Print Textbooks vs. E-Textbooks: An Overview

For college students, deciding on what textbooks to buy can be a tough decision. The emergence of e-textbooks has only made that decision more difficult to make. Now students must decide whether they want to buy a traditional paper textbook or an e-textbook. Students should use criteria such as cost, efficiency, and personal comfort before making their purchases.

Key Takeaways

  • E-textbooks may take up a lot of memory storage on a tablet or laptop.
  • Most textbooks are expensive compared to purchasing the book in electronic form.
  • E-textbooks allow you to carry one device rather than many books.
  • Traditional textbooks are more expensive than e-textbooks, but only some e-textbooks allow you to take notes. Highlighting and taking notes during class may help you study efficiently, something that is more easily done with textbooks. 

Print Textbooks

While you can always print out an e-textbook, there is something to be said for having the actual text to mark-up or highlight during a class or while studying for exams. Textbooks may cost more but they can also be resold or traded at the end of a class. However, if a book is too damaged or marked-up, you might not be able to resell it. Textbooks are frequently updated, which can make it difficult to hand them off or sell them to others at the end of a class. Textbooks tend to be heavy and if you have too many of them, it can be difficult to cart them across campus as you head from class to class.

If you have to buy a new tablet or laptop to hold all of your e-textbooks, it may be cheaper to buy the actual books. Otherwise, e-textbooks are usually cheaper than traditional textbooks.


Even when you consider that certain sites sell textbooks at a much cheaper price, e-books still will be the more affordable option. A quick review of a textbook retailer will show that the online version of a textbook can be up to 60% cheaper than its print equivalent, but that is not the only factor to consider. If you already own a laptop, then there will be no extra costs necessary, as your laptop will be compatible with the e-textbook. Nevertheless, if you don't own a working laptop, then you will more than likely have to buy a tablet.

e-book Readers Price Range

$70 to $499

Android Tablet  

$50 to $350

Netbook computer  

$300 to $500


$500 to $900

Laptop computer  

$500 to $2,000

A review of the leading tablet retailers will show that you will be paying up to $900 for a tablet. That high of a price may not be necessary for a student, but depending on how many e-textbooks you will be buying, one of the cheaper ones may not be an option, as they tend to have less storage space and may not be able to hold all of your books. At the end of the semester, an e-textbook cannot be returned or sold back to a store.

Most e-textbooks come with extra features such as integrated dictionaries, media tie-ins, and a text-to-speech reader. These features are not available in a carbon-based book, obviously, and can be helpful for studying materials in the textbook. For students who own a tablet or laptop with enough memory to hold their e-textbooks, it may be cost-effective to buy e-textbooks versus print. If a student has to purchase a tablet or laptop specifically to be able to load-up on e-textbooks or if your major requires only a few textbooks, it may be better to do paper, take good care of the books, and then resell.

Special Considerations

When deciding between buying a print textbook or an e-textbook, a good idea would be to create a list of pros and cons for each option and rank them based on importance.