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Tech-savvy students aren’t buying it

February 27, 2006

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Brown University junior Stuart Thompson jumped at the chance to save $30 and become a digital pioneer when his school bookstore offered a discounted, electronic version of an American history textbook.

But after making the purchase, he noticed a few things amiss: He couldn't run a highlight marker over key points or jot notes in the margins, nor could he curl up with the tome without printing out the pages.

He won't rule out another e-book, but he's not completely sold, either.

So much for the belief that this generation of youths is comfortable with everything digital: The publishing industry has been talking about electronic textbooks for a decade, but sales remain minuscule.

"If you're reading a 100-page book, staring at the computer that long - I don't think a lot of people would find that a better way to read," said Thompson, the only one of 100 students in his class to buy the digital version of "A People and a Nation."

Part of the problem, experts say, is that e-books typically offer little more than what's already on the printed page. C. Sidney Burrus, former dean of engineering at Rice University and an e-book author, notes that technological changes typically come in two phases: Replication of older technology, followed by innovation.

"We're in the first phase, with electronic doing what the traditional paper has done," he said. "Nothing's really novel."

Among the possibilities: A biology e-book with video of DNA's double helix coming to life, rather than the two-dimensional illustration typically found in printed books; and a math book including a built-in calculator or spreadsheet so that students could try out formulas as they read.

Publishers say that demand for digital-only editions and features isn't strong. More importantly, professors are demanding consistency with the printed versions so that page numbers match and readings are easier to assign, said Sandi Kirshner, chief marketing officer for Pearson PLC's higher education group.

Perhaps that'll change as e-book sales continue to grow, but publishers say there's not much incentive when e-books remain in the single digits as a percentage of printed books.

Students are going to have to see more value in e-textbooks before sales take off, said Larry Carr, Brown's director of bookstore and services.

For now, it is mostly a curiosity.

"Students are pretty conservative when it comes to their grades," said David Serbun, director of partnerships for Houghton Mifflin's college division. "Our research has indicated they don't want to do anything that's a lot different than their peers."

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