Electronic Textbooks

Posted to WWWDEV 5 Mar 1997

Linda Stilborne writes, I have a great deal of sympathy for the publishers here (to say nothing of the authors!). Although academic institutions may intend only fair use, once a publication is provided to students in an electronic format, there is no control over how it might be used. I am curious about why being able to distribute in electronic format is preferable to simply having a text available through an agency such as Amazon.com online bookstore? I think that that would be a preferable approach to the extent that all of the issues around electronic rights are circumvented. In addition, the student has a bound publication and does not have to worry about printing.

We are not interested in using the on-line bookstore because of time constraints. One of the major disadvantages of distance education right now is the lag time between the decision to take a course and the arrival of the materials. I'd like to set it up so that a person could register for a course and be started on it in just a few minutes.

That's why I prefer an electronic format. An electronic format is the only format which can be delivered in a matter of moments. All other formats require the intervention of Canada Post or UPS. In rural areas, they can take weeks to deliver materials. Also, our college is moving into a global market (we have students from Tanzania, Mexico, and other nations). Shipping texts to Tanzania is not an option, again because of the lag time.

Also (and this is a different point) - while I have some sympathy for authors, I have very little for publishers who have for years managed to publish $60 - $90 textbooks (with a new edition each year, so people can't resell old copies). Other important publications, such as journals, cost even more obscene amounts of money. The use of electronic publications offers the potential of reducing some of these costs, and in the end, reducing costs to students. This is to me much more important than the financial well-being of McGraw Hill and others.

While I understand that there is no control over what a student will do with the product once it is delivered, I should point out that this is the case with traditional publications as well. The easy availability of photocopying and digital scanning means that once a printed book is in a student's hands, the production of additional copies is child's play.

If a student doesn't want to bother with printing, then hard-covers could be sold through the college bookstore (we're planning to enable on-line ordering fairly soon).

All of that said, let me rephrase my main point:

We're going to use electronic publications no matter what the publishers do. If publishers refuse to provide electronic copies of their books, we'll use different publishers. If no publishers produce electronic texts then we'll produce our own (and make them widely available over the internet just for fun). The savings in time and resources are so enormous that using traditional print texts is out of the question. The publisher who meets our needs will be the one to get our business. The ones who sit back and complain about copyright issues will get our condolences.

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