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Textbooks buck digital trend

It may be one of the last frontiers of the digital download: A generation that gets its music, news and other information off the Internet is still lugging around heavy, expensive hard-cover textbooks.

HACKENSACK, N.J. - It may be one of the last frontiers of the digital download: A generation that gets its music, news and other information off the Internet is still lugging around heavy, expensive hard-cover textbooks.

Other options - such as electronic textbooks, book rentals and Internet shopping for used books - are increasingly available and growing wildly, but the lion's share of textbooks are still bought new and at retail, according to industry analysts.

"The bookstore is still making tons of money," said Samantha Binetti, a junior at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. She frets about the costs but still buys most texts new at the campus store.

Augusto Suarez goes to the library at Bergen Community College and makes copies of all his textbooks. "It's cheaper," he said. "The only problem is there are 15,000 students and one book. Most students still go to the bookstore."

The average new textbook costs $57, but most undergraduates can summon an anecdote about having paid $200, $300 and even $400 for a required book. Students spend an average of about $700 a year on course materials, according to the National Association of College Stores.

Rutgers University senior Katie Gattuso said she has vaguely heard about less-expensive options like e-texts. "I've actually never seen anybody using them," she said. Professors haven't promoted the new options, and she said she's seen no advertising for e-books on campus. "You kind of just take your professor's word and go to the bookstore and buy it."

Indeed, for many students it's just easier - and often quicker - to go to the campus bookstore, especially if Mom and Dad are paying. Then there is no worry that the edition will be outdated or the format difficult, a complaint with some e-textbooks.

However, cheaper alternatives are poised for growth.

The country's five largest textbook publishers, including Pearson Education in Upper Saddle River, N.J., in 2007 worked together to launch CourseSmart - a company that provides electronic versions of popular titles. The firm now offers subscriptions to nearly 7,500 textbook titles on 6,000 campuses nationwide. The subscriptions last anywhere from a semester to a year and cost less than half of what it does to buy a new book, according to the company. The texts can be downloaded on computers and iPhones.

Sales are up 600 percent this year over last, said Frank Lyman, vice president at CourseSmart.

"That tells me it's finding traction with students," he said. "There is so much research and reading online that it's fairly seamless to go to textbooks. It will build as the word gets out. ... This is a year where awareness is expanding very rapidly."

Some e-textbooks are just digital versions of hard copies. But increasingly, the e-books are being designed with the latest bells and whistles, allowing students to mark up and highlight pages or view videos. Some even feature a type of social network to share notes and comments with classmates.

A half-dozen schools nationwide, including Princeton, are participating in a pilot project this year that offers textbooks delivered on Amazon's new, larger-screen Kindle DX, and Sony has released an e-book reader that can download textbooks wirelessly.

Still, it's an idea whose time has not quite yet come. Students and faculty may tap online resources for supplemental reading, but usually not for textbooks. It can be cumbersome to read a textbook online given that many are slightly enhanced PDFs of hard copies, said Charlie Schmidt, spokesman for the National Association of College Stores.

The Kindle pilot has received a lukewarm reception from many students who still prefer to highlight hard copies and make their own notes (not to mention doodles) in the margins. Even those taking online courses often still rely on hardcover texts.

"Students don't mind going online to check Facebook, read newspapers and check the gossip Web sites. But when you're trying to read an economics textbook, your eyes are going to bleed," Schmidt said. His group predicts e-textbooks may capture 10 percent of the market by 2012.

"You read a lot of stuff about it being the next big thing," Schmidt said. "But it ain't necessarily so.", which launched in 2007, reported a 300 percent leap in customers this fall and now claims to serve more than 40,000 students. It is available at most colleges in New Jersey, the company said.

Rental books can cost about a third of a new textbook, but the idea is limited by the realities of the market. For the rental scheme to be profitable, faculty members have to agree to adopt the same version of a book for four to six semesters, Schmidt said. That doesn't always happen, although schools such as Bergen Community College are encouraging faculty to do so when possible.

"The students have really been all over us about trying to lower textbook costs," said BCC President Jeremiah Ryan. For now, the thrust at BCC and other schools seems to be on making traditional textbooks more affordable.

But the market may be on the cusp of change.

"Students are still frustrated by the pricing, but technology is evolving," Ryan said. "I see a day when a kid will buy a Kindle and rent whatever they need."

(c) 2009, North Jersey Media Group Inc.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.