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Williamson Comments on e-Textbooks

Pearson Education, a leading textbook publisher, announced late last month that it would offer online versions of hundreds of its textbooks this fall at half the cost of the printed versions. The move appears to be a response to criticism by student groups who say textbook prices are too high. The e-books will be available via an online service called SafariX, which Pearson is creating. The service's Web site will include more than 300 of the company's most popular titles, in an array of subjects. Students will be able to buy password-protected "subscriptions" to the online version of each textbook to read via any Web browser. They will be able to search the text and to print out a certain number of pages at a time. STEPHEN D. WILLIAMSON, a professor of financial economics at the University of Iowa, is the author of a book on macroeconomics that will sell on SafariX for $59.50, down from its list price of $119. Pearson told him about his book's inclusion in SafariX in an e-mail message a day after the company publicly announced the program. He says he is concerned that Pearson's security measures will not work, and he wonders how the lower price will affect the royalties he gets from the book. Wendy Spiegel, a spokeswoman for Pearson, says authors' royalties could be affected, depending on what individual contracts specify. Mr. Williamson sees motivations behind the plan other than offering students lower prices and more choices in format. "A big part of this book business has been churning out new editions every two to three years, so you can kill off the used-book market," he says. With online versions, "they don't have to worry about the used-book market. They don't give you a physical book that can be resold."

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