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The Textbook Industry & Greed: My Story (lukethomas.com)
244 points by lukethomas on Aug 19, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 125 comments

I teach in a university mathematics department. I don't doubt that stories like this are real, but very few of my colleagues collude with, or indeed have much patience with, the publishing industry.

Indeed, the opposite is common. Walter Rudin is the author of several well-known books on mathematical analysis. The publisher, McGraw-Hill, jacked up the price of his books to stratospheric levels, and Rudin fought back -- which wasted him a lot of time, and (I believe) cost him a substantial amount of money. All so that students wouldn't be gouged when buying a copy of his book.

In the end, Rudin eventually lost. $95.56 for a very skinny (and quite popular) book on Amazon right now.

Moral: As content providers we don't need to figure out better ways to work with the publishing industry. We need to figure out better ways to work without them.

I know a couple of people in textbook sales. Their job sucks, and the way they describe it is that there are two type of professors: those that won't talk to them, and those that try to maximize personal gain from the sales process.

The professors they deal with know the game, and just string them along with soft promises and keep asking for more nights on the expense account. The day to day job in textbook sales is just bribing professors with expense accounts.

"... As content providers we don't need to figure out better ways to work with the publishing industry. We need to figure out better ways to work without them. ..."


Really? How about scanner and OCR?

"... How about scanner and OCR? ..."

I was thinking of school books & standing in the line for photocopiers for reference books in the library.

My graduate university kept a good number of copies of required texts in the library that could be lent out for the length of the course. Reserved copies (i.e., can't be taken out of the reserved area) were available as well. No student had to buy any books unless they wanted to.

I think that's my favorite system.

Smartphone, big microSD and a few hours are the best version. Then OCR later if you need to - chances are you'll still be wasting your time and will never touch your photographed textbook.

Maybe more teachers could use CafePress and self-publish

I think you could do it with Lulu as well.

How did fighting back cost him money (if you don't count his wasted time)?

Kudos on him for valuing the spread of his work over any personal loss in royalties!

I'm afraid I heard this secondhand a long time ago and don't know all the details. I could be wrong about that.

Awesome, I've been using his book on analysis.

Custom editions and packaged access codes are the last futile attempt that publishers bookstores and professors have against cheaper Internet alternatives. The one thing your writeup didn't touch upon is digital textbooks- which the publishers actually love since eBooks are usually rentals, so the secondary markets like Amazon and AbeBooks are cut out.

I am from SlugBooks- a web app that compares prices between the college bookstore and online options for ~800 universities in US and Canada. This topic hits close to home. We've been watching bookstores and publishers do this for years, and it's only getting worse. When professors assign customized or packaged books, it becomes nearly impossible to save money through sites like Amazon.

The most surprising thing is how many professors eat up the bullshit that custom editions actually help. They're supposed to be champions of critical thinking. Profs WANT to save students money - that's why they opt for custom editions (since publishers tell them it will save their students money). It's just sad.

I had one college course with a custom edition and we still had the option of using the regular edition, (all the page numbers were the same the custom editions only difference was a lack of extra chapters that we weren't going to cover).

The custom edition was cheaper than the regular edition and this is the only reason the professor did this. The book didn't seem to have very many used copies being sold as it was an advanced class and people were more likely to keep the book than sell it.

Just providing context to how a custom edition can be cheaper if the professor does work.

I've also had many professors write their own book and give it for free in pdf or let you buy it for $20 at the university copy center already bound with the option of buying supplemental books that they thought were of good quality.

Maybe my engineering department was different but it seemed most of my professors tried to work to help the students not have to pay large amounts.

Hey, thanks for this. There are corner cases where custom editions make sense, but overall they cause far more harm than good.

-The biggest issue is that custom editions segment the global secondary market for a given textbook into slivers of useless fragments. Instead of Campbell Biology, Regular Edition being bought and sold between Stanford students and students at every other college in the country (this significant supply drives the price down), Campbell Biology, Stanford Custom Edition is only ever going to be bought/sold by Stanford students. This hurts students in multiple ways: 1) the bookstore is the only place they can BUY the book from. Period. 2) the bookstore is the only place they can SELL the book too. Custom editions are a perfect storm for bookstores/publishers.

