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The news for e-books has been pretty jubilant lately: Amazon says the Kindle was its bestselling product ever. Barnes & Noble reports 2010 was their best holiday season ever, spurred in large part by sales of the Nook. The USA Today says that following the holidays, e-books are outselling print versions of titles on its bestseller list. Even libraries are boasting a huge increase in e-book checkouts. Not surprisingly, then, I've seen several predictions that, indeed, 2011 will be a big year for e-textbooks.

But here's one less-than-positive assessment of e-books: according to a research survey conducted by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG), 75% of college students say they prefer printed textbooks, citing "a fondeness for print's look and feel, as well as its permanence and ability to be resold."

The finding was part of BISG's survey entitled Student Attitudes Toward Content in Higher Education.

Although the majority of respondents said they preferred printed textbooks, the survey found that 12% do prefer e-books. These were "mostly males, and often MBA-seeking or distance learners." These respondents said that their preference was due to lower costs, convenience and portability.

While students indicated they do value core textbooks, more of them said they are buying them online. One-fifth of respondents said they use Amazon, rather than their college bookstore, to purchase textbooks. And 11% said they preferred to rent textbooks.

The survey says that "piracy is pervasive," with more than 40% of respondents saying they bought a textbook from a "pirate website." (Sidenote: there are pirate textbook websites? Or do students mean here that they are turning to other online resources to help them with coursework?)

I have a number of questions about the results from this survey, the least of which being what do we make of students' seeming preference for print? Is it that they really prefer print textbook? Or are the (digital) alternatives just not viable yet? If we are readily embracing e-books for our "casual" reading (that's an assumption that I'm making that that's what's driven the holiday sales), then why are we not there yet for assigned reading? Is it the inability to make notes in the margins? Is it the inability to buy used books and sell books back to the bookstore at the end of the semester? The BISG survey says that students "love a bargain." What is it about e-books that doesn't strike college students as "a good deal"?

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Audrey Watters


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