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eBooks Versus Textbooks: Is One Better Than the Other?

ebooks versus textbooks

Going to college is an exciting time in your life. But it’s also an expensive one.

Average textbook prices have increased by 812 percent over 35 years. Given the number of classes you’ll take, you may wonder if there’s a way to save money.

Should you switch to eBooks? Or stick to physical textbooks?

The eBooks versus textbooks debate started when the first e-readers appeared in 1998. We’ll lay out the pros and cons so you can decide which books to buy.

Read on to learn more.

The Pros and Cons of eBooks

The Kindle launched in 2007. It revolutionized the popularity of electronic books or eBooks.

What are the pros and cons of buying e-textbooks?


eBooks don’t take up physical space. You won’t need huge bookcases or lots of shelves to hold your books. That’s a big advantage in a college dorm room.

It also means you have less to pack when you go home for the holidays. Simply load up your tablet or e-reader with the eBooks you’ll need.

This also means you can’t forget an important textbook when you go to class. It’s already saved on your tablet or laptop.

eBooks can also be cheaper than their paperback cousins. If you already own a laptop, you should be able to buy e-textbooks. Free software like Adobe Digital Editions makes it easy to read eBooks on your device.

You can add highlights or notes to the text. Searching for notes is easy with the built-in search function. It’s also more accurate than using an index.

Copying and pasting quotes is much easier than writing them out by hand. You won’t make errors because they’re exactly as they appear in the text.

Many ebooks also come with built-in dictionaries, making it easy to look up unfamiliar terms.

Some e-readers also offer a text-to-speech function. Your device can read an important chapter to you while you’re doing laundry or making dinner.


PDF copies of physical books still have page numbers. So referencing them when you’re writing papers works the same for PDFs as regular books.

But if you buy epub or Kindle versions of textbooks? They don’t have page numbers, only locations within the book. Not everyone accepts referencing books in this way.

You also can’t leaf through an ebook. Yes, you can use the search function. Or follow hyperlinks from the table of contents. But sometimes you just want to flip through the book.

While we added highlights as a pro, they’re also a con. It’s more difficult to see all your notes at once. Unlike making them by hand from a physical textbook.

It’s also easy to get distracted by other apps when you’re reading on a tablet.

You also need to take the cost of a device into consideration. Tablets and e-readers aren’t cheap. If you need to buy one just to use eBooks, it may be cheaper to buy physical textbooks.

The Pros and Cons of Textbooks

Paper textbooks remain an obvious choice for students around the world. But what are the pros and cons of buying them?


E-readers are much better at simulating the experience of reading from paper. But they can’t entirely replace paper. Research shows that people comprehend what they’re reading better when it’s on paper.

You have fewer distractions when using a physical book. Notifications won’t pop up to interrupt your reading time.

It’s difficult to see all your notes at once on a device. But you can have multiple physical textbooks open alongside one another. That makes cross-referencing much easier.

You also have the opportunity to sell your textbooks when you’re finished with them. While you won’t make back their original cost, you’ll get something for them.

Dropping a textbook causes little damage. Even if it lands in a puddle, it’ll dry out. The same can’t be said for e-readers or tablets. They’re more fragile and won’t survive the same accidents that textbooks can.

Textbooks don’t need a power source. You can’t read eBooks if your device’s battery runs out and you have no way to charge it.

Finally, textbooks are better for the environment. Paper is a sustainable resource and easy to recycle.

They’re also more ethical. The minerals needed to make devices are often mined under harsh working conditions.


Textbooks are heavy and take up a lot of space. You might not want to carry them around campus due to their size.

If you order them online, you have to wait for them to arrive. eBooks appear on your e-reader or tablet within seconds of hitting ‘buy’.

They’re also regularly updated. You’ll need to check the copy you’ve bought is the right edition for your class. This can make them difficult to resell if they’re updated too often.

Highlighting passages or writing in physical textbooks also makes them hard to sell later. Trying to keep them pristine to keep their value up is difficult when you’re using them a lot.

Physical textbooks are more expensive than the electronic version. If you already own a tablet or laptop, it might be cheaper to buy eBooks.

Finally, you can’t change the font size in a physical book. A large-print version may not exist. eBooks let you change the font size and style to suit your reading needs.

eBooks versus Textbooks: The Verdict

Both options have their pros and cons in the eBooks versus textbooks debate. One of them might suit your personal circumstances better than the other.

But we think physical textbooks still nudge out eBooks for the time being.

You can sell your books when you’re finished with them. They’re also less prone to damage or theft, compared to an iPad or laptop.

Readers understand concepts better when they read from paper instead of a screen. Physical books are more environmentally friendly and no slave labor is used to mine elements to make them.

Looking for the cheapest textbooks on the market? Check out our buy textbooks section. It’s a great way to cut costs if you want to stick with physical textbooks.

About the Author

Christopher Manns

I was born in the UK, grew up in Canada and have lived in the USA since the 90s. I love my family, water sports, ice hockey, skiing and soccer. When I'm not helping people save money on textbooks, I'm travelling with my wonderful family and playing sports.