The future of textbooks

Written by | October 8, 2010

In August, the Portland State University bookstore began a print-on-demand pilot program with Hewlett-Packard. This program, one of only three in the United States, has the potential to revolutionize the textbook industry as we know it and change the way you buy your class content.

It fits Portland to a ‘T.’ The bookstore’s new print-on-demand program is good for students, the bookstore and the earth. This program deserves support and is a great asset to Portland State students.

Kenneth Brown, the president and CEO of the Portland State Bookstore, feels the program, called Odin Ink, could redefine the business model.

“Publishing on-demand gets the books students need into their hands when they need them,” Brown said. If a student needs a book the store has the file for, they can print it for them then and there. And that’s if it’s not already available—the store already has several books on the shelf from its own printing.

More than the convenience, though, is the effect on textbook prices. “This program has the potential to drop prices immensely,” Brown said. Not only does printing in-house reduce the overall cost of the book itself, but it also eliminates movement costs. The objective is to lower store and publisher costs to lower the price for students.

The project is also a step in the right direction sustainability-wise. The elimination of transportation from the equation makes the process more environmentally friendly than the traditional method. And because the store can print as many copies as students need, there is also a reduction in wasteful printing.

The endeavor is not without its obstacles. Only available at PSU, Kansas University and Arizona State University, the program is still experimental. As a pilot program, a lot is expected to be learned from real-world application. The textbooks that can be printed right now are fewer than the store would like to offer.

“Major publishers have been reticent to give files to us,” Brown said, though he adds that most have expressed interest in working with the store to move the program forward. So far, the store has gotten files for a good number of texts, especially considering that the program is so new. Despite the initial difficulties, Brown is optimistic about getting more publishers on board by winter term.

Some students are skeptical about the quality of the books that would be printed. The concern is that the end result would be bound, single-sided packets like those sold at Clean Copy. This is not the case, however. According to Brown, “What we print is exactly the same as what we would receive from the publisher.” The books have the same professional binding as those already being sold; the primary difference, it seems, would be the price.

Prices are still very dependent on what the publisher charges for the right to print the books. Copyright and royalties can also contribute to higher prices for these texts. However, the availability of open-source textbooks is changing this as well. A few books already being printed are open-source, requiring no royalties to the authors; They can be printed and sold for significantly less than those obtained from textbook publishers. This is also true of public-domain texts, and this program may encourage the use of both.

Another worry for all students is buyback potential. With the capacity available to print new copies to keep up with demand, some students have expressed concern that they would not be able to sell their books back to the store, or that the exchange would be for less money than with other books. However, they do not have to worry. According to Brown, the store will offer the same buyback amount for books printed in-store as those ordered from other publishers: half the new book price for a text with a course request for the next term, and half the national wholesale value for texts with no course request.

The new print-on-demand program is a brilliant innovation with the potential to save money and reduce pollution. Although it is still only a pilot program, with support such as yours it could easily become the primary method of textbook acquisition, with applications all over the United States and the world. With time and backing, Odin Ink will make overpriced textbooks a thing of the past.

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