-Custom editions are cheaper than what the regular edition costs in terms of what the bookstore would charge for each, but if you compare prices on the regular edition online, there are usually significantly cheaper prices out there than what the custom is being sold for at the bookstore.

-In the rare case where a custom edition is being used, but a regular edition is acceptable - the bookstore presenting both options and telling you to pick one will almost never result in you considering that the regular edition would be cheaper online. By adding this extra noise, they artificially make custom books look more affordable.

I agree - there are tons of professors that are on the right side of this fight. Textbooks SHOULD be free. And the fact that custom editions are even adopted is proof that professors care about students. They're just a terribly poor solution which reinforces the problem instead of solving it.

Give the publishers credit - custom editions are a genius business move.

As unhappy as I am with the publishers, I agree that custom textbooks are a brilliant business move. It's no wonder why they send in sales teams - it's very lucrative!

It's like Windows - Windows 7 OEM is about $100 and is tied to your mobo, while a retail Windows 7 can be used on a different machine. The retail version probably has a lower TCO.

So you are essentially a search engine for textbooks?

Yep, kayak for textbooks. You can either search by book or search by school/course. If you really want to get angry, look up MATH 203 at Medgar Evers College in NY. A textbook with a list price of $174 is being sold for $330 new, $240 used - available from online sites for less than $10.

There are over 16,000 classes across the country that can save >$100 on their books. Haven't run the numbers yet but the use of custom materials/access codes has EXPLODED, which prevents savings.

We are diff than other comparison engines bc of that course search component. Most students don't realize how easy it is to save (it's surprisingly daunting for students to do this the first time), we facilitate that process.

Can you share a link with us? You're being too modest.

The link is just http://www.slugbooks.com - cheers.

I'm amazed that universities ALLOW their professors to make payment-required textbook-tied online exercises part of their courses.

You're already paying tuition, you shouldn't have to pay extra just to do the homework. That's insane. It's no different from having to pay additional money to take the midterm.

After all, the professors and publishers make money from this, not the university. As far as I can tell, it can only reflect badly on a university -- so why don't they have policies in place against this? Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like a blatant abuse of power for financial gain on the part of professors.

I worked with a professor who got together with a few others and created their own digital course content.

This was an interactive package of notes/exercises/self-marking quizzes on the course content.

They sold it for about a quarter of the cost over the previous textbook for the course, and divvied up the proceeds at the end of each year.

I asked about the legality/morality of it, and he replied with 'it's better content, we charge much less, and turn a blind eye to sharing'.

His attitude could be boiled down to : the publishers are the ones making all the money, so I'm going to go direct and cut them out, plus endeavour to bring the content directly to the students.

It wasn't an online solution because the university had some (outdated if you ask me) prohibition on online only content, in case there were students who spent periods where they didn't have access to an internet connection. (note, this was a while ago)

The guy was already independently rich from his side-business of consulting in his industry, so I tended to believe him that he wasn't really in it for the money, though he did want it to be at least revenue positive.

The whole area is ripe for disruption, but then education itself is fat target.

It is a bit surprising that universities allow this practice — not so much because textbook costs are unbundled from tuition (things have been that way for a while) but because textbook company kickbacks may now constitute substantial fraction of an instructor's salary.

In the short term, this setup helps universities keep their teaching costs low — they can pay instructors a lower base wage and let the instructors make up the difference in textbook-company kickbacks if their conscience allows. This kind of cost-cutting might be attractive in a scenario where instructors are more "contractors" (adjunct faculty) than "employees" or "the reason the university is here and more important than administrators" (tenured faculty).

Schools should soon realize that it's a bad idea for their employees to have another revenue stream and, essentially, another supervisor influencing how they do the same job.

"this setup helps universities keep their teaching costs low — they can pay instructors a lower base wage"

It's a cost increase for students that's not as easily noticed as a "base" price increase in tuition. Which paying more to professors would require. As well as payroll taxes on the salary increase. So getting $1500 directly from publishers the same $1500 from the University costs extra in additional payroll costs (and then gets multiplied by any salary percentage increase in future years as well).

This is also somewhat analogous to what some elementary schools are doing (sorry no citation) with requiring parents to buy school supplies that were previously provided by the schools. It's a way of cost shifting that allows you to pass a tax that isn't recognized as a tax increase.

