Students would do their reading with the swipe of a finger instead of a turn of the page.
The leader of the state Senate wants to offer an electronic library of free basic textbooks for college students in a bid to offset higher university fees.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said Tuesday he will offer legislation next year to create 50 textbooks for the most common college classes.
He plans to seek the $25 million startup cost, even as California cuts spending in education and other areas in response to a lingering multibillion dollar deficit.
A typical student could save $1,000 of the $1,300 he or she now spends on textbooks each year, Steinberg said, citing estimates from California's three higher education systems. The savings would largely offset recent fee increases by state universities, he said.
Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said his two proposed bills would create a faculty council from the University of California, California State University and community college systems to choose the 50 college courses and seek bids from authors or companies to produce textbooks for those classes.
The texts would be available free online or students could get a printed copy for about $20.
Steinberg wants textbooks for the first 25 courses available by the fall of 2013 and the remainder by autumn 2014.
Professors could cut and paste from the online textbooks to create their own customized materials at a fraction of the cost of requiring students to buy each book separately, he said.
J. Bruce Hildebrand, executive director of the higher education division at the Association of American Publishers, objected to government stepping in rather than letting the free market continue in the direction it's going.
"Digital is the future and we're there,'' Hildebrand said.
Publishers already offer many books more cheaply online, where material can be purchased by the chapter, he said, adding that publishers also have their own clearinghouse of discounted materials.
Steinberg said publishers aren't moving fast enough and need a push from government.
His proposal has the backing of the 20 Million Minds Foundation, which aims to shrink the cost of a college education by making electronic textbooks more available. The foundation's name comes from the number of college students nationwide.
Dean Florez, a former state senator who now is president of 20 Million Minds, said California's approach could drive similar moves nationwide.
Senate Republicans couldn't immediately comment on Steinberg's plan because they haven't seen the details, said spokeswoman Jann Taber.
Former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried a similar effort in 2009, aimed at cutting costs for high school students.
While Steinberg wants to create new electronic textbooks, Schwarzenegger asked state education officials to review material already on the Internet to see if it meets California's curriculum standards.