Religious Studies eTextbooks: A Modest Experiment

Charles Prebish & Damien Keown

In 1994 when we launched the Journal of Buddhist Ethics (or JBE for short; as the first online peer-reviewed journal in the field of Religious Studies, motivated by the outrageously high costs associated with the publication of traditional scholarly journals and the recognition that university libraries were regularly scaling back on their subscriptions to scholarly periodicals, almost everyone said that, despite the interesting topic and supporting technology, we would undoubtedly fail in our experiment. Now, more than fifteen years later, the JBE has won dozens of awards, held three online international conferences, has thousands of subscribers in more than sixty countries, is healthier than ever, and remains—as it has been since its beginning—totally free. In addition, there are many many dozens of Religious Studies journals thriving on the Internet (see, for example

One decade later, it was becoming overwhelmingly apparent that textbook costs were mirroring the price explosion that had rocked the world of scholarly journals; and in subsequent years, our failing economy has only added to the dilemma. Today, for example, the retail cost of Mary Pat Fisher's highly popular 7th edition of Living Religions is about $100., Warren Matthews' fine World Religions sells for almost $110, and Robert Ellwood's still popular Many People, Many Faiths (9th edition) costs nearly $90. For colleagues teaching in our discipline—Buddhist Studies—the situation is perhaps worse. One of the most successful introductory volumes on the Buddhist tradition is the course text now called Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction by Richard H. Robinson (the original author), Willard Johnson, and Thanissaro Bhikkhu. It's a great book, but it costs $75. Since it is also important to have our students read textual materials, we need to add a book of scripture extracts like John Strong's wonderful volume The Buddhist Experience: Sources and Interpretations. But that book sells for about $80, so students using those two volumes in an introductory course need to pony up more than $150.00 at the start. Even if one finds a solid but more economically priced introductory text, like Donald Mitchell's Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, which sells for $40, once you add in a volume of scriptures, the cost to students is still at least $100. To make matters worse, many students will buy the books, but do not even read them. Instead, in our new technological era, students' avenue of entry into the subject matter of our field is often through the Internet. Then, at semester's end, they simply sell the textbooks to a buyback dealer or their campus bookstore, and lose all but a few dollars of their original investment, while the bookstore or buyback dealer reaps a whirlwind of profit on the second (or third) time around.

Is there some reasonable way around this "lose-lose" situation in which the students lose money, the publishers ultimately lose money through book resales (forcing new editions to be published as a possible antidote, driving prices still higher), and the authors lose money as well in lost royalties…while the bookstores reap multiple-time profits? At a time when students are spending many hundreds of dollars per semester on textbooks, and thus putting an enormous strain on their personal and family finances, is it possible to turn this unfortunate circumstance into a "win-win" situation that puts cash back in students' wallets, rewards authors for the often thankless task of writing excellent textbooks, provides great resources to students engaged in studying religions, and acknowledges what we all too clearly have learned in recent times: students live vast portions of their lives embraced by technology? Many, if not most students are rarely without their cellphone in their hand. They're constantly calling, or texting their colleagues. Their iPods are dangling from their earphones. Twitter is the new craze, and many students now sit in their wi-fi classrooms surfing the Internet instead of listening to their professors' lectures. One recent day, not too long ago, one of us walked out of class behind one of our students who immediately started texting someone on his cellphone. The student became so engrossed in his texting (or maybe even sexting) that he walked squarely into a lamppost, spilling coffee all over himself and breaking his eyeglasses! In 2004, we decided to embrace this new technology as a means of finding an alternative to continually rocketing textbook costs. We started the Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books project (

Throughout our experience, we have argued that while there will always be a place for printed books, digital publication has many advantages over printed texts in the classroom. With an eBook you can:

  • Access the vast resources of the Internet directly from within the text itself

  • Read through each chapter quickly or explore those topics that interest you in more depth by clicking on the embedded links

  • Enjoy learning as a multimedia experience. Ever hear a printed book play music or read itself aloud to you?

  • View full-color high-resolution images, maps, diagrams and charts

  • Instantly find the information you want anywhere in the text using powerful search facilities

  • Be sure the information you are reading is as up to date as it can be

A course textbook should be flexible, updatable, and provide a wide range of pedagogic resources. The digital medium is more suited than paper to meeting these requirements. In an environment where students increasingly turn to the Internet as their resource of first choice we think it makes sense to place the learning medium itself in a digital format from the outset, creating for the first time a seamless web of knowledge between the text book and other learning resources.

