When the manager of University of Minnesota bookstores saw the prototype of an electronic book reader 14 years ago, he imagined that he'd be selling PIN codes for access to electronic publications by now.
His stores still have their books.
"I'm surprised," Bob Crabb admitted. "I thought that this generation of students, who grew up using electronic devices from the time they were in grade school, would have embraced this technology."
But relatively few are reading their textbooks electronically.
"I don't like reading online; I think it's harder to follow," explained freshman Elin Mixer. "I like to highlight things. I like to flip back and forth (between pages) if I need to. And I like to make notes. In fact, if I have to research something online, I always print it off so I can read it on paper."
Keeping a distance from online distractions could be another reason that, at most, e-books account for about 4 percent of sales in college bookstores, and that's on campuses that are actively promoting them. Other colleges report that digital books make up as little as 1 percent of their sales.
About 10 percent of the casual reading market -- which has many more titles available -- involves e-books. Proponents argue that once more textbooks are transferred to the medium, sales will pick up.
But limited availability alone doesn't account for the tepid interest. In a recent study by the National Association of College Stores, 74 percent of college students said they prefer a traditional textbook to an e-book.
They feel that way even though standard textbooks cost about twice as much as their digital counterparts, and the weight comparisons are off the charts. Students already tote laptop computers on which they could download e-texts, turning physical books into pure ballast in their backpacks.
But e-books come with their own baggage, said Dan Bergeson, director of Carleton College's auxiliary services, including its bookstore.
"There are issues with standardization, both of content and format," he said. "And with a lot of these books, you're only gaining access to them for three months. It's not like a textbook that you can sell back to the bookstore."
Students are wary even of the versions that can be downloaded and saved. They've seen how quickly formats can be discarded. Allegorically speaking, they don't want to end up with a pile of Beta videotapes in a DVR world.
And don't overlook the power issue. "Books don't need batteries," Bergeson said.
(Contact Jeff Strickler at jstrickler(at)startribune.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)