Earlier this week College sophomores Melissa Gunderson and Kristen Lange stood in the Penn Bookstore with a bad case of sticker shock. The price tag of their new Chemistry 101 book: nearly $300.
"It's highway robbery," Lange said.
And though alternative electronic textbooks - high-tech substitutes to pricey print versions - have been available for more than a decade, they have not yet taken root at Penn.
The average e-book costs 40 percent less than its print counterpart, Business Services spokeswoman Barbara Lea-Kruger said.
Major publishers are offering thousands of online textbooks that can save money, space and paper, but they aren't widely used.
While professors often have the option to order e-textbooks, students overwhelmingly prefer print to pixels, Lea-Kruger said.
A 2004 survey by the National Association of College Stores found that 73 percent of 4,000 students polled favored traditional books. Only 11 percent would opt for the digital versions.
Students say they like to thumb through the pages and jot down notes.
Print books also let users avoid complications that accompany digital versions, such as computer crashes and strained eyes.
Most vendors limit the number of e-book pages that can be printed out at one time and block access when the semester ends - a complaint of students who like to save their textbooks for future reference.
Lange said that as an athlete, she does homework on bus rides that often outlast laptop batteries.
"As much as I complain about the price, I like having the textbooks because I can take them on trips," she said.
With the exception of a few niche schools that conduct class entirely online, e-books have not taken off nationally either.
Inside Higher Ed reported earlier this month that despite the fact that publishers offer nearly all their titles in digital form, e-books only make up a minimal portion of their business.
Still, publishers say they are optimistic the industry will reach its predicted multi-billion dollar potential in the next few years.
Some upstart ventures are working to increase e-books' appeal by addressing concerns that hinder sales.
Last summer, Bryce Johnson launched CafeScribe, a Web site that lets users download e-books and share notes in a social network setting that offers custom tools and research links. He found students didn't want flat replicas of books on screen.
Johnson said "screenagers" - students who grew up staring at televisions and computers - are more apt to embrace e-books than their predecessors were.
He said his site adds about 100 users a day.
Still, he added, "There will still be people who like traditional textbooks and they're probably going to be around for a while."
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