Our first publication in 2004 was Buddhism-The eBook, which we co-authored. It consisted of 14 chapters spanning 391 pages. It also included more than 200 weblinks to the best Buddhist sites on the Internet, so users could seamlessly go back and forth between the eText and the Internet. Purchasers could order the eBook online for immediate download or fill out a mail-in order form, in which case they received the eText on CD-ROM via the postal service. We initially advertised the publication by sending announcements to listservs such as Buddha-L, and via the H-Buddhism network of Buddhist Studies scholars worldwide. In addition, we networked actively with colleagues throughout the world. Although we were well aware that some publishing pundits were arguing that print books were clearly on the way out, we were also aware that initial sales of scholarly eBooks were not doing very well. Some individuals are still suggesting that eTexts are not doing well. In a May 15, 2009 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey R. Young claims that, "Yet so far sales of electronic textbooks are tiny, despite efforts by college bookstores to make the option to buy digital versions clearer by advertising e-books next to the printed ones on their shelves." In other words, we didn't really know what to anticipate. Many colleagues seemed to be wedded to favorite old texts, and adopting a new text, and especially one that embraced new technology, was just plain frightening. Nonetheless, initial sales were extremely encouraging and a number of colleagues adopted Buddhism-The eBook ( as a course text. In subsequent years, aided by continued feedback from colleagues, new editions were produced. The current, third edition still has 14 chapters, but the organizational pattern has changed, as have the chapter contents. In addition it now contains a 40-page glossary of key terms. Soon a fourth edition will appear with even greater changes. Sales have been exceptionally brisk, aided by the fact that the eBook remains enormously affordable at $25.75, can be copied to a "jump" drive for portability, and can be utilized by in-class computers for easy referencing during class time. So far, there have been more than 40 class adoptions throughout the world.

Based on the immediate success of Buddhism-The eBook, we pursued soliciting other scholars to help us expand our offering. As of this writing, we now have produced Hinduism-The eBook by Hillary Rodrigues, Christianity-The eBook by James Adair, Judaism-The eBook by Eliezer Segal, Japanese Religions-The eBook by Robert S. Ellwood, Introducing World Religions: The eBook by Victoria Urubshurow, and Introducing Daoism by Livia Kohn, Buddhism-The American Experience by Charles Prebish, Chinese Religions (by Mario Pockesi), and Islam (by William Shepard). New eTexts on Tibetan Religions (by Geoffrey Samuel), American Religions (by Charles Lippy), and What is Religion? (by Daniel Cozort) will be published shortly. What we share with each of our authors is a commitment to providing the best introductory volume possible for our students, at a price that is eminently affordable. Moreover, we have sought to include authors who are well known in their respective area of study. Ellwood, Kohn, Lippy, and Samuel, for example, are among the most respected scholars in their special area worldwide. To date our eText prices range from $16.95 to $35.95…far below the prices of the most successful traditional textbooks. As a result our authors have generally received royalties of 25 percent of gross sales, which is far above royalties paid by traditional presses. In addition, each eBook comes with an "Online" website for students which contains sample discussion questions, essay questions, exam questions, and more. For professors, each eBook offers a non-public website that includes sample syllabi, sample exam questions, evaluations, and so forth.

Throughout the process, we have been aided by the technical genius of Blue Banana Designs (, which created our web page, creates each eBook, manages all technical aspects of the project including eCommerce, and resolves any problems that emerge along the way.

How does the above impact the publication of traditional paper-based textbooks? Articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education have repeatedly highlighted the dilemma facing traditional publishers. In an article dated July 11, 2008 Jennifer Howard noted "It's a world in which demand for electronic resources may drive demand for print resources—not kill it, as many have assumed—as researchers use the Internet to discover books or articles." Reflecting on the 2008 annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses, she went on to say "Panelists and questioners at a session on 'Taking Books Online' made the point that publishers need to get a better handle on how researchers actually behave." A few months later (on September 19, 2008) the same author published a follow-up story on the continued drop in textbook sales, and university presses' search for explanations of the drop.

