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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Book Printing: Students Still Prefer Print Textbooks

As a commercial printing broker, and a student of offset and digital printing, I was pleased to read “Students Prefer Print,” (The Hays Daily News, 2/17/14) and “Students Prefer Print for Serious Academic Reading” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, Wired Campus, 7/17/13, by Sara Grossman). I had heard a lot of “buzz” over the past several years about how colleges were going to replace printed textbooks with digital textbooks on e-readers, and I was surprised to read that this wasn’t happening as planned.

Both articles reference a study that will be published in the journal College & Research Libraries in September 2014. The study, authored by Nancy M. Foasberg, a humanities librarian at CUNY Queens College, is called “Student Reading Practices in Print and Electronic Media.” It focuses on the reading preferences of seventeen City University of New York students, including juniors, seniors, and graduate students, most of whom are aged 25 or younger.

The study addresses whether students prefer printed textbooks or digital textbooks presented on e-readers, mobile devices, and tablet computers and why they prefer one over the other.

The study directly challenges the assertion that younger people prefer digital, whereas older readers, having grown up reading ink on paper, prefer to continue this practice.

Granted, many of the students profiled in Foasberg’s study went through high school when printed textbooks were the norm and then began using digital devices only in college. (This is in contrast to the experience of younger students, who have been–or will be–introduced to e-readers much earlier in their academic career. Therefore, according to Foasberg, reading preferences may change in the coming years.)

Nevertheless, the study does also include scientific evidence explaining the students’ preference for print over digital.

The Findings of the Study on Student Reading Practices

Here are some of the findings of Foasberg’s study:

  1. The majority of students profiled read non-academic materials on e-readers but preferred textbooks for more serious study.
  2. A number of students actually disliked e-readers because they “found the embedded links distracting” and because they “could not interact with the content.” (The Hays Daily News) That is, they wanted to write in the margins and highlight text, and physical textbooks provided this option whereas e-readers did not.
  3. Many students even printed out sections of digital textbooks to facilitate study, and this reduced any cost savings in choosing e-books over print books.

Scientific Evidence Supporting Reading Printed Textbooks

The article “Students Prefer Print” (The Hays Daily News) also includes background information from Ferris Jabr’s November Scientific American article “Why the Brain Prefers Print.” The article references research from a number of universities–including Tufts and Indiana University– which supports the students’ preference for physical textbooks.

Here are some of the findings, as noted in The Hays Daily News article:

  1. “The brain treats words as physical objects which have a placement on a page but are fleeting on screen.” (The Hays Daily News)
  2. This has several implications, including a tendency for readers to become less mentally focused when reading on-screen material. Therefore, the screen is more conducive to scanning and light reading and less conducive to “deep reading.”
  3. The backlit screen strains the eyes and raises reader stress levels. This drains attention from the task at hand: attentive reading.
  4. Researchers found that “readers of print are much more likely to re-read and check for understanding.” (The Hays Daily News)
  5. Researchers found that “volunteers using paper [physical textbooks] scored about 10 percentage points higher” (The Hays Daily News) on tests than those studying textbooks on e-readers. Therefore, the reading medium affects comprehension and the retention of information, and the “deep reading” of textbooks helps raise test scores.

Implications for Book Printing

Beyond the obvious implication that textbook printing will be around for a while, I see three more implications based on my recent reading and my discussions with commercial printing vendors:

  1. One of the book printers I work with has an HP T230 web-fed inkjet press. It prints both sides of a ribbon of press paper (just like a conventional web offset press), but it does this digitally (inkjet on paper), so it can infinitely vary each printed page. According to the printer, this equipment allows clients to efficiently and cost-effectively produce 25 or 50 textbooks at a time (in contrast to the thousands or tens of thousands of copies of textbooks printed on a web offset press at one time). Therefore, publishers only need to print as many copies of a textbook as they will sell right now. There’s no need for inventory, storage facilities, etc. In addition, there’s no chance that content in the textbooks will become obsolete while sitting in a storage facility.
  2. I have also been following the HP Indigo 10000 press in the news. This high-quality electrophotographic press (laser printing press) can now accept a 20.9” x 29.5” press sheet. The color saturation and image resolution were already present in the smaller Indigo presses. Now, with an expanded sheet size, the Indigo can either print a job more efficiently (i.e., with more copies on a press sheet) or produce larger-format jobs. In this way the Indigo can compete with larger offset presses in printing ultra-short-run textbooks.
  3. I have also recently read about the Komori Lithrone GL 840-P sheetfed press, with H-UV-capabilities (i.e., it provides instantaneous ink curing using UV light). The GL 840-P has an automatic plate changing function (by which eight plates can be changed in less than 45 seconds) and a monitoring system that maintains ink density and quality checks every sheet. All of this speeds up makeready and allows the press to come up to color using as few as 20 press sheets. This, along with its perfecting capability, makes the Lithrone GL 840-P competitive with digital presses for short-run textbooks.

So there’s anecdotal evidence of a reader preference for printed textbooks. There’s a scientific explanation as to why students prefer reading printed textbooks to reading e-books. And there is activity in custom printing press manufacturing (web-fed inkjet, large-format digital laser, and quick-makeready offset sheetfed) keeping printed textbooks alive and thriving.

For press manufacturers and book printers, the bottom line is the bottom line. If press manufacturers are investing in R&D for new press equipment, and if printers are buying the equipment, then both clearly believe in the future of textbook printing.

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