The percentage of digital sales in the textbook arena is still in the low single digits, according to Roth. With the growing number of devices capable of displaying digital books though, that number could shoot up.
“[Digital sales] has been growing each term, but remains a small percentage of total sales,” added Roth.
And total sales are doing quite well. According to the National Association of Collegiate Stores, students spent over $5 billion on textbooks in the last academic year alone.
The annual cost of textbooks for an individual student can easily top $1000, especially at a school like Stony Brook University, where the hard sciences are among the most popular majors. Multiply that by four years and suddenly even the books necessary to succeed in college are financially unrealistic for millions of families, never mind tuition costs.
But at a base price of $500, the iPad has the potential to reduce that figure substantially. Yes, many digital textbooks can run for a pretty penny as well, but the rise of digital readers coincides with the emergence of the open-source market for books. Google is undergoing an ambitious project of digitizing millions of books, WikiMedia has Wikibooks, and even the biggest textbook companies are beginning to embrace much cheaper digital versions of some popular titles.
Exactly how, or even if, the textbook industry will be impacted by the iPad and its spinoffs is hard to predict this early, says Richard Reeder, the Chief Information Officer at Stony Brook University.
“It’s still too early to see just how the iPad will change anything,” he said.
Others think that the potential for change rests not in the device itself but in its software.
Take the iPod, argues David Parry, an assistant professor of emerging media and communications at the University of Texas-Dallas.
“Where the real revolution took place was at the level of the iTunes store,” he wrote in a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Imagine, he continues, if the iTunes model for music were applied to textbooks. Students buying individual chapters at a time rather than the full book. Students renting textbooks for a few weeks as necessary. Those innovations were what revolutionized the music industry in iTunes. Can the same be done for textbooks?
For its part, Barnes & Noble is planning to launch its own iPad app in early May, according to Roth.
“We believe the role of the bookseller is to provide books…to go onto whatever device that students choose to use,” she said.
For the meantime, Stony Brook University is prepared for an influx of mobile devices. According to Reeder, the recent introduction of WolfieNet, the wireless network available in most of the residential buildings on campus, gives Stony Brook one of the best campus broadband networks in the country. The upgrade cost $2 million, and plans are to expand it even further by having it replace the outdated AirNet system currently available throughout the rest of the campus.
iPad sales have been robust since its April 3 release. Reviews have been mostly stellar. But on college campuses, at least for now, it remains much more bells and whistles and much less pomp and circumstance.