Then why are eBook sales still tiny, as Jeffrey Young maintained in the article cited above? Young cited a study at Northwest Missouri State University that concluded students didn't like Sony's eBook reader. Paul Klute, who ran the project, is quoted as saying, "It didn't lend itself to the way students study." And reaction to Amazon's new Kindle doesn't seem to be any better, especially with regard to its high cost. Young tells us that "Some professors who were early adopters of e-books say they had bad experiences. Back then many publishers simply sold noninteractive PDF documents that were difficult to navigate." But that isn't the case any longer, as new and more sophisticated PDF documents and software are being created and updated regularly. Nonetheless, many of our students still make the same claims. They argue that they simply cannot curl up on the couch with an eBook. Anecdotal evidence in our experiences around campus, in Student Unions and classroom buildings, suggests that students don't really curl up with textbooks on couches or easy chairs in those same facilities. Instead, they curl up with their laptops or Blackberrys. In other words, their argument sounds like that stale old bromide "Sorry professor, but my dog ate my assignment." Just another excuse for not actually doing their assignments. To actually argue that printed textbooks work better than any eBook is simply incomprehensible.

There are some good alternatives though. Web sites like CourseSmart (, a project supported currently by twelve publishers, offer eBooks on a wide variety of topics that are designed to be read on laptops or desktops (rather than Kindles or other devices) at highly reduced prices. Unfortunately, most professors and students have never heard of this program. Even if they had, the number of titles that fall under the category "Religion" is less than 50, and cover mostly introductory and/or world religions topics; and even with their greatly reduced price structure, they're still significantly higher than the eBooks offered in our project. Other projects, like Ebrary and NetLibrary offer eBooks to libraries, which on campus students can access free of charge. NetLibrary has a database of over 190,000 titles. Even traditional publishers are making some effort to get on board with additional electronic resources by including CDs with their printed texts or offering links to websites with additional materials. Yet, for obvious reasons, they just cannot go the whole route to completely electronic, and affordable, products.

We believe that the slow movement of the learning curve on eBooks as college Religious Studies texts results primarily from professors simply not fully understanding what a remarkable pedagogical tool eBooks can be. And that, frankly, is hard to understand. Many professors have already dispensed with distributing paper versions of their course syllabi by posting them in Word or PDF format on their departmental webpage. Many professors often have "homepages" on their departmental webpage that include very sophisticated listings of Internet-based resources. Many professors routinely use complicated Power Point presentations in their daily classes. Many professors, using technology-based classrooms equipped with computers, regularly flash information from various course-related websites on their classroom screens. Many professors have eschewed showing "films" in their courses, replacing them with DVDs of the same materials. Many professors now manage class discussion forums through university-based software. Many professors send informational messages to their entire class roster via university-based software. And many professors even submit their course grades electronically through programs like "Banner" or "Blackboard." Technology has come to dominate our everyday courses. For a fine example of how this might work, and how technology can be our friend and ally, take a short visit to Professor Guy Newland's webpage for his "Buddhist Tradition" course at Central Michigan University ( It's exemplary. In view of the above, why rely on old expensive fossils when one can make the total jump to eBooks? We believe that if professors would visit an eBook site, like ours at, read our FAQ file and navigate around a bit, download some free sample chapters, and give them a try, their brief self-education would dispel their unfounded concerns about the value of this new technology.

Why has our modest experiment been so successful while major publishers still seem to have less than remarkable results. Admittedly, we think it is a combination of the extremely fine user-friendly eBooks we have published and the very simple infrastructure we have been able to maintain throughout our history. We hope we can continue to offer students very fine eTextbooks in Religious Studies while enabling them to keep dollars in their pockets instead of ours!

Anyone wishing more information can contact us, by e-mail of course.

Charles Prebish ( or Damien Keown (

Charles S. Prebish holds the Charles Redd Endowed Chair in Religious Studies at Utah State University. He has published more than twenty books. He is best known for his work on Indian Buddhist monastic codes and the sectarian movement, and is considered a pioneer in the study of Western forms of Buddhism. He is a past officer in the International Association of Buddhist Studies and was a founding Co-Chair of what is now the Buddhism Section of AAR.

Damien Keown is Professor of Buddhist Ethics at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is one of the best known Buddhist ethics scholars in the world and has published more than a dozen books. His works on Buddhism and bio-ethics are considered seminal in the field, and he has lectured on aspects of this topic throughout the world. He is a former officer in the United Kingdom Association of Buddhist Studies.