Sep 08 2014

As Digital Alternatives to Textbooks Grow, Students Swap Backpacks for Tablets

One service offers e-book rentals for a few dollars a day.

For many college students, the fall semester has just begun. Freshmen are outfitting their dorm rooms with posters, finding their way around campus and possibly still reeling from the price of renting textbooks for a few months.

According to The College Board, the average student at a four-year in-state college spent about $1,207 on textbooks in the 2013–2014 school year. Research from the National Association of College Stores has shown that students are looking for ways to offset these costs, and many are turning to digital textbooks to lighten the load.

To fill demand, a new marketplace for digital textbooks has sprung up, offering competitive pricing.

Case in point: the 2012 startup Packback, which has found success with on-demand textbook rentals priced between $3 and $5 a day. The pricing menu allows students to rent books only for the days they'll need them, cutting down on their overall cost dramatically.

Co-founder Kasey Gandham, who started Packback while still a college student, told The New York Times that the paper-textbook rental practice had become a "vicious cycle": Used books are continually resold, taking revenue away from publishers, which then have to raise prices to offset the reduced sales.

Digital rental services like Packback bring publishers back into the fold and give students more options on rental pricing. The service even offers a tool students can use to compare the prices of paper and digital versions.

Boundless, another startup, takes a different approach to offering digital textbooks. The company markets digital books created from free sources such as Wikipedia, books in the public domain and open-license academic papers. Subject experts combine the materials into a cohesive format that can be used as a textbook, according to Campus Technology.

Boundless currently offers more than 500 digital books priced at $20. The e-books also include quizzes, flashcards and a note-taking function for e-readers, tablets and smartphones.


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