BU Today

Science & Tech

What the iPad Means for Textbooks, Maybe

A publisher and students weigh in on the next big thing


Most students are all too familiar with the depressing practice of dropping hundreds of dollars for a half dozen textbooks. Now, however, thanks to the availability of e-books and iPads, they can begin to imagine the day that 400-page chemistry textbook can be had for half the current price. And it will no longer weigh as much as an anchor.

Fans of the e-book watched closely on Wednesday, when Apple introduced its much-anticipated iPad, which aims directly at the less flashy Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook. In theory at least, the iPad threatens to do to book and magazine publishing what the iPod did to recorded music.

What does that mean for textbooks? Plenty, some observers say, but no one knows when. CourseSmart, a publisher of more than 8,800 e-textbooks, already makes an application for theiPhone and iPod Touch and is reportedly working on software for the iPad. And one option that is already available is iBooks, an application fromApple that allows users to download e-books straight to their device.HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster, both publishers of trade books,are already signed on. Some technology Web sites have reported that apartnership with textbook publisher McGraw-Hill was supposed tohave been included in the presentation, but Apple’s Steve Jobs banned any mention of them aftera McGraw-Hill executive leaked word of the deal on Tuesdaynight. Jobs, for his part, mentioned that his company was “very excited” about textbooks, then moved on.

Some observers point out that Princeton University introduced a Kindle pilot program, in May 2009, and students were slow to warm up. Many found the experience “clunky and slow.” Despite that unimpressive start for e-books on campus, the National Association of College Stores predicts that by 2012, 10 to 15 percent of college-store textbook sales could be digital, up from the present 2 to 3 percent.

At Barnes & Noble at BU, the popularity of e-books is definitely trending up, according to store general manager Steve Turco, who he expects numbers to grow as publishers get on board and make more options available.

The iPad’s greater interactive and graphics capabilities, when compared to Kindle or Nook, make it a likely best of class for textbooks whose work requires calculations and presentations. And because this is Apple we’re talking about, it’s also a lot prettier and more user-friendly than the competition: the keyboard is right on the screen and the finger replaces the mouse.

There’s no word yet on what downloaded textbooks might sell for, but a typical precalculus e-book on CourseSmart goes for about $60. The same book costs $165 in a bookstore. One catch, though: with the e-textbook, the user buys a 180-day license, while a paper book is a paper book forever and can be resold to next year’s students or a used book store.

David Pallai, a Metropolitan College lecturer in the book and magazine publishing certificate program and a publisher at Jones and Bartlett Publishers, says there are good reasons for the high costs of textbooks. They require research and extensive edits to ensure accuracy, he says, they are often printed in color, and they must be shipped and marketed.

Pallai says his industry is unafraid and even excited about the options available in digital publishing.

“Publishers are anxious to digitize content,” he says. “It’s a way to reach customers directly, and it will have a positive effect because we won’t be spending as much money on manufacturing the book. I think over time this will save everyone a lot of money.”

He doesn’t think the iPad’s cost (it starts at $499) will deter students from buying it. In the long run, he thinks, the e-text way will be cheaper than buying paper textbooks. Despite the math, he doesn’t believe that printed books are going anywhere soon, although over time, he says, more people will turn to the Web for their reading.

In the immediate wake of the iPad splash, many students seem less than hooked. Grace Ko (COM’13) says she’s not ready for entirely digital reading. “I want things tangibly in my hand,” she says. “I’d rather be able to write on it and interact with it more closely.” Ko says she can do that with a paper book.

Samantha Dubois (COM’12) agrees. “I guess if I already owned it I would maybe use it for textbooks, but it doesn’t seem to do much that my laptop doesn’t already do,” she says. “I’d rather have the physical book in front of me, because it would be easier to annotate and highlight.”

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.


22 Comments on What the iPad Means for Textbooks, Maybe

  • Prof. T. A. de Winter on 01.29.2010 at 6:58 am

    Course Smart

    I object to a blatant advertisement being run as a news item.

    Has anyone asked what will happen to the textbooks you buy when the pad dies in 3-5years, as most of this hardware does?

  • Geo on 01.29.2010 at 8:19 am

    Samantha is right. While a download does not weigh 15 pounds, it is not easy to annotate. This problem is solved somewhat if one has Adobe Acrobat Standard or Pro, where one can annotate the pdf, however this will raise copyright issues. The other thing that is not clear is what happens when the time comes to replace the iPAD. How to transport electronic books from one device to another?.
    Also the printed text still looks better than the same text on the screen of your laptop.

