Although numbers still low, e-book sales rise year to year

E-book sales are growing in the University’s campus bookstores as tablet ownership increases among college students nationwide.

In the past year, e-book sales at the Illini Union Bookstore have doubled while sales at T.I.S. College Bookstore have steadily risen for several years.

“It seems like it’s doubling every year for the most part,” said Scott McCartney, senior associate director for retail operations for the Illini Union.

In its 2011 fiscal year, the Illini Union Bookstore’s e-book sales accounted for seven percent of the store’s total sales of new, used and rental textbooks along with e-books. This fiscal year, ending on March 31, e-book sales have increased to account for 14 percent of total textbook sales. This doubling of e-book sales occurred while total textbook sales only increased by 4.4 percent during the same time span.

Shirley Barnhart, textbook manager for the Illini Union Bookstore, said the two most common disciplines for e-books sold are business and the “hard sciences,” such as molecular and cellular biology.

She said she does not believe there is a correlation between these fields and e-books sales beyond the fact that they lend themselves well to a digital format and are easier for publishers to produce.

T.I.S. is much less reliant upon e-book sales. For the second straight year, e-books have only made up 0.003 percent of the store’s total textbook sales.

Brian Paragi, T.I.S. store manager, said even though e-books still are not a large portion of his store’s sales, he has seen a slow increase in recent years. He said he believes part of the reason textbooks are slow to catch on is because there is a small market for textbooks in general, so publishers have no incentive to devote much effort to develop them. Digital textbooks could be very appealing if they were to include interactive elements, Paragi said, but they currently are little more than PDF files for students to scroll through.

Even still, Paragi said he believes e-books will dominate the market soon.

A January 2012 study by the Pearson Foundation showed that tablet ownership among college students has increased from seven percent to 25 percent in the past year. The study also showed that 63 percent of college students “believe that tablets will effectively replace textbooks within the next five years,” an idea Paragi said he agrees with.

“For what we sell, it’s hard to tell when the tipping point will be,” he said. “I do think it’s coming, and it will come fast.”

Paragi said he imagines digital textbook usage will follow a path similar to that taken by novels in recent years due to the increase in e-reader ownership, something that he had not expected.

“It’s just been monumental how quickly things have changed,” Paragi said.