Amazon Doesn't Rate an "A" in e-Textbook Rentals
7/22/2011 by: Darleen Hartley
Amazon is a late entry in the e-textbook rental arena. The internet book seller needs to do its homework to catch up with competitors. Although Amazon has the Kindle e-Reader going for it, the iPad has already been an active recipient of rented textbooks.
At Amazon, students have the option of renting a book for a month or as many days as necessary to complete the class. Amazon claims renting can save up to 80 percent over buying the book at list price. The catch is that publishers must agree to make their products available as an e-book in e-book format, preferably Kindle format. You may have noticed the little note below the book image on their website that urges you to: Tell the publisher - I'd like to read this book on Kindle.
The difficulty we ran into was finding a textbook that was available on the Kindle, much less available as a rental. Searching for "Computer Graphics", we found Fundamentals of Computer Graphics, 2009 edition, with the following pricing: hard cover $84.18, used $57.42 and Kindle edition $63.20. But no rental version. Other offerings included Complete Maya Programming, 2003, $42.92 new, $19 used, and a $12.55 rental. Texturing and Modeling, Morgan Kaufmann Series, 2002, printed $69.31, Kindle: $62.38, rental $29.98. There was also Digital Video and HDTV, Algorithms and Interfaces, 2002. Take note that the editions at Amazon were prior to 2010. In the fast moving computer world is a nine year old textbook of any viable use?
In contrast, an established competitor, CourseSmart, had very current offerings, and every one of their books was rental material.
Bright orange boxes on college campuses dispense hard copy textbook rentals from Chegg which now offers electronic textbooks at their Internet website. The company recruited customers by doling out just about enough coins for lunch money to students for each new student they brought into the fold. Chegg now offers an iTunes app for electronic textbooks. However, citing frequent crashes, Chegg's latest version 1.3.3 on iTunes got mixed reviews.
Eighty percent of the college bookstores represented by the National Association of College Stores are offering rentals of physical textbooks, in lieu of outright sales which have been the traditional vehicle. The book rental business in general has been estimated at nearly 15 percent of the online textbook market.
The textbook-rental marketplace got a boast from the US government. Daily Finance reported early in 2010 that Congress had set aside $10 million in grants to fund college-textbook rental programs. It remains to be seen if this program will be affected by the government's current financial woes. Still, several companies have graduated from being book sellers to becoming book renters, with or without the government incentive. Not all of them have adopted the digital approach yet.
BookRenter with Alibris.com and Barnes & Noble are also in the textbook rental business. BookRenter offers to rent a $166 retail hard copy of Essentials of Economics for three months for $50.48. They promise fast shipping and free return postage. The book seller claims to have saved students $234,570 in the last 72 hours. With professors changing textbooks almost as often as they change their underwear, we wonder if those student savings will translate into bookseller profits. One has to ask how often will that book be rented before its shelf life expires.
Amazon's announcement that they will offer rental textbooks on their Kindle isn't surprising. The company, however, says the Kindle is not a requirement. You can rent or buy Kindle textbooks for the PC, Mac, Android, Blackberry, and "i" devices.
Is Amazon offering textbooks that are not in the current curriculum?
Amazon says: "Tens of thousands of Kindle textbooks are now available – just search for your textbook and we'll show you if the Kindle edition is eligible to rent or purchase. Look in Formats section for Rental Version." We did just that and our sample search for "Computer Graphics" was discouraging.
Our quick perusal of CourseSmart's website was more productive than searching through all the books at Amazon hoping to find an e-version of a current textbook. CourseSmart carries only textbooks, and their list is coordinated with courses currently being offered in schools around the country. CourseSmart touts itself as the world's largest digital course materials provider. Our brief excursion into their website leads us to believe them.
CourseSmart has a list of their top eTextbooks. We found several very recent editions. Computer Networks, Fifth Edition 2011, Tanenbaum, Wetherall, went for $128 retail or $51.20, for 180 day rental. Interactive Computer Graphics: A Top-Down Approach with Shader-Based OpenGL was available in the latest sixth edition 2012. New hard copy at retail sells for $118, but CourseSmart does not sell printed textbooks. You can rent their e-book version for considerably less, $47.20.
CourseSmart gives students the choice of on line reading with Android or "i" devices, but offline with the iPad only. That is where Amazon currently will have an edge, considering Kindle's popularity. Mac's have a place on college campuses too, so that's two advantages on Amazon's side.
Will the e-Textbook craze catch on? The Student Monitor found that students still prefer printed textbooks, even though with an e-Textbook, you can do a full text search, take notes, highlight text, print pages, copy selections and paste them into documents of your own. With the student's stated preference for printed versions, it is hard to predict just how successful e-book textbook rentals will become. Another survey indicated that students didn't even know they could rent textbooks of any kind. Maybe subjects other than school work top their Twitter postings.
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