The COVID-19 pandemic has forced all of my classes online, as it has for all Seaver students. After it passes, however, students should expect their textbooks to also permanently migrate online. The death of physical textbooks should be good news for any student worried about the costs of higher education or the impracticality of physical books.
It’s not as if there’s anything intrinsically valuable about having the physical textbook. Using a price comparison tool like Slugbooks, for instance, reveals how cheap certain books go for compared to their list price. You could rent an organic chemistry textbook with a list price of $299.95 for a paltry $15 on CampusBookRentals. A film history textbook that would go for $110.94 at its list price can be bought for $2.47 on ValoreBooks. A microbiology textbook with a list price of $198.40 goes for around $10 on eCampus or you can buy the same book for just over $5, including shipping, on, again, ValoreBooks. Granted, this drop in price is expected for any used goods, including used books, but it’s rare to see them collapse to less than 10% the original price.
It’s worth noting that none of these previously mentioned books have digital copies, but for comparison’s sake, one book I’m reading for this semester, the fifth edition of Environmental Chemistry, is available to rent digitally for $37.99 on Textbooks.com. The lowest physical rental price on CampusBookRentals.com goes for $35.46. Those prices are close enough to ignore any physical differences for a true enough value. Its list price? An ungodly $214.99.
Even if you took the physical quality of a used book into question, how much does it really matter that a textbook you’ll likely only use once for one semester out of eight is in good or great condition? Unlike rare baseball cards, where the quality and value are dependent on each other and have a guide to conditions set by a central authority like the Professional Sports Authenticator, textbook conditions are far less important.
All books, regardless of whether or not they’re textbooks, are judged by conditions of fine, near fine, very good, good, good, fair and poor. There are some standards applied to each category, but there’s no grading in the used book market. Only exceptionally rare or collector’s books would get judged more intensely, and it’s doubtful any LMU student’s textbook this semester is either rare or a collector’s specimen.
Personally, so long as I can read the textbook, it works OK whether it’s fresh out of the box or has notes scribbled in the margins of bent and folded pages. If I really want a nice copy that I could highlight passages in to my heart’s content, I’d rather have the true value of a book as a digital file than an inconvenient paperweight that can be sold for ten times the price for no practical reason.
That aforementioned convenience can’t be overstated; the wait between buying or renting a digital textbook and using that same textbook is instantaneous. Should you get textbook recommendations during the first week of classes or transfer to another class already in motion, getting caught up in the textbook is no difficult task. Now, in the middle of a once-in-a-century global pandemic and active presidential meddling in the postal service, physical textbook deliveries are going to take longer, making any sort of catch-up impossible. Amazon, which depends on postal service deliveries and is just one popular site for textbooks, is already facing speed bumps.
I’ve written previously about ways we could fix our own self-inflicted mistakes via simple changes like privatizing the USPS, but hoping that whoever is elected in the next several weeks fixes this problem is not a solution for an immediate problem like this. For many students, the best-case scenario is that a textbook necessary for their class is available digitally.
This is the opinion of Cristobal Spielmann, a junior environmental science major from Brentwood, Tennessee. Tweet comments @LALoyolan or email firstname.lastname@example.org.