Phi Beta Cons

Amazon Launches Kindle Textbook Rental

This year, more students will be able to rent electronic textbooks instead of buying them, potentially saving hundreds of dollars per year. They will be able to keep books for anywhere from 30 days to a year or more on their e-readers. Fees will vary, depending on the length of the rental.

This is almost certainly the future of educational publishing, and, one might argue, book publishing in general.

E-books have the potential to make education more affordable. And that’s a good thing. Right now, it looks like only a few textbook publishers have agreed to participate in the new Amazon service. Hopefully, others will sign up as the practice catches on.

As a student of modest means, I scoured the library for prior-edition, used copies of textbooks; new copies often cost as much as $150 or more. When you add up the prices of the books required for four or five classes, it gets expensive very fast. I remember one professor — he was aware of my financial circumstances at the time — who let me borrow his personal copy of a pricey calculus textbook. That made a big difference. But, unfortunately, I wasn’t so lucky most of the time. If e-book rental had been around a few years ago, it would have been very appealing to me.

The one hesitation I have is this: Will e-book rentals lead to a sharp decline in revenues for textbook publishers? And, if so, will publishers be able to afford to produce well-researched, well-written textbooks in the future? Or will quality suffer? Will publishers be able to pay the best scholars enough to make writing a textbook worthwhile?

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