Can an eReader Replace College Textbooks?

can an ereader replace college textbooks library

The days are getting shorter, you just wrapped up your summer job washing cars, and in a week or two, you’re going to show up on campus with a hatchback crammed to the top with cardboard boxes and hangars. Fall semester is beginning, and besides the funds you’ve set aside for food and beer, you’re going to need a nice chunk set aside for the bane of all college students: textbooks. Pounds and pounds of textbooks.

More recently, e-readers have promised to liberate college students from the heaving bundles of pages that most of them lug home from the bookstore at the beginning of every semester. From Amazon’s Kindle DX to Barnes & Noble’s Nook and even the iPad, a generation of digital readers promises to replace overstuffed backpacks full of musty textbooks with a lightweight, portable slate loaded with every book you’ll ever need for the entire semester – or every semester, for that matter.

But can you really just download the books you need for class? Are they cheaper? Do digital textbooks make any sense to begin with? We ran the numbers, considered all the factors, and the answers don’t all point to “buy.” Here’s everything you should consider before springing for an e-book reader this semester.

can an ereader replace college textbooks amazon kindlePortability

Nobody wants to hoof it to class looking like a hunchback, with 30 pounds of textbooks sagging off your back in a bag that looks like it’s about snap at the seams – if your spine doesn’t give out first. And therein lays the primary appeal of the e-book reader: Rather than 30 pounds, you’ll likely have just over one pound, in a package that’s typically as slim as a magazine. Readers like the Kindle DX weigh just 1.1 pounds, while the big daddy of the bunch, the iPad, hits only 1.5 pounds. A package that weighs and feels smaller than an average textbook can literally take the place of thousands of them. Thank, you technology.

Cost

Sure, Amazon’s Kindle DX will cost your $379 out of the gate, and Apple’s iPad will cost at least $500, but you’ll earn it back over time, right? Good question.

We made up an example schedule based on books a Syracuse University freshman might need for different introductory courses, to see how much you would actually save versus buying paper copies. The verdict: Money might not be a great reason to look into an e-reader.

We signed up for Spanish, writing, philosophy, religion and political science courses. The total tab for all the books we could buy online from the SU bookstore with one click came to $368.45. This included a total of 15 titles, buying used books whenever possible.

Then we went shopping on Amazon’s Kindle store. We had intended to compare the total cost of buying print versus digital, but the digital catalog was so incomplete we ended up comparing individual titles.

When comparing brand new, hefty textbooks, an e-reader can save a bundle. For instance, Writing Analytically would cost us $66.50 brand new from the SU book store, but we could download an e-book version instantly for just $46.30 on the Kindle. Total savings from just one book: $20.20.

Factor in the used-book market, and savings dwindle a little more. Let’s use Immigrant America: A Portrait as an example. It sells for $24.95 brand new from the Amazon store and the campus store. But the SU book store offered it to us used – automatically – for $18.75. Had we bought it for a Kindle, we could have scored it for $14.82 – savings of only $3.93 over the used paper copy.

Even those small savings dissipate when you consider that most students will sell their books after a semester. With Immigrant America, we could have turned around and sold our used paperback for $8.64 through online buyer AbeBooks, reducing our total cost to just $10.11 for a semester of use. We would actually pay more with the Kindle, since we can’t turn around and sell our digital copy. Even online rental services can’t match that: Chegg wanted $21.99 for a semester rental, CampusBookRentals wanted $18.92, and BookRenter wanted $18.95.

The bright spot for e-readers turns out to be old titles, which you can actually get for extremely cheap or even free. For instance, we could download The Book of Tea for free from Amazon, or pay $3.75 for the paperback. Ghandi’s autobiography was only 95 cents through the Kindle store, or $12 for the paperback.

Had we bought every single book possible through the Kindle store, we would have saved a grand total of $35.03 for the semester. That’s giving e-books the benefit of the doubt by comparing to only new paperback prices and not factoring in resale value. Other classes might offer more books online, but even if we were able to save double that every semester – $70 – we wouldn’t recoup the cost of the Kindle DX until six semesters in.

can an ereader replace college textbooks amazon kindleAvailability

If the above example didn’t spell it out for you, or if you just want the Clif notes: You can’t just hop on Amazon or Barnes & Noble and buy all your books online. In fact, you can barely buy any of them.

