As students and their families consider ways to make college affordable, finding alternative options to traditional paper textbooks has become one avenue for cutting costs. In contrast to a paper textbook, which can be purchased new or used and shared between classmates, e-textbooks can be purchased or rented through an online seller, and then downloaded immediately to a digital device or computer. Both formats present advantages and disadvantages, and although it may seem that e-textbooks might be less expensive, there are other considerations that play into the final cost.


With e-textbooks, the cost of housing the material is shifted from the publisher to the device owner who must purchase and maintain the device in order to use the textbook. The actual price of an e-textbook may be lower; one publisher states it will charge just $15 for the e-book version of its $75 high school math book. For individual students, the upfront price of the device may not be a concern, as many students find computers and tablets to be necessary for other aspects of life and schoolwork. But for school districts considering a classroom set of e-textbooks, and for individual owners, the price of the device itself may outweigh the savings made on avoiding paper texts. However, as Matthew Montgomery, president and chief executive of points out, e-textbooks also represent a significant savings in weight, replacing all the books a student might need with a 5-pound computer or an even lighter e-reader. E-textbooks can also be frequently updated, while paper books cannot, and a digital format represents interactive advantages not possible, like highlighting and copying, through the traditional format. Students can even conduct searches and respond to material directly from the text.

Paper Textbooks

While aspects of e-textbooks present certain conveniences and possible savings, paper textbooks still have advantages too. For students building a reference library for their future profession, owning a physical copy may be necessary. Some students also find that digital devices pose a distraction for them, and paper textbooks allow them to focus, and physically interact with the text, making highlights and notes. Perhaps the biggest potential advantage lies in what is done with the text when the class is over.

The Final Cost

Determining the final cost for a textbook requires several considerations. For example, the current price of the updated textbook “Human Anatomy and Physiology” is listed at $150.49 for a new book, $49.49 to $88.10 to rent a book, and $93.96 for the electronic edition. However, paper textbooks, purchased new or used, can be sold back to a bookseller, or to a classmate, allowing the student to recoup some of the upfront cost. Paper books can also be shared between students, and some are even found at a public or school library. Although some libraries have a few e-textbooks available, those rented or bought by students, while potentially cheaper in the beginning, cannot be sold back.

Future Considerations

According to the Student Monitor, the e-book market only represents 2 percent of total textbook spending, so it could seem the market would become more competitive as younger students who have grown up with digital devices enter the textbook market. However, Robert Mitchell of worries that the current e-textbook sales model, which emphasizes rentals, eliminates secondary sales, and reduces choices for the student, will actually decrease competition and lead to increased prices in the long run.