Other example may be an auto mfg. only raising the price of a new model slightly but removing and making certain features options, options that the majority of buyers will end up adding on anyway. (If the price of the car were higher many people wouldn't enter the showroom at all.)

> but because textbook company kickbacks may now constitute substantial fraction of an instructor's salary.

[[citation needed]]

Adjunct faculty are typically paid on a per-course-taught basis and can make as little as $400 per subject [1], although it's most common to see pay of about $1500–$2500 per subject. To pick one well-documented discipline in particular, psychology professors make a median of $2500 per subject taught at the graduate level [3].

This blog post guesses without giving evidence that the instructor may be making $5 off of each of his 250 students (who each paid $150 for a textbook), which would represent total textbook-company revenue of $1250.

To be sure, not all faculty are paid as poorly as adjuncts — [2] cites an estimate that adjunct faculty earn 26% less than tenured professors — but there is not a lot of money in teaching undergraduates, and for many kinds of instructors, textbook fees have the potential to become a substantial alternate revenue stream.

[1] http://mtprof.msun.edu/win2000/wickun.html [2] http://cehs.unl.edu/edad/partnerships/facultyResearchDocs/Ad... [3] http://www.apa.org/workforce/publications/11-fac-sal/table-3...

Are adjuncts writing textbooks? Almost all of my texts, when I bothered to read the author bio, were written by the XYZ (endowed) Professor. Frequently they were the chair of the department.

Some of these custom "textbooks" aren't really textbooks.

From what the blog author was describing it was just like something I had to buy once or twice--spiral bound copies of poems, essays, and excerpts.

They sound what my uni called "bricks" - a bunch of licensed copies of reading material, all stapled together. They cost about $10-$50, as opposed to $50-$100 for a 101 text (note, this is Australia, the US has more expensive additions of textbooks for no good reason).

There are two kinds of bricks - draft textbooks, and collections of papers.

It's quite common to get a draft textbook as a brick one year, then laugh at the students the next year who pay for the textbook when it's finally published.

It seems a bit weird to publish a collection of papers as a textbook, especially at a low undergrad level, but I hear it's happening these days.

<I>It seems a bit weird to publish a collection of papers as a textbook, especially at a low undergrad level, but I hear it's happening these days.</I>

Took a macro-economics class at my local community college. One of the required texts was a collection of essays that the professor had written (much of it incoherent blabble but that's a different topic), collected into a 130-page paperback that looked like it might cost $3.99 at the local BN. Cost: $55. No copy available in the library.

Yeah, I had plenty of those too. But they never came with access codes to web portals. Or publishers you could email at all.

I think you rather misunderstood the post.

Adjuncts do not generally write textbooks and get kickbacks for them. They choose one of the 'standard' textbooks, and use the online problem set for that book. They do this not because they get compensation for it, but because it's the path of least resistance.

I find it kind of sad that you would speculate like this, without any specific examples (let alone proof of a general trend!) about the motives of the adjuncts. :(

Hmm, my reading of the original blog post is perhaps a bit different than yours.

This post seems to provide evidence that people who do not traditionally write textbooks (not the top hundred faculty members in a field) are being afforded a new opportunity by textbook companies to "write a book", which either means "pick and choose some portions of the standard textbook" (discussed elsewhere in the comments) or "publish a 'course reader'-style collection of readings as a book" (discussed in this blog post).

It seems to me that this new opportunity also represents a new revenue stream for more faculty members than currently receive textbook kickbacks.

I don't mean to suggest that I have any special knowledge of the motives of adjunct professors in particular — basically I just read the Chronicle of Higher Ed like everyone else. This is a well-trod area: see July 2008's "'Custom' Textbooks Raise Money -- and Questions of Ethics" (http://chronicle.com/article/Custom-Textbooks-Raise/41288), February 2010's "Format War Heats Up Among Publishers of Electronic Textbooks" (http://chronicle.com/article/Format-War-Heats-Up-Among/64323...), or October 2010's "As Textbooks Go Digital, Will Professors Build Their Own Books?" (http://chronicle.com/article/As-Textbooks-Go-Digital-Will/12...), to pick a few examples.

