PDF Textbooks vs Rentals. Which should you choose? | Bookbyte

The Bookbyte Blog

Textbook rentals vs e-textbooks: a harder choice than you realize.

Written by Lucas Wiseman-

A woman holding up an e-reader and a paper book, comparing them.

After months of research, contacting agents and bribing officials, we’re finally able to bring  you the finest fight since VCRs went up against DVDs! Welcome to the ultimate showdown, the battle for your education, pages against screens, downloadable textbook PDFs versus cheap textbook rentals! They’re the same price, they last just as long, but which is truly supreme!? We’re going to find out, ladies and gentlemen.

We’ve considered the following 5 categories:

  • Reading Retention
  • Convenience
  • Price
  • Environmental Impact
  • Open-Book Tests

Now it's time to see which is the best choice for students: to rent a textbook or an ebook. It looks like both sides are ready to fight.

Ding ding.

Round One: Reading Retention-

The combatants face off in the ring, the newcomer versus the grizzled veteran. The bookies assure you it should be an even fight!

The round begins, and Paper lands a stunning first blow! The crowd goes wild!

Remember that old adage about assuming?

Nicholas Carr, a technology writer, explains in his article Paper Versus Pixel that “our eyes lie” when it comes to printed words versus words on a screen. “What we’re learning now is that reading is a bodily activity. We take in information the way we experience the world—as much with our sense of touch as with our sense of sight,” he writes.  

The evidence suggests that your brain treats printed words and paragraphs (and the books they come in) as individual, real objects. However, when your baby-blues are staring at a screen, the brain only registers it as a single entity and place-memory doesn’t get activated. This small difference in perception causes paper books to offer better reading comprehension.

You may have experienced this yourself when trying to look something up in a book. As you flip through the pages, you stare at the section of the page where you remember the information being. This is ‘place memory’ at its most basic; you’re looking for the paragraph in the location your brain ‘saved’ it in.

At the end of round 1, Paper’s unexpected advantage has him well ahead of Screen.

Advantage, Paper.

Round Two: Convenience-

Not to be taken down so easily, Screen comes back with a 1-2 punch in the convenience category.

The first flurry of blows is the e-textbook’s search function. E-texts also feature hyperlinks between related elements, which can create an overall improvement to a student’s studying.

The digital connections between ideas are especially helpful in long books that constantly refer to other pages, like the Storm King’s Thunder from Wizards of the Coast, a Dungeons and Dragons adventure. One reviewer explained that the digital version made it much easier to understand the whole book and learn how to run the adventure, mostly because of the search function and the hyperlinks between related events and locations.

Paper has taken a beating, and tries to block with “battery life!”

Of course, anyone who complains about battery life for e-readers is being silly. The Kindle Paperwhite lasts about 28 hours per charge, and unless you’re trying to tackle the “Wheel of Time” series in a single sitting, you’re never going to read for 28 hours straight. The e-text gets through that defense without any effort.

There’s also weight to consider. A single e-reader, be it a Kindle or an iPad, weighs a lot less than three or four textbooks. Goodbye back pain, hello e-textbook.

Screen takes Round Two.

Round Three: Price-

It’s all tied up, and both sides have gotten some good jabs in, but it looks like Paper is calling in an ally! This article by Time Magazine comes in swinging, explaining that the average cost of renting a textbook is often less than getting the e-version. Ouch, right in the charger port!

There’s also the cost of actually getting an e-reader to consider. While you can access most e-textbook PDF’s online via a desktop browser, it’s a lot less convenient and it can have a painful interface. That being said, smaller tablets can run as cheap as $40 bucks, which is about 1/3 the cost of your average Biology 101 textbook. The cost is there, but it’s not huge.

Paper follows up with a “shareabillity” body blow.

If you have a physical book that you rent, you can make photocopies of it or lend it to friends without issue. You can’t print e-textbook pages most of the time, and loaning them out can be a pain unless you get a PDF e-textbook. Not to mention, sharing a PDF e-textbook might be illegal.

After a close bout, the printed textbook comes out ahead.

Round Three goes to… Paper!

Round Four: Environmental Impact-

Screen is the heavyweight of the Environmental Impact category, and he’s looking for some payback.

Screen starts the fight strong, millions of dead trees is difficult to overcome. But wait! Paper’s bringing something new to the fight.

A Swedish study found that if you spend just 10 minutes a day reading, then reading online or with an e-reader is better for the environment in terms of carbon emissions.

However, if you’re an avid reader who spends more than 30 minutes a day reading (or studying), the print edition results in a lower environmental impact than reading online.

Additionally, according to an article by the Huffington Post, if you read less than 100 texts on your e-reader before upgrading, the more environmentally friendly option is actually the printed book.

Paper lands a clean punch through the Screen’s defense!

According to the study, when you consider the the energy, water, and various other raw materials used to make a single e-reader, the environmental equivalent is equal to printing 40 or 50 books. When you add the environmental cost of charging and daily use to that number, it gets closer to 100 books.

The round is too close to call. The judges are consulted.

If you are using your device less than 30 minutes a day AND you read at least 100 books on your device before you upgrade, Screen wins.

If you read more than 30 minutes a day AND you upgrade your e-reader every year or two, Paper is the winner.

The judges are split down the middle for Round Four! Deliberation continues.

Round Five: Open Book Tests-

While the judges deliberate, a man stands up in the crowd and begins to shout.

“The time for the test has come!” he cries.  “Your professor tells the class: ‘Put your screens away, unless you want to be accused of cheating!’”

“But professor!” you cry.  “I have the e-textbook, and this is an open book test!”

“Nay!” your professor replies. “Away with all screens, make do with your notes.”

“Hanging your head in sadness, you pull out half a page of scribbled notes while your classmates flip through their paper books, writing down answers as they find them—”

The man is wrestled to the ground by security and escorted out, but it is obvious his personal experience with the Screen has influenced the judges.  

It seems Round Five has gone to Paper!

The Decision

The judges have made a decision.

Both sides have made an impressive fight of it. The e-textbook dominates when it comes to convenience and can go either way on pricing and environmental impact. Meanwhile, the printed textbook had a few tricks up its gloves in reading retention, price and open book tests (though that example is anecdotal.)

It’s a close decision, but Paper takes home the belt.


For you, of course, it could just as easily be Screen that wins out. Make sure you check the prices of the individual books you need and consider how much you use your e-reader before committing one way or the other.

 What are you waiting for? Get out there and rent your textbook!