SALT LAKE CITY — College students spend hundreds of dollars every semester on textbooks. But if it were up to three Utah college professors, they wouldn't spend a cent.
Larry Walther and Chris Skousen, professors at Utah State's Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, and Kenneth Kuttler, a BYU mathematics professor, have authored free downloadable textbooks. Their books, along with 1,500 others, are available free of charge on the website bookboon.com.
It's part of a growing trend to offer alternatives to students frustrated by the cost of new textbooks, including rental markets that have become players in the book business, all bolstered by technology that makes connecting easier.
There is no paywall or paid upgrades to access the free e-textbooks. But the titles require a willingness by teachers to present their academic tomes next to advertisements geared to the student reader.
"In a sense, the future employers are paying for the students' textbooks," said Sophie Tergeist, a spokeswoman for Bookboon.com.
In the Media and Cultural Theory textbook, for example, an undergraduate economics or business student will find ads for careers at Ikea, UBS and Volvo on the bottom of some pages.
Bookboon, headquartered in London, publishes more than 800 PDF textbooks written by university professors for engineering, information technology and business students. The company was founded in 2005 by Danish brothers Thomas Buus Madsen and Kristian Buus Madsen.
"Their mission is that every student should get their textbooks for free," Tergeist said.
Before students can download the books, they must enter their email, school and the degree they're pursuing. Bookboon uses the information to place ads throughout the text targeted specifically to the student. The ads can range from employers promoting career opportunities to universities advertising their graduate programs.
Walther, the USU professor, said it is common for students to complain about textbook prices, and he doesn't blame them.
"Most books now for an accounting class are around $200," he said.
With his online accounting textbooks, however, students can view the free textbook on their computers and tablets. If they prefer having a hard copy, they can print it out.
"(This is) one of the ways technology will lower the cost of educational materials," Walther said.
Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education for the Association of American Publishers, said he doesn't think the e-books will have a significant impact on college costs.
"Often, textbooks are less than two percent of the cost of overall education," he said.
According to data compiled by the Institute of Educational Sciences, the average tuition in 2010 was $31,876, the group reports, while students spend an average of $667 on textbooks and other required materials, according to the National Association of College Stores.
But some students spend far more and the costs are thousands of dollars over the course of a four-year college education, and a much higher percentage of the cost of an education for those in the community college ranks.
Textbook publishers don't oppose free ebooks, or "open education resources," Hildebrand said, but their popularity will ultimately be determined by the educators.
"The people who decide what is going to be used by the students in the classroom is the faculty. Until faculty decide open education resources are of sufficient quality and there's enough of it, it's not going to move."
Kuttler of BYU said he thinks students are used to high textbook prices, but he believes that is changing.
"I am quite sure that these books available on the web will become increasingly accepted and will eventually be the way textbooks will be delivered to students. The books won't always be free, but they will be available at a much lower cost."
According to the Association of American Publishers, textbook publishers' net sales revenue in 2010 was $4.55 billion, a sum that includes traditional textbooks and other platforms like ebooks. New editions of textbooks are often released every three to four years, Hildebrand said.
Even as more textbooks become available in a digital format, Hildebrand said many students prefer spending more money to have a physical copy. That's good news for Kevin Martin, who is the chief operating officer of Campus Book Rentals in Ogden.
"We serve students on about 6,000 campuses every single semester. We're shipping books to about 6,000 different campuses across the country," Martin said of the textbooks rental company, which boasts 4 million titles.
"We were in a 4,500-square-foot warehouse three years ago," Martin said. "So, now we're 120 employees strong, (in a) 57,000-square-foot warehouse, and still growing like crazy."
Depending on the title, cost savings are anywhere from 50 percent to 90 percent of retail value, Martin said.
He said the company knows digital books will play a role in the future and his company is working on strategies to capitalize on the market.
Contributing: Keith McCord