The death of the paper textbook

Less and less textbooks are making it to print—but publishers are still making money

The pandemic was accompanied with a rise in e-publishing.

Textbooks have always been an expensive requirement of attending university, but prices have risen considerably in recent decades.

According to the Canadian Federation of Students, the cost of textbooks rose 2.44 times the rate of inflation between 2008 and 2015. From the 1980s to 2014, textbook costs overall have increased by over 800 per cent, more than double the rate of increase in housing prices. 

One reason textbook publishers can keep raising costs is because students are “captive consumers.” If a new textbook is assigned for a course, students can be forced to purchase it as part of their course requirements, or may not be able to do well in their course without it. 

Today’s university students are also expected to buy extra materials that may not have been required just a decade ago. On shelves at campus bookstores, in addition to paper textbooks, you will find course-specific software and codes that give students access to online labs or homework assignments—not to mention most students are expected to have personal devices capable of running all this software. 

According to Queen’s Student Awards Office, ArtSci students should budget approximately $800 per term for class materials. This number includes textbooks, lab kits, and any specialty software that may need to be purchased. The expected price goes up for different programs. Engineering students can expect to pay up to $1,100 per term, while Education majors could be looking at paying over $2,000 in class materials every fall and winter. 

It’s not uncommon for students to skip out on purchasing a textbook or buying secondhand to save money. Buying books from upper-year students and taking out textbooks from the library can be excellent ways to save money. But that’s not always an option with digital tools.  

Online materials can be required for handing in homework, meaning that grades could be lost if they aren’t purchased. In a study of British Columbian students, 54 per cent of respondents reported not purchasing a textbook at least once. Of those who reported not buying a required text, 30 per cent reported receiving a poor grade in a class because of not having the textbook. 

With rising costs of tuition and housing, the cost of good grades could mean going without necessities or ending up in debt for years after graduation.

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Before the pandemic, less than one fifth of course materials at Queen’s were digital. In less than two years, that figure has seen a drastic change. Physical textbooks are going out of style, replaced with digital versions. The shift is due to the switch to online learning in 2020 due to COVID-19.

“Looking back to 2019, online course materials represented about 19 per cent of our total course materials. Last year, it surged to 32 per cent.” Cindy Healy, General Manager of Queen’s Campus Bookstore, told The Journal. 

Navigating textbook purchases in a pandemic proved to be a problem. Queen’s Campus Bookstore wasn’t open for in-person shopping, and curb-side pickup was limited. 

Textbooks could be ordered online and shipped through FedEx, but the service charged $25 for in-province shipping. That cost was even higher for students in other parts of the world.

Rather than have textbooks shipped to students who were scattered across the globe, many professors assigned digitalized versions of textbooks. Although students are back on campus and in-person for the 2021-22 school year, digital textbooks haven’t disappeared. 

“This year, we have not seen a return to pre-pandemic number.” Healy said. “Instead, the number has increased and currently represents 39 per cent of our total course materials.”

“This increase I think is the result of a couple of things—the adoption and acceptance of these materials by professors and students and a hard push from publishers to adopt digital.”

In the past, there have been programs at Queen’s that worked to reduce the cost of course materials. In 2018, a working group of Queen’s faculty produced a report on Open and Affordable Course Materials. The goal was to look for ways to provide students with course materials for the lowest possible price.

When COVID-19 halted in-person classes in 2020, the transition to online learning became a priority and textbook affordability took a backseat to safety. 

Those who attended Queen’s prior to 2020 might remember purchasing some of their textbooks secondhand from the Tricolour Outlet in the JDUC. The student-run AMS store had a consignment program that allowed students to sell their used textbooks at the store. This program came to a halt due to COVID-19.

“Since the store was closed and students could not come in store to sell or buy textbooks the service was terminated.” Sierra Holas, Tricolour Outlet Books Manager, told The Journal. 

As the Tricolour Outlet transferred to a new point of sale (POS) system while moving online, returning to the consignment program would require adapting to the new POS system. 

“In the future we are open to its return if it can fit in with current operations,” Holas said. 

Students looking to buy used textbooks may be able to find them on online marketplaces like Facebook Marketplace or Kijiji. However, with so many courses making the switch from physical to digital, it might be difficult in some cases to find the edition a professor is requiring. 

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The good news for students is that online versions of textbooks are usually cheaper. A $200 paper textbook might have a digital version available for only a fraction of the original cost. 

Still, that doesn’t mean all digital textbooks are relatively cheap. Some textbooks have gone completely digital, meaning there’s no more expensive physical version to compare costs to. A lot of digital texts are still costing students well over $100 per book. 

Due to the temporary nature of access codes, students are also unable to resell their book after they’ve completed their course.

“Some of our largest courses no longer have a loose-leaf option available as the publisher has put them out of print” Healy said. 

When you purchase a textbook, around 80 per cent of the money that you spent on the book goes to the publisher. Those costs go to production, which covers paying the authors, editors, marketing team, and the costs of printing the physical book. 

With digital books, printing costs are nonexistent—that means a $150 digital textbook can have a much larger profit margin for a publishing company than a $150 paper one. 

Digital versions of textbooks do come with unique benefits. For instance, bookstores can’t run out of a book, there are environmental benefits to going paperless, there’s less physical weight for students to have to carry in their backpacks, and notetaking can be made easier for students who prefer digital notes. 

Digital textbooks are also getting better overall. The transition to online learning last year drove improvements to the way we access online texts. 

The Queen’s Campus Bookstore is part of CampusEBookstore, an online consortium of collegiate bookstores that includes major Canadian and US publishers. In Fall 2021, CampusEBookstore launched a new ebook platform.

“It has some exciting new features—note synchronization across devices, annotations, highlighting, et cetera. There was a real focus on how students learn and an emphasis on how to improve the academic and student experience.” Healy said.

As the captive consumers of publishers, students are likely going to have to keep paying hundreds of dollars each semester on course materials. With the shift to online learning increasing the prevalence of digital textbooks, the future of the textbook is uncertain.

It’s very possible that we’ll see less and less physical books on university bookstore shelves over the next few years. Unfortunately, it’s up to publishers what that will mean for affordability.

“The big question moving forward was ‘will this trend stick or will we see a return to pre-pandemic percentages.’” Healy said. 

“I think it’s quite clear that online is here to stay.” 

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