For something at that price, it’s something I’d definitely consider,” said sophomore English major Andrea Buono. None of Buono’s classes have given her the option of buying an eBook. She estimates she’ll spend $300 on books this semester.

Unlike typical books, eBooks can’t be resold at the end of the semester, and some books expire after a certain period of time, typically 12 months. To protect copyrights, the books can only be downloaded to a single computer.

The texts are searchable, allow for note-taking and comments within the pages and can be printed. Some eBooks include even include an audio reading.

“One student was so excited that you could listen to the book,” Hickey said. “It’s a great option.”

The bookstore decided to sell eBooks as a “response to the high-cost-of-textbooks discussion,” its Web site says. So far, used books are more popular than the electronic versions, Hickey said, and students in areas like engineering, law or nursing are much more likely to stick with the ink-and-paper versions. Whether students have the option to buy eBooks is up to professors, Hickey said. Faculty don’t typically choose a textbook based on whether it is available electronically, she said, and many titles are still made exclusively in paper form.

Once a professor chooses a textbook, it is then up to the bookstore to order an accompanying eBook. When an eBook is available for a particular title, the bookstore stocks both the paper and electronic versions.

“I’ve seen some students confused by it and buy both versions,” Hickey said. “They’ll end up returning one. They thought they needed both.”

Now, a note tells students that the eBook is an option and they don’t need to buy both.

“I didn’t know the option to buy e-books existed,” said sophomore psychology major Marie Previl. She said the convenience and cost savings would be enough to entice her to buy the electronic versions.

“It would take awhile to get used to,” said Johnathan Burkshere, a junior business major. “You can’t bring a book to class so that’s a drawback, and you can’t sell it back either. But it’s cheaper.”

Burkshere said he would, “without question,” buy an eBook for a required introductory-level course.

The eBook program at UMass Dartmouth is early in its learning curve. The university bookstore began offering e-books only last fall — a decision made only weeks before the semester began, Hickey said. Freshman orientation next summer will include an explanation on book-buying options, she added.

Offering e-books is simpler for the bookstore, just as it's likely easier on students’ backpacks. “We don’t have to keep an inventory, or ship books in and out, or worry about ordering too many,” Hickey said. “Plus it eliminates theft. People can steal it but it’s worthless without being activated.”

Making titles available electronically is the wave of the future, she added. “This generation is so Internet-savvy, this is all they’ve ever known.”

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