The knowledge contained in textbooks is simply not at all unique. There's no practical or ethical reason to knuckle under to the publishing industry and pay $150-250 per text for knowledge which is readily available for free elsewhere. Many people just copy or download the textbook for free.

Russ Herrold replies:

Hogwash. If so, use those free sources alone. The act of taking steps to obtain and use the publisher's source data confirms that value exists.

It is a denial of reality to assert a right to be the 'free rider' (as the torrent users do by their actions) on the backs of those who do not violate copyright restrictions. To me, it does seem to be an ethical matter, that the torrent users are on the wrong side of. It is certainly wrong as a matter of law.

As a practical matter, starve the publishers of sales, and they will raise prices higher still for legitimate users who cannot in good conscience be using 'stolen property'.

Jeff Sasmor adds:

My wife has worked for two different publishing companies that published college textbooks, and she once told me that one reason that the books are so expensive is because they often don't sell a lot of them due to copying. In years past teachers would copy sections of the books and hand them off to students (or the students would copy the books themselves), and now digital copies make it even easier.

People don't attach much value to the publishing process, they don't want to pay for it, but there is value added. The whole system (like many others) is very messed up.

Adam Robinson predicts:

Perhaps it is time to rethink the viability of textbooks regardless of price. I speak of their pedagogical value here, but in any event they will go the way of encyclopedias, swept aside by collaborative contributions a la Wikipedia. I got through Wharton having purchased only a few textbooks first semester my first year, after that I realized it was cheaper, and more effective to master the material, simply to go to the library and digest the assigned chapters on my own.

Distinguished former intern Chris Hammond recounts:

I'm finishing my PhD in math, and I have recently needed to learn techniques from a different area. I tried to learn everything by reading papers. However, each paper would focus on one aspect of the theory, leaving many questions unanswered. I worked very hard to resolve some issues on my own, not learning until later that it was done in some other paper whose existence I was unaware of. Further complicating things, one of the most important references was in French. I finally stumbled across what seems to be one of the very few textbooks (perhaps the only one) on this subject. Had I found this earlier it would have saved me so much time it makes me sick to think of it. I would have gladly paid a hefty price for it, if it was not available through the library.

Stefan Jovanovich reminisces:

I stopped following the internal fortunes of the publishing business more than 35 years ago when my Dad and I had one of our more spectacular disagreements. My brother Peter is the expert. He worked with my Dad until they lost control of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and then he worked for McGraw-Hill and Pearson. My few comments about profitability and publishing being a "hits business" come from what I know about the history of the business in America and Europe. The inescapable economic logic of print and press runs has not changed since Gutenberg: you lose your shirt on the first copies and make your fortune on the last ones. That is the reason "free" copying has always been such an attractive proposition for the copier. Before they turned to semiconductors the citizens of Taiwan were masters at book piracy; and, as I noted recently, Thomas Paine went from being a lover of America to something quite different out of bitterness over the lost royalties from all the pirated copies of Common Sense.

What my Dad and I argued about was about "tail fins". My thesis was that publishing was only profitable for the publisher when there was a technological breakthrough that lowered unit costs of production by orders of magnitude - the original letter press, the steam press in the 19th century, the combined revolution in inks and paper-making and machine binding after WW II. The publisher could surf that wave of lower and lower unit costs as long as the public perception of what the fair price for a book or newspaper or magazine was still tied to memories of what prices were before the technological breakthrough. But, when a publisher found himself raising prices instead of lowering them, it was time to admit that the party was over. My Dad thought I was out of my head for saying that, by the time of Nixon's reelection, even the caterers had gone home. He thought the new imagining techniques in printing - particularly the ability to reproduce photographs - were so exciting that they would create a new generation of textbooks. My smart-ass reply was that they were tail fins.

After that time, whenever Dad came out to California and needed to see an author or look at a business opportunity, I was happy to see him and help him out by acting as his on-call chauffeur; but we never talked about his company or its profits again. We did speak briefly about the business one last time, when Robert Maxwell made his takeover attempt. My mother and I thought the wiser and safer course was for him to take the money and run rather than sell PIKs and put the company permanently in hock. That was the last serious conversation we ever had; thereafter, discussions were limited to the state of his health and the chances for the Giants to win another World Series.





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2 Comments so far

  1. Gregory Rehmke on May 2, 2008 1:20 pm

    Textbooks are a source of income for the professors who assign them, and/or the departments who assign them. In larger universities, the professor is often a co-author of the text. A dynamic of academia is that professors' top students become professors and move off to another college where they assign the familiar text co-authored by their former professor. Then doesn't generate cash income (except for student who later become the "junior author" and does the work of updating the text). However assigning the textbook for a large survey class generates significant revenue for the company and author, a portion of which is often rebated in invitations to speak at conferences and other benefits from associates who are authors.Now, all this applies to social "science" textbooks whose content is usually questionable at best. ("The Economic Way of Thinking" a textbook written by my former professor Paul Heyne, is an exception, of course…) The hard sciences have more unique value to convey. Still, it is likely that textbooks, dependent as they were on costly printing, are obsolete. The laser printer that was $2,000 15 years ago is now selling for $70. And online content with text, video, overheads, tests, are clearly superior–at least for survey courses which are the money makers at all university departments (and which they use to fund their upper division courses).Of course many professors just choose books they like, with no influence from the system of financial or social rewards.(Richard Vedder's "Going Broke By Degree" relates more of the waste and abuse that accompanies the discredited ideas taught in many or most university courses.)

  2. James Smith on June 10, 2008 1:42 pm

    In case you may be wondering, it is using a learning approach to the existing field of study that reconciles the core of this argument. Argument appears to be that information is textbooks is avialable in multiple sources, some of them are free. Wise move any frugal human may follow is “use the cheapest, best, and most available source”. Not much to consider. Secondarily, sometimes the sources, as noted by the PhD professor, are scattered and very specific. True, this is the value of a peer reviewed journal. The reconciliation is to use the text, the cheapest copy you can find, to get the broad overview. Drill down into the journals to learn the most up to date and specific detail of extant research available. Now you have the best of the world of knowledge. With that, add something to it and enjoy…even sell it.
    PS: I know the best place in NYC to get the most up to date research in most any academic journal for …no cost to me, but the work of going there! I bet you do too. :)


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