  • Chad McAllister on 01.29.2010 at 9:31 am

    3 Reasons iPad is Not an eReader

    The iPad that was announced this week is not suited to be an eReader for textbooks. The key issue is the lack of ability to interact directly with the text as students can with traditional textbooks — namely being able to write notes in the book as it is being read. The display is also an issue because it uses traditional LCD technology and not electronic ink. My full comments are at: http://www.productinnovationeducators.com/blog/requirements/3-reasons-the-apple-ipad-is-not-my-next-ereader/

  • Daniel Kamalic on 01.29.2010 at 9:33 am

    But how does it feel to stare at it for 18 hours a day?

    Every article I’ve seen so far about the iPad fails to address my most important concern — how easy-on-the-eyes is it? My understanding is that the iPad uses a standard LED-backlit LCD display screen, same as on most laptops. This will work great for all the applications that you’d use a gigantic iPod Touch for, but book reading? Really? The reason devices with eInk-based screens such as the Kindle and the Nook have been selling well in spite of the fact that the screens are black-and-white and refresh slowly is because they look nearly exactly like paper and are comfortable to stare at all day. Staring at a backlit LCD screen for book reading is like staring into a flashlight for 18 hours a day. You’ll soon develop splitting headaches.

  • Anonymous on 01.29.2010 at 9:56 am

    This is a fantastic article and I cannot wait to get my hands on an iPad. This technology is LONG overdue and will revolutionize how students and readers alike go about their day. Just imagine being able to have 1000 books at your fingertips. Yes, the initial cost of the technology isn’t cheap but over time consumers will save a ton of money.

  • Mike on 01.29.2010 at 9:57 am

    Sounds great to me. Although there were some negative posts on the interenet from the so called “geeks” I can see the apeal here. Begin able to purchase e-books and a fraction of cost of a real book, and being able to keep all your books on one device for future reference it’s a great plus.

  • Anonymous on 01.29.2010 at 11:01 am

    The thing that concerns me (among many things) is the lack of the adobe flash plugin and the device’s capacity. In the world of SATA, solid state flash memory, it seems like Jobs gave his consumers the shaft. 64GB, that’s it? Come on. And I don’t like the idea of purchasing a 180-day rental for $60. If I pay for something, I want to keep it. Also, and sorry for the babbling, why aren’t eBooks offered in a universal format like PDF? Seems like Apple and eBooks everywhere are trying to create yet another piece of technology to ram down our throats. Thankfully, piracy will probably drive the price down and force these corporate-folks to offer better deals – albeit sometime in the future.

  • Anonymous on 01.29.2010 at 11:04 am

    Can anyone say, planned obsolescence? Give it a few years and the tablet will be the piece that clips into a laptop. Why is technology taking baby steps? There is so much opportunity in this industry and I feel like the iPad is some intermediary piece.

  • Anonymous on 01.29.2010 at 11:53 am

    I have to agree that this iPad does not seem to be initially all that appealing. As a science major, I would no doubt prefer an actual textbook than a screen when trying to understand and note on difficult concepts. On the other hand, this way of learning may fair well in other subject areas. It’s important to place the ipad in context of the most potential user. With that said, hopefully those students that are raised on this level of technological advancement will appreciate it.

  • Anonymous on 01.29.2010 at 12:09 pm

    I have looked for ebooks to use on my computer before. I have checked out several sites, the kindle site and coursesmart that they mentioned and i have yet to find a single one of my text books offered. They all claim that thousands of schools are using their ebooks but until they offer books that i need I cant use it for my textbooks. Also I think that the ipad is a great idea, yes it is just a giant iphone but I still think it looks great but the issue with using for a book is that the battery will not last as long and the space is definitely an issue.

  • Anonymoose on 01.29.2010 at 12:11 pm

    Boo iTab

    iPad in general is boring. It’s basically a fancy e-reader, but I’d still rather have my laptop and my iPhone.

    And no Flash support? I appreciate Apple being very restrictive to what runs on their machines, but no Flash is just silly.

    No camera? It’s basically a big, ugly looking iPhone that can play “apps” instead of real computer programs. Whoopee.