Of the 20 books required for our courses, the SU bookstore offered 15 of them online in paper version. Amazon’s Kindle store offered four. So did Barnes & Noble.

The selection is bound to improve with time, but keep in mind that some materials won’t translate as readily. For instance, our Spanish materials included a CD loaded with video and workbooks, and some professors print specialized readers that only ever see distribution on college campuses. While we would like to think the videos could all eventually stream, the workbook sheets could be printed, and that professors might adopt the e-book format themselves, the slow-grinding, bureaucratic gears of academia and general fussiness of crotchety old professors suggests paper will reign in college for years to come.

Emerging Tech

From tornado flushes to remote controls, modern toilets are flush with tech

With the global observance of World Toilet Day on November 19, we take a look at how the modern toilet in our homes and businesses have evolved, and how they are becoming smarter tools in the future.
Mobile

The 100 best Android apps turn your phone into a jack-of-all-trades

Choosing which apps to download is tricky, especially given how enormous and cluttered the Google Play Store has become. We rounded up 100 of the best Android apps and divided them neatly, with each suited for a different occasion.
Smart Home

With Personal Food Computers, nerd farmers are finding the best way to grow

MIT research scientist Caleb Harper wants to grow basil designed to prevent heart disease. It involves a personal food computer, climate manipulation, and open sourcing food. One day, your doctor could prescribe you a diet of food grown…
Smart Home

How Alexa and Google Home can lend a hand over the holidays

Voice assistants are great helpers in the kitchen, so Alexa and Google Home are extra useful for holidays. Here are some ways your smart speakers can keep you in the holiday spirit.
Emerging Tech

Time for test-tube turkey? Everything you need to know about lab-grown meat

Lab-grown meat is big business. A handful of enterprising startups have raised and invested hundreds of millions of dollars into nascent technology, banking on breakthroughs in biotech to revolutionize the food industry.
Health & Fitness

Dread the gym? This smart mirror delivers your fitness fix at home

Mirror, launched back in September, is part mirror and part LCD display with on-demand workouts built into it. We visited Mirror's HQ in NYC to test it out and to see if it's really worth cancelling that gym membership for.
Photography

To capture nature’s insanity, this storm chaser built his own 16K camera rig

Sure, 16K cinema cameras don't yet exist -- but that doesn't mean you can't make your own. Storm chaser and producer Martin Lisius recently captured a 16K time-lapse film that showcases the powerful beauty of supercell storms.
Deals

The best Black Friday tech deals from across the web, all in one place

Amazon, Walmart, and Best Buy are offering the best online Black Friday deals, and we've worked hard gathering all of those sweet savings into one convenient location. Get them before their gone!
Emerging Tech

Electric bikes and scooters are here to save the world! But here’s the thing …

E-bike and e-scooter usage has increased in popularity, but also troublesome. Providing these two-wheeled alternative transports while keeping users safe, is what smart cities are grappling with.
Outdoors

How bike tech lets Red Bull Rampage riders flirt with death, and survive

Red Bull Rampage is the craziest mountain bike event in the world, pushing riders to their limits. Fortunately they are armed with some of the best bike technology around, allowing them survive this wild and dangerous competition.
Cars

7 insane roads that will push self-driving cars to their very limits

Self-driving cars are getting better all the time, but we won't ever be convinced of their readiness for prime time till we see them comfortably handle some of the world's craziest roads. Here are our picks.
Features

Where Toronto sees smart sidewalks, residents see ‘1984.’ So what now?

Google-parent Alphabet is partnering with Toronto to develop a new, smart neighborhood, but some are concerned about privacy and the company’s motives. Could residents derail the project?
Emerging Tech

Only three people have explored the deep oceans. Meet the next two

In a new mission called Five Deeps, a team of explorers will brave the inhospitable depths of the world’s oceans, observing, mapping, and collecting samples along the way. The explorers aim to traverse 40,000 nautical miles over the…
Computing

An inside look at Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx, a revolutionary laptop processor

Six years after Microsoft’s failed foray into ARM computing with Windows RT, its second effort with Always-Connected PC is now showing early signs of success. Microsoft partner Qualcomm told us how the Snapdragon 8cx might revolutionize…
1 of 2