A recent article at Inside Higher Ed, “Taming the Textbook by Market” by Steven J. Bell, takes yet another look at the ever-increasing price of textbooks and posits yet another solution to the problem. As he writes: “What if instead of being forced to buy a $160 textbook, your students had access to a compendium of online resources handpicked and customized by you [the instructor], and available at no cost to them, unless they preferred to purchase a low-cost, print-on-demand copy?”
What if, indeed?
Typically these discussions about textbook prices take place around the beginning of the fall semester and in the past have focused on a couple of standard, ever-recycled solutions: legislate textbook prices (good luck with all that!) or requiring teachers to use any given textbook for at least three years before adopting a new one/edition (doubly good luck there!). But Bell is onto something here: with the proliferation of digital content online it seems reasonable to assemble Curricular Resource Strategies (CRS), a term popularized by Mark David Milliron, that would allow more flexibility in the classroom for teachers while offering reduced costs to students. I mean, really, what’s not to like? After all, as Bell suggests, textbook publishers and college bookstores will still have a piece of the instructional material revenue stream via students ordering print-on-demand (POD) copies of books as they feel the need.
Well, as an old college English teacher—that was my previous incarnation in my ten-year run-up to being a textbook publisher—I do have some thoughts on all this, much like many of the people who commented on Bell’s article upon its publication.
First, most faculty members want to spend their time actually teaching as opposed to assembling an ever-evolving set of online materials for use in their classes. Bell does admit that is a certain allure for teachers in being able to select a textbook and then move on to other more pressing concerns—grading papers, prepping for classes, endless committee meetings—but he feels a couple of hours effort by a faculty member should prove worth the effort. The reality is, however, that the actual amount of time it takes to assemble solid instructional materials is not hours but, rather, weeks or months. Also, there is a permanence in hard copy texts that isn’t available when a) hooked to an electrical outlet or 2) on a Web site that can be here today and gone later today. Finally, one reason textbook publishers exist is because they are vetting the material included in any book, and that keeps instructors from having to find and check every single source of information from scratch.
Second, Bell also supposes that textbook publishers and college bookstores will have a place in his envisioned CRS world via selling POD copies of textbooks for $25-$30 each when individual students feel the need to buy a hard copy. The simple truth is that neither publishers nor bookstores can survive on the margins from selling POD books, especially given the significantly higher unit cost for a POD book vs. one produced as part of a larger offset print run. (Plus, the greatly reduced margins from selling POD books guarantees that publishers would have no money at all to develop digital materials in any way, shape, or form.) Sure, Flat World Knowledge is trying something exactly along these lines—digital editions of books are free while POD copies are available to buy along with study-guide ancillaries—but, to be honest, a close look at their business model just doesn’t reveal it to be self-sustaining. To me and my textbook publishing colleagues, they seem more like a start-up designed to get a visible name in the market before being sold out to an established publisher to flesh out their own digital offerings.
Third, there is also the tacit assumption that publishers and bookstores work together to set the obscene prices that students have to pay. Unfortunately, publishers have no control over what bookstores charge for books . . . so any book, even a short-run POD edition, can have the price jacked up once it reaches the bookstore. For example, we recently worked with a local college to produce a textbook bundle—textbook plus date planner—that would have a retail price of $60. This means we would discount the book 20% to their on-campus bookstore (owned by a national chain) to $48 which they would turn around and sell for $60. Instead, the bookstore immediately marked the retail price at $82, 70% more than wholesale and 30% above suggested retail. So, really, everyone in the chain here got the short end of the stick except for the bookstore.
Fourth, Bell suggests that both scholarly publishing and textbook publishing are a process by which faculty give away their content just to buy it back via periodicals in the library or textbooks in their classes. Now, I would not argue that periodical subscription rates are a problem almost as great (or even greater) for university libraries as textbook prices are for students. However, the payoff for scholarly publishing while not financially-based in the short run is exactly that in the long run as it allows professors to earn tenure (that is, keep their job). And, as well, in textbook publishing instructors are paid on either a work-for-hire or royalty basis, the return on which—even when selling several hundred or more copies a year—is a real incentive to develop these materials but not give them away. Altruism tends to work on a haphazard case-by-case basis whereas instructional materials and/or curriculum need to be done with a comprehensive scope and scale on an ongoing basis.
Finally, one last thing I have to ask is, what’s so wrong with the individual voice of one subject matter expert? As Matthew Crawford notes in his Shop Class as Soulcraft there is this ever-popular idea that the collective wisdom of the crowd—such as having a million snippets of information bundled together—is inherently preferable to one well-versed subject matter expert who has spent his/her entire life immersed in a particular subject. You know, when higher education costs as much as it does, I don’t particularly want a “guide on the side” who “facilitates” my teaching of myself as opposed to the “sage on the stage” who provides a depth and breadth of knowledge that’s taken a lifetime—not an afternoon browsing Google links—to gain command of. This is also one of my gripes with one of the central ideas of Disrupting Class which thinks the textbook industry will be unraveled by teachers/kids/parents generating tutorial apps for students to use: just like posting a rant to a blog doesn’t make you a polished writer, thinking your child isn’t getting a good (enough) education doesn’t make you an expert in either a given subject matter or pedagogy or digital instructional design.
Look, hats off to Steven Bell for attempting to formulate a solution to a real problem and start a new conversation using his outsider’s perspective as a librarian. (And I would highly recommend his blog The Kept-Up Academic Librarian.) However, it’s that same perspective—one that is not versed in the realities of book publishing or the quotidian realities of instructors—that has led to some errors in analysis in his argument. So what do I think is going to happen? First, the big textbook publishers have too big a financial interest (and too many resources and too much leverage) to just watch their market (and $$$) evaporate right in front of them. Rather, I think enhanced ebooks—there’s a phrase that’s all the rage these days!—will allow publishers to keep their market share while doing something that they’ve craved for a long time: cut bookstores out of the equation completely by way of having students buy directly from publishers themselves. Will prices ultimately go down? Not a bit . . . but profit margins, once again, for publishers will go up.
And hey, why not?
That’s just Economics 101.