HOUSTON — Nicole Sopko, a student at the University of Houston, offers some advice to college students shopping for textbooks in the coming weeks: Try to borrow from your friends.
Free is good. But friends don't always have the books you need, and someday, they may not have paper-and-ink books at all.
The average college student spent $702 on books in 2006-07, according to the National Association of College Stores a figure that has continued to grow and is speeding the transition to electronic textbooks and other digital class materials.
"At some point, we're going to price ourselves out of the marketplace," said Anthony Martin, director of the campus bookstore at Houston Baptist University. "Kids are going to figure out a way of getting through school without books at all."
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An increasing number of faculty members are paying attention to the price of the books they assign, and a few are using electronic textbooks about half the price of a print book or materials that can be downloaded free.
Rice University is one of the leading players in the latter movement, which has the potential to reshape the textbook industry.
"This is the generation that grew up with the Internet and TV," said R.H. Richardson, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who will use an electronic textbook for the first time this fall. "I think the e-book will evolve far beyond its present state. You can stick in a video if you want to. I'm sure there will be video games built into a textbook some day."
Electronic textbooks come in several formats: displayed on a computer screen, downloaded onto an electronic reader, a smart phone or iPod, printed out or ordered in a print-on-demand version.
"They have some different requirements that are non-trivial, for sure," said Richardson. "It's hard to curl up in bed and read a textbook if you're having to do it on a laptop."
Even students weaned on the Web say the mash-up of technology and textbooks is imperfect.
"They're significantly less expensive," said UH senior Sam Dike. "But you have to print out all your information. You have to be close to a computer to use the book. Some require Internet access."
But e-books can be automatically updated, an advantage in fields where knowledge changes quickly.
"When Pluto becomes not a planet, you can fix it very quickly," said Rich Baraniuk, an engineering professor at Rice University who pioneered the field of open source class materials. "It's going to take a decade to get Pluto out of all the nation's printed science books."
For now, e-books are a tiny portion of the college textbook market, although they may reach 15 percent of textbook sales by 2011-12, according to the National Association of College Stores.
Textbook publishers say they are preparing for a future beyond today's distinctions of new vs. used, retail vs. online.
Most texts published in the past few years by Pearson, one of a half-dozen publishers prominent in higher education, are available as e-books, said chief marketing officer Sandi Kirshner.
Kirshner said she can't predict whether the transition will eat into profits. E-books are less expensive for consumers but also are cheaper to produce, store and ship.
Open source material, offered by Rice University's Connexions and other projects, may prove a bigger hurdle for traditional publishers.
Baraniuk started the project in 1999 after rethinking his plans to write a textbook. He was convinced students learn more when materials are tweaked to reflect their interests and backgrounds. He liked free, open-source software, too.
"I thought, can we do the same thing with books? Can we make them open and free?" he said.
The project includes more than 700 collections of content. Users can customize material for their students, with a dual goal of cutting costs while improving education.
Baraniuk considers the transition to open materials inevitable, although he concedes it may be rough.
"We need only to look at other industries where the Internet has had a very disruptive effect the music industry, the software industry, the newspaper industry," he said.
"There's no question that is going to happen in educational publishing and education in general."