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TCU 360

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E-readers creating new buzz in the college market

Sophomore political science major Abbey Brokos is an avid reader, yet her backpack is lighter this spring.

With a few taps on a screen, Brokos can now pull up “The Prince” or “The Communist Manifesto” – required reading for her political theory class – in her Nook, a 12-ounce electronic book reader from Barnes & Noble with dimensions just slightly greater than those of the average paperback.

“I have a huge bookshelf, and each year, I have to pack it up and lug it around,” said Brokos, a resident assistant in Foster Hall.

She said she expects the Nook to change that.

The Nook is one of several e-readers to hit a growing market that is generating a lot of buzz nationwide and beyond. Amazon announced during December that the store’s e-reader, the Kindle, was the most gifted item in Amazon’s history, adding that Christmas Day marked the first time customers bought more Kindle books than physical ones. Amazon did not provide sales numbers for its $259 device.

Hot on Amazon’s heels is Barnes & Noble, which announced that high demand for the Nook prompted production delays even before the first batch of devices was shipped. Delivery dates were pushed back and the e-reader’s retail availability was postponed.

Further intensifying the competition, Apple on Thursday unveiled the $499 iPad tablet computer, described as a gadget between a laptop and a smart phone. The iPad can be used to play games, watch videos or read e-books, which pits it against the likes of the Kindle and Nook. The device will go on sale in March.

E-readers on campus

According to Barnes & Noble, the Nook can store up to 1,500 books, newspapers and magazines.

“The response has been overwhelming,” said Jeff Baines, department manager at the TCU Barnes & Noble Bookstore.

However, he noted that the interest from campus bookstore customers’ has been more restrained because students prefer to walk out of a store with their purchases, which they cannot do with the Nook because it is not yet in stock at stores.

Advertising for the $259 Nook at the campus bookstore is certainly not muted. A large Nook display greets visitors as they walk through the store’s main entrance. Accessories for the Nook – cases, lights, silicone frames and protective film – are part of the display. A demo of the Nook is available upon request.

Despite the price, e-readers will save students money because e-books are cheaper than their physical counterparts, Baines said.

“It will pay for itself over time,” he said.

A hard copy of the 10th edition of “The Challenge of Democracy: American Government in a Global World, Texas Edition,” sells for $130.49 through publisher Cengage Learning’s Web site. It also sells in electronic format as a PDF, a format compatible with several e-readers, for $76.99 for a one-year license.

Electronic versions of new releases and best sellers cost on average $9.99, which is significantly cheaper than the average $20-something hardcover copy. But that will change in March, when Amazon will raise prices to almost $15 following a dispute with publisher Macmillan, which had locked that price with Apple and its iBooks store. Amazon is expected to be pressured by other publishers to match the price, and the store’s competitors to follow suit.

Pricing wars aside, producers of e-readers are trying to capitalize on the student market. In May, Amazon partnered with seven colleges and universities for a pilot program for the 2009-2010 academic year. More than 600 students at Arizona State University, University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, Reed College, Pace University, Case Western Reserve University, University of Washington and Princeton University are participating in the program, which supplies students with a $489 Kindle DX, a larger model of Amazon’s e-reader that is more e-textbook friendly and can store more files.

Serge Goldstein, director of academic services for Princeton’s office of information technology, said the university is trying to cut back on the amount of paper it uses – as much as 50 million sheets of paper in a year. Paradoxically, much of the digitized material, such as journal articles, is printed instead of being read online because students don’t want to read the text in their computers, Goldstein said.

A Kindle DX might be a more attractive alternative because it has a resolution of 150 dots per inch, whereas a computer monitor has a lower resolution, Goldstein said. Computer monitors are usually set to a PPI between 72 and 96.

Students in three courses at Princeton were provided a Kindle DX at no cost to them, and they were given the choice to opt out of the program, Goldstein said. No one opted out, he said. The students’ reaction to the Kindle had no effect on their grade, he said.

The program is undergoing review and results will be released this month, Goldstein said.

However, some students in the program said they were uncomfortable or dissatisfied with the device, according to an article in The Daily Princetonian, the university’s student newspaper.

“I hate to sound like a Luddite, but this technology is a poor excuse of an academic tool,” senior Aaron Horvath told The Daily Princetonian in September. “It’s clunky, slow and a real pain to operate.”

Here to stay?

According to market research firm Forrester Research, the price points for how most consumers value e-readers range between $50 and $99, even though the current models sell for triple digits.

Miranda Armstrong, a Kindle user in Denver, said the price is worth the convenience.

“It makes it easier to have more variety of books with you,” said Armstrong, an IBM information technology specialist.

Jamie Gumbrecht, a reporter and blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a graduate student at Goucher College and a Kindle user, said e-readers might become a standard for students’ practical applications but may not charm the average consumer enough to stick around.

“This is a nice thing for the geeks and the early adapters,” Gumbrecht said.

E-reader critics point out that e-books can be read in other ubiquitous devices, such as laptops, smart phones and video game consoles, making it unnecessary to have a gadget devoted only to e-books.

Despite concerns that e-readers might hurt physical books sales, Baines said people will still buy paper copies regardless of the popularity of e-readers because they get enjoyment out of physically holding a book. The store is not concerned about the future of paper books, he said.

“We don’t feel threatened by the technology,” he said. “We actually embrace it.”

Watch the TCU News Now e-reader report.

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