  • Anonymous on 01.29.2010 at 12:40 pm

    just untrue

    from an avid fan of e-readers such as the kindle and the nook, it is unlikely to think that the ipad will become the dominating force in e-books. at this point, people who purchase e-readers are not looking to have a lit screen or the capabilities to do a million other things while paying for an additional (optional) 3g coverage along with their phone bill. the ipad is too big. it’s too inbetween functions, it’s not really a laptop and its not really an itouch and its not really an e-reader. not to mention that the books are significantly more expensive on the ipad than on the kindle or nook (12.99-14.99 compared to 9.99 for most new releases). I would suggest that any e-reader fan would opt for the lower priced and more specialized for book reading tool than a gadget that is somewhat of an awkward hybrid of too many things selling for too much money.

  • Anonymous on 01.29.2010 at 1:26 pm

    Books for 180 days?

    Don’t worry about the pad dying–you’ve only got the books for 180 days anyway. What happens next semester when you are taking the advanced class and want to consult your text from last semester? Textbooks need to be made cheaper, but I don’t think publishers have really committed to this if you cannot retain your texts!

  • Anonymous on 01.29.2010 at 9:02 pm

    Open your apples

    Cool stuff. Lets just hope Apple opens their eyes and allows you to run more than a single program at a time.

  • Free books for Kindle on 01.30.2010 at 6:44 am

    Kindle now looks expensive...?

    Leaving aside the issue of renting a text book for 180 days (hello – I still had a few text books bought in my first I still was regularly consultanting in my last year at college) – does anyone else agree that the Kindle is now looking a tad expensive? Particularly the DX.

    I feel like I’m gradually being won over to the iPad. It’s not cheap and it has it’s limits but I reckon it’ll be jailbroken fairly quickly which’ll allow you to run practically anything on it.

  • Anonymous on 01.30.2010 at 8:38 am

    Great idea!

    I understand that in many aspects the e-books aren’t able to replace a real textbook but having the chance to have all the books in a little device sounds perfect. I commute to school and I am having back pain lately because of all the books I hav to bring to class. The textbooks in a e-book would be a great solution!

  • Anonymous on 01.31.2010 at 4:20 pm

    yet another disappointment?

    While I agree that the e-textbook option is fantastic for those of us who will not use a book more than for the course itself (i.e., I would’ve bought my biology textbooks in digital format if I could have a few years ago because they change editions every year, and I doubt I would use them again even if they did not), unless the digital option allows for highlighting and easy page jumping (and easy reading), they won’t be replacing paper textbooks anytime soon.

    As for this latest Apple attempt, I’m just wondering why it was released AFTER the ipod touch, because that’s all it is–a Touch with a larger screen. Ok. So, please tell me again what this does that my laptop can’t do better? Besides potentially break while transporting, that is.

    Sorry to all the Apple fans out there, but between all the shortcommings both friends and myself have delt with on devices that bear this comapny’s name and this latest release, I’m quite disenchanted at this point. A 6-year-old flip phone should not be able to outperform an iPhone 3G in the MMS department -_-

  • hanum on 03.29.2010 at 2:52 am


    i like this gadget, many high tech features offering. Good…

  • Anonymous on 03.30.2010 at 5:48 pm


    The only way the iPad will be a success is the prices of the books. Its long overdue that a low cost alternative to printed books came along but I fear that prices will be fixed at high margins for profits.

    I remember the hype when DVDs were introduced, the prices will be cheaper than Videos, then again maybe not.

  • Anonymous on 04.30.2010 at 11:28 pm

    Good for Traveling Students

    Looks like a good idea for students that study abroad, so they don’t have to lug the texts back and forth.

    In terms of annotation, I haven’t looked but you’d think Apple would already have thought of allowing highlighting and notes. I’ll have to check one out.

    But I think the Med school should study the effects of eye strain comparing reading on paper, E-Ink, LCD and Organic LED displays.

  • Philana on 07.11.2010 at 7:15 pm

    iPads work fine for reading

    I’ve been using my iPad to read and it works fine. And all of the e-reader apps (iBooks, Kindle and B&N) allow note taking and highlighting. And since I can get a Kindle and B&N apps I can get the books for cheap, and have a large screen. It also has many other functions, and so allows for many uses.

  • Anonymous on 11.23.2010 at 7:02 pm

    A true book worm.

    I have to admit i am a book worm and find myself to be a huge collector of books as well. I think the Ipad would be a great investment especially with not having to lug around 20 to 30 pounds of books to my nursing classes. True, i am a nursing major and soon to go premed and the idea of spending money for text books just to have them erased or have to spend more money the next semester is a definite turn off. I hope they figure that out. IF i buy the book than i want to keep the book and i don’t mind paying the whole price for the option. just don’t lie and tell me it’s cheaper buy and then when it’s really a lease

Post Your Comment

(never shown)