Yesterday was the last day of summer and yes, indeed, today the smell of fall is in the air: leaves are turning, sunsets come earlier, and slowly but surely the nights are beginning to cool down to an inevitable winter chill. And, oh yeah, lest I forget, with the start of a new academic year The New York Times is once again pointing out the ever-increasing price of textbooks in this recent article:
“Squint hard, and textbook publishers can look a lot like drug makers. They both make money from doing obvious good — healing, educating — and they both have customers who may be willing to sacrifice their last pennies to buy what these companies are selling.
“It is that fact that can suddenly turn the good guys into bad guys, especially when the prices they charge are compared with generic drugs or ordinary books. A final similarity, in the words of R. Preston McAfee, an economics professor at Cal Tech, is that both textbook publishers and drug makers benefit from the problem of “moral hazards” — that is, the doctor who prescribes medication and the professor who requires a textbook don’t have to bear the cost and thus usually don’t think twice about it.”
So, what’s a professor/student to do?
The article goes on to discuss three different solutions . . . or, at least, what could be examples of potential solutions. The first is what Dr. McAfee did at Cal Tech: make his book available for free (by download) or at a relatively low cost through POD publishers. A wider ranging approach is what Rice University is doing with its Connexions project: an open-source curriculum development project that’s a kind of Wikipedia for college instructional materials. Finally, there is CourseSmart, a consortium of textbook publishers making titles available online via subscription (for 180 days) or by download (to a particular computer alone).
In the case of Dr. McAfee, I’d say that his altruism is genuinely admirable. But, in a free market system where there is money to be made from the exchange of knowledge from one person to another, professors like him will be the exception rather than the rule. Connexions is an interesting site to browse around—I’ve been checking in on it periodically over the last 2-3 years—but its greatest strength (its free-form nature) is also its greatest weakness as it’s all over the place in subjects/organization/presentation. Sure, you have a percentage of faculty who are interested in developing new materials as well as adapting existing materials but you also have a greater number who want to have fully developed materials that are ready to plug into their classes right off of the shelf. Plus, there’s a whole host of features to textbooks/curriculum materials that generally require specialists beyond the writers themselves: illustrators, indexers, book designers, permissions editors, proofreaders/copyeditors, and more.
As for the CourseSmart site, to be honest, this is a perfect example of how textbook publishers want their cake and to eat it too. Want to subscribe to a book online? Feel free. But if you drop that class and retake it next semester you’ll be buying that book online again. Want to hang onto your book after the semster is over? Didn’t we mention that your online subscription is over in 180 days no matter what? And, it just irks me that publishers act like this is some act of altruism when, instead, their profit margins are staying essentially the same by having no printing or shipping costs and no wholesale discounts to bookstores because they’re being cut out of the equation entirely. Plus, I know it’s just the old teacher in me, but I think having a physical textbook to hang onto, carry around, read, mark up, and refer to in class or in a lab has a certain inherent value way beyond just having words on a computer screen.
Textbook publishers may have much in common, as The New York Times suggests, with big drug makers but I tend to think of them as being more like the old corporate music giants. As Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre said in the movie Dig!, it wasn’t college students downloading songs in their dorm rooms courtesy of Napster that “ruined” the music industry, it was the record companies treating artists like indentured servants while acting like they had an insurmountable monopoly on the only means of delivering music to fans/listeners all for the sake of supported their own excessive overhead. And based on the profit margins they used to make with that model, that’s why they’ve had such a hard time adapting to how the music industry—or, rather, the industry of music distribution—has evolved over the last ten years. Textbook publishers will only be able to sustain their pricing system in conjunction with cosmetic repackaging of titles to undercut used book sales for so long before it all falls apart. And then they’ll be pointing the finger at someone else as to why it all went wrong for them.
In the end, it all seems pretty needless. At the very least, at . . . the . . . very . . . least . . . if textbook publishers did something as basic as using the same general pricing models as trade publishers—retail price being ten times the printing cost with the wholesale price ten times the printing cost—their margins would be slimmer but they wouldn’t be fomenting a revolution.