Sunday, July 27, 2008

Textbook prices, publishing idiots, and the future of course content

The New York Times is reporting on a problem that's going to get worse before it gets better: students scanning their textbooks and giving the scans away for free.[1] I've known a long time that textbook publishing houses are playing a losing game. Their books are foolishly over-priced.

For example, I use a textbook in one of my classes, one now in its 6th edition. I can say that the content difference between the 4th and the 6th edition is negligible, but the layout is so different that I'm forced to use the new editions.

One might argue that I could just use another book. There are a couple of reasons against this. First, the textbook in question is very accessible, so I've made a tactical call: it's better to have a book that students will enjoy reading, and therefore do so, rather than it is to have a book that students won't read -- or won't read well.

Second, because I'm teaching 160 students a year for the course, and offering four major objective tests in the class, that means I am forced to offer lots of different tests and versions. There is really only one way such a feat becomes practical: test banks. These contain hundreds of questions on each chapter than can be selectively mixed and matched over different iterations of testing. Prudently, the publishing houses tie their test bank data to the chapter layout of the ever-issued new editions. My classes are fairly small. Imagine classes where a prof teaches 400 students a year. Clearly, the textbook publishing houses have.

With the rise of devices like the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader, textbook usage is on the verge of entering a new digital era. The textbook publishing companies like to think that they will be able to leverage this for more profit margin, since they can eliminate the middle man. They are wrong, at least for the areas of classics and humanities. Why so? Although the sciences change rapidly, classical works in history, literature, and philosophy don't change -- at least no faster than language dialect changes. A good translation from the 1950s (or even earlier) is just as readable today as the moment it fell off the printing press. Profs like myself who are disgruntled at the idiotic prices students are forced to pay will get together and produce their own textbooks with an open license to use each other's material. (This is something like why the open-standards software movement has been so successful.) When, by evolutionary modification and adjustment of better and worse entries, these efforts reach a high level of content and readability, they will live on for many years, for many cost free years. (There are wiki efforts which have started doing this already.)

Classroom content in digital book-reading devices which will eventually be adopted as the standard tool for text-"books" of the future. When the cost of a digital book reader falls to less than the cost of the total cost of books for a semester's classes, that will be the sweet spot when students take matters into their own hands, and when scan-n-share will really take off. Even now, students regularly share textbooks and "rent" them to their friends.

As a social group, college students are the most potent mix of cunning, intelligence, and thrift. When it comes to outsmarting textbook publishers, these students will win; and, this whole industry will probably be forced to move to a non-profit status industry. The old model will die. And I'll say, "Good riddance."


[image]Tempe in Touch (city website)

[1]Randall Stross "First It Was Song Downloads. Now It’s Organic Chemistry" New York Times July 27, 2008 (Accessed July 27, 2008)

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At 12:15 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

I had a friend rent all his text books from the public library. I think you get 3 rechecks on a book that no one else wants, and library fees have drop significantly over the years. I think I pay .05 or .10 cents a week on late books (that is probably wrong). Either way he would only pay max $10 in fines at the end of a semester. While we paid billions and got $10 dollars back. He brilliantly kept his secret until our senior year. No need for competition.

At 12:30 PM, Blogger brinticus said...

THAT guy was clever.


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