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Publishers Throw the E-Book at College Students


No use crying over spilled ink.

Electronic versions of novels and other books are bad enough for lovers of black ink on a white page, but making college textbooks available via Apple's (AAPL) iPod and iPhone is a sinister part of the worldwide effort to destroy the printed word.

This conspiracy buff's theory: Hook 'em young on digital books, and you've got 'em for life.

CourseSmart, a joint venture launched in 2007 by 6 publishers, including McGraw-Hill (MHP) and Pearson Education, announced it will offer students a 180-day subscription on Apple products for its 7,000 textbook titles at about half the cost of a physical book. After 6 months, students can no longer access the electronic version of the book.

The action comes as Amazon (AMZN) begins shipping Kindle DX, a large-screen version of the electronic book reader pitched to college students and priced at about $489. A pilot program using the Kindle DX begins this fall at 7 colleges. McGraw-Hill Education last week announced that it will make about 100 textbooks available for use on the electronic device.

It's just the latest in a string of e-book developments. In March, Barnes & Noble (BKS) – the nation's largest bookstore chain by revenue – announced a free application that will allow users to read electronic books on Research In Motion's (RIMM) BlackBerry. BlackBerry users can download the latest version of the e-book reader and tap into about 60,000 titles for sale at B&N's online eReader shop.

The market for digital ink is still developing, but some estimate that consumers spent about $100 million on general electronic books last year. Publishers are betting on future growth in the sector.

Digitizing college textbooks would go a long way to filling out electronic libraries – and it would establish the habit of reading electronic books among a key audience of future book buyers.

The sticking point for smartphones isn't content, but screen size. Who wants to read a book on a small screen in a font that would make an eagle go blind? Enlarging the screen would defeat the device's pocket-sized convenience, so it's unclear how far the convergence of e-book readers and hand-held communication devices will go.

One guess: few will use the iPhone as a primary study tool, but handheld devices will allow students to quickly look up information while in class, in a study group or on the run. The bet is that electronic search is faster and more accurate than licking a finger and flipping pages of a book.

For book-lovers, e-books are dirtier than the devil. However, Beelzebub may win this struggle because electronic distribution cuts costs for publishers, retailers, and readers.

But e-books will rob future generations of one of the great pleasures in life – wandering the stacks at a bookstore. There's also the risk that an e-book, at least in its current incarnation, will swallow your work, as one 17-year old kid in Michigan discovered. He's now suing Amazon.

That kid's unfortunate experience is probably just clatter and chatter on the way to a brave new world of e-books. Sales of printed college textbooks are estimated to reach $5.02 billion this year, up 3.5% from last year. Sales of electronic textbooks are expected to hit $117.5 million this year, up 10.3%. The end of the recession is likely to bring a major push into digital textbooks and could push the growth rate even higher, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Tech gurus speculate that handheld devices will eventually replace the personal computer, making Microsoft (MSFT) a candidate for the Smithsonian. If so, it's a good bet that bound volumes will all but disappear, too.

If there are no bound books neatly stacked on shelves, what will future generations make of the expression "dog-eared book"? Kids may conclude it's the flip side of another soon-to-be meaningless expression – "hep cat."
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