Make the all-nighter pay with this Chicago startup

SHARE Make the all-nighter pay with this Chicago startup

By Matt Lindner

For Sun-Times Media

Five dollars can still get you a lot of things on a college campus even in 2013.

But a textbook?

“You buy your music off of iTunes, you rent your movies from Redbox and Netflix, why not rent your textbooks for $5 a day?” says Kasey Gandham, 23.

It’s an idea that Gandham and fellow recent Illinois State University graduate Mike Shannon are banking on.

The pair founded Packback, a pay-as-you-go digital textbook rental service that enables students to download e-textbooks and use them for as little as 24 hours. They’ll launch a pilot program on Monday at ISU, offering e-textbooks for 25 courses. (The school estimates the cost of traditional books and supplies at $996 this year.)

The patent-pending platform has safeguards in place to ensure books can’t be pirated.

“Similar to how your CD or DVD can’t be ripped off, our textbooks are completely locked down,” Shannon says. “We restrict copy-pasting, printing and screen-shotting of the text to certain extents.”

Gandham says the idea was born after noticing most of their course materials amounted to nothing more than overpriced paperweights by the end of the semester.

“(Students) carry a laptop and five physical, heavy expensive used books as well,” he says. “We’d see some of the books were still in the plastic wrapper that they came in if they were new, some of them were in the same orange box that (online retailer) Chegg ships them to you in and they just stayed there unused.”

Of course, Packback isn’t the first to go down the digital textbook rental road, with Amazon established in the market and Google entering the fray last week.

But Packback is the first to offer digital textbook rentals on a 24-hour basis, a concept that has its skeptics.

“What I’m questioning is if it’s more of a gimmick than a business model,” says Kathy Mickey, senior analyst and managing editor at Simba Information, a publishing industry research firm. “The toehold, it might be a service. It’ll be interesting to see whether it catches on.”

Investors and publishers seem to think it will.

Packback has raised more than $300,000 in funding and established partnerships with textbook industry heavy-hitters McGraw-Hill and Sage despite the fact that they haven’t launched the program yet.

The publishers are intrigued by Packback’s microtransaction model, Shannon says.

Adds investor Howard Tullman, founder of Tribeca Flashpoint Academy: “We live in an à la carte world and everything about fixed pricing for anything is over.”

Gandham and Shannon acknowledge that their peers have been slow to transition from traditional to digital textbooks.

“There’s not really an affordability play in e-books right now,” Shannon says. “We’re looking to, with at least getting students’ feet wet by trying $5 rental, expedite that e-book adoption rate.”

And therein lies the issue, Mickey says.

“The bottom line problem is students are not flocking to digital textbooks,” she says. “Until that comfort level or the demand is there, a rental really doesn’t solve anything if you’re renting something that kids don’t want to begin with. I’m just not sure that this is the model that’s going to change it.”

Mickey says whether Packback becomes a long-term solution depends on its ability to generate revenue for publishers, something Gandham says he and Shannon are acutely aware of.

“Our goal would be a national product and ultimately we’re going to be working hand in hand with publishers,” Gandham says. “Whatever we do, we want to work hand in hand with the publishers to make sure they’re on board and comfortable with everything going on.”

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