By Lauren Dubinsky

The long line to buy books at the beginning of each semester at Stony Brook, let alone many universities, is shortening because students are not buying textbooks, rather e-books.

As Stony Brook University students walk into the University Bookstore at the bottom level of the Melville Library, they are immediately confronted with bright green signs saying, “Your Choice: New, Used, Rental, E-textbooks,” scattered all around the store.

The e-textbook option was introduced to the university about five years ago and has become popular after roughly 300 were sold last fall semester. Students are beginning to ditch the print textbooks that are stacked on the bookshelves for the digital textbooks on their laptops and e-readers.

And the bookstore has taken notice. The e-textbook titles available in the university bookstore rose from 112 in Fall 2009 to 430 in Fall 2010.

“Students have become increasingly interested in digital content this fall and the university bookstore has embraced that,” said Boon Teo, the university bookstore manager. Prior to this fall semester, very few e-textbooks were sold but last fall semester, the sales rose to about 300 titles being sold.

E-readers, such as the Amazon Kindle, Nook and Sony E-book Reader, are changing the way college students view their textbooks. Instead of students flipping open a textbook to begin studying for their exams, they are tapping into their Nooks to scroll through the pages of their digital textbooks. It provides students with unique and modern multimedia tools that have never before been possible in paper formats and instant access to all of their course materials and notes in one place. With a click of a mouse they can look up definitions and formulas.

A study by the educational software developer Xplana predicts that the digital textbook market will surpass 18 percent of combined new textbook sales for the Higher Education and Career Education markets in the United States by 2014. The study also said that overall digital textbook sales increased by 100 percent in 2010 and continue to grow at rates of 150 percent and 120 percent in 2011 and 2012.

Even some of the larger bookstore chains are positioning themselves for this largely growing trend. Barnes and Noble released a free downloadable application last year called NOOKstudy to Stony Brook University and other college campuses that allows students to read and study their e-textbooks on their Macs and PCs.

“Barnes and Noble has been selling e-textbooks since 2003 and sales were extraordinarily low until they recently experienced a huge increase in sales this fall,” said Jade Roth, the vice president of books and digital strategy at Barnes and Noble. There are a growing number of textbooks that are now available in digital format and the NOOKstudy application allows students to download the e-textbooks and use new features and functions.

“Every one of our stores including Stony Brook has seen an increase this fall and we expect that increase to continue in January simply because students are looking for something less expensive,” said Roth. The e-textbooks are cheaper because the publishing costs are significantly lower than the cost of publishing print textbooks.

Ioan Alin Tomescu Nicolescu sits in the Student Activity Center Lounge as he studies his e-textbooks on his black laptop. Nicolescu, like many other Stony Brook students, has switched from print textbooks to digital textbooks because of the lower cost, convenience and multimedia features. As he moves his finger across his mouse pad, he can highlight his text in yellow. With a click of a button he can add a red textbox on the side of his e-textbook for comments.

And what caught Nicolescu’s attention about the e-textbooks was the price. Digital textbooks can be 40 percent cheaper than the print versions. “I like the print texts, but sometimes they are more expensive,” said Nicolescu. “Sometimes I can’t afford to buy them.” He said that he saved around 400 dollars by only purchasing e-textbooks this semester.

Aside from saving money, the e-textbooks provide a new level of interactivity and convenience. Students can read multiple textbooks at the same time with the use of different tabs that the application offers. By typing a word into the search box, students can find that term in any of their books, notes, tags or links. “It gets you to the words and scrolls it down for you,” said Nicolescu. “You don’t have to look with your eyes, you use the program to find the words.” The application also lets you highlight the text and add notes directly in your digital textbook.

“We think the technology is catching up to how people wish to use it,” said Roth. “Its an entrance to a whole new world of content.” Barnes and Noble does research at Stony Brook University and other college campuses by sending out surveys to general NOOKstudy users to get feedback. “Every time they get feedback, they look at it as something that they should be building into the product,” said Roth.

Carrying around a 500-page Algebra textbook can take a toll on a college students. E-textbooks have an advantage because they weigh next to nothing—the only thing that a student would have to carry around is their e-reader or laptop. Nicolescu says that carrying around his physics and chemistry textbooks in his backpack is very heavy but carrying his laptop is substantially less weight.

In the past year, the world has changed because of the introduction of e-readers and downloadable applications to view e-textbooks. An International Digital Publishing Forum report said that e-book sales in the United States have increased from seven million in 2006 to about 56 million in 2009.

CourseSmart is the world’s largest provider of digital course material. Its collection includes over 90 percent of the main textbooks that are used in North American Higher Education as e-textbooks. There was a 400 percent revenue growth last year at CourseSmart. “The growth CourseSmart has experienced is a clear indicator that the digital model is being embraced by students and faculty and will continue in the future,” said Jessica Nelson, the account executive at Kwittken & Company. Kwittken & Company is a marketing and public relations agency that CourseSmart called on to position its e-textbooks to college students. A growing number of publishers are partnering with companies such as CourseSmart to give students a number of options for how they consume their assigned course materials.

An Xplana study said that the iPad and upcoming Android tablets will cause e-textbook sales to grow more. CourseSmart and other e-textbook companies project that by 2014 the iPad will become the preferred personal computing device for students. “We believe Apple’s iPad tablet will further boost demand for digital textbooks as it will capture the imagination of the next group of students who haven’t yet tried e-textbooks,” said Nelson. She said that the browser-based interface that the iPad provides will be able to run some of the best existing interactive learning products for computers.

The Xplana study predicts that digital textbook revenue will raise from 54 million dollars in 2010 to 1.1 billion dollars in 2014 as a result of factors within the publishing and educational market and technology trends. They also predict that digital textbooks will make up more than 50 percent of the entire market by the end of the decade.

Although digital textbook sales have increased and will continue to increase in the future, many people believe that print textbooks will not become extinct. “The printed textbook will probably not be eliminated by the digital textbook in the foreseeable future,” said Teo. The digital textbooks will become another option for students alongside new and used books, custom materials, loose-leaf texts and course packs.

E-textbook signs will not replace the bright green signs in the university bookstore in the foreseeable future. Instead, e-textbooks and print textbooks will coexist as competitors. More and more publishers are partnering with companies that provide digital course material to give students more options on how to consume their assigned course material. But the companies said that they are well aware that although digital content is becoming more popular, print content will still survive.

“I think there always will be some things that are just better in print but I also think digital is a great opportunity to start creating a different learning experience,” said Roth.