Mine doesn't. At least not without explicit written permission, and if I tried to pull such a dick move (as a professor) then my chair would quite rightly tell me to go to hell.


Absolutely agree with this. It's crazy. But if you only have to do it a few times, e.g., as a young undergraduate, you're unlikely to think about it much. You just pay the fees and think nothing of it. You've got other things to think about.

But if you got through some more rounds of education, then you might start to think. A professor that requires her students to buy a textbook she authored is something to think about.

What I found interesting in one of the degrees I got was that students did not even need the textbooks. The assignments and handouts were not tied to textbooks, though textbooks were certainly recommended and required as usual on the syllabi. So I decided not to buy any textbooks. I just used ones from the library. I learned more doing it this way than I ever did from mindlessly buying textbooks.

Still, the whole time I kept thinking, if every student tried this it would be unworkable. Professors did put materials, including texts, on reserve though, so "sharing" a copy of a text is not itself a crazy idea. Fortunately, few of my fellow students were keen to read the library's textbooks. As such, they were always readily available. I would routinely have about 7 texts checked out at any one time.

One of the things that kept the other students away from the library's textbook holdings was, I think, that they believed only the latest editions would be useful. Syllabi tell students to buy some specific edition of some textbook. And students, if they are fresh undergraduates, are very obedient. They will do as they are told.

But I found the dates on these texts mattered little. In some cases the best texts I found were "dated". But when you read lots of differenet texts, you get a much clearer picture of a subject area. And you can see the coverage as it has evolved. You can tell what's changed, and that itself is very useful knowledge. Now I'm absolutely hooked on this method of learning. I always seek out old texts as well as new ones.

The idea that "only the latest edition will work for this course" is another of the textbook publisher's little schemes. I'm sure they try to get faculty to use only the latest editions.

Interestingly, one can see the same dynamics played out in software. The hunger for the "new" thing, the bleeding edge, without any regard for history and how we got here. The obedience aspect is there too. To pick a random example, Microsoft tells people that they need Windows 8, and they obey. Little may have changed in 10-20-30-or-more years, the changes might be only cosmetic, but lots of people wouldn't know any different, because they focus only on what is considered "current". Like fresh undergraduates, they want to be told which edition to buy without ever thinking much about it.

Though major releases of software typically does have a lot more changes than editions of textbooks.

Indeed I have noticed textbooks often only contain minor changes from version to version. In other cases, entire subject areas can change as research progresses. But sometimes the only way you get to know that is by looking at older texts.

The quantity of changes may be less relevant than the quality of the changes: i.e. did anything major change in this field in the last n number of years. With a closed source software program, like Windows, it's very difficult to assess the quality of the changes. All we see is the user interface.

Most of the time, software vendors do document new features and changes.

There's a difference between a list of "new features" (staying with the Microsoft example) and being able to diff the source code against a previous version and evaulate the changes for yourself.

It's like the syllabus that says you need the latest version of the textbook but does not tell you why the previous version will not do.

Look at it this way: in "most cases" (whether it's software or textbooks), from version to version, there's more substance that stays the same than substance which changes.

Not sure about you but I'm a little wary of buying the latest version of an expensive textbook in order to gain a small number of reatively minor changes that I could easily identify, and take note of, by comparing the latest version with the previous one.

"The idea that "only the latest edition will work for this course" is another of the textbook publisher's little schemes. I'm sure they try to get faculty to use only the latest editions."

When I took thermal physics waaay back in the 80s, my professor hated the newest edition of the text, and gave us all photocopies of the first edition.

The funny thing is that I was annoyed by this, falling firmly into the "undergradate mentality" you mention.

Universities are in the business of making money, not education.

I worked for a company in 2004 that was a spinoff of a professor's project to create randomizable equations linked to a text book. Students would get a unique key/ID from their textbook, and log into our system to take practice exams and work on examples. Each question would be unique, and hopefully pedagogically correct.

Textbook publishers loved this idea, especially the fact that it required a unique key for each student. We had all of the major college textbook publishers as customers, either using our hosted system or licensing our software to use on their own web servers. If I recall correctly, we charged around $20-30 per student.

Eventually we were acquired, but I assume the software is still being "marketed" to the students.

The professor's project was funded by a DoE grant, and then he turns around and commercializes it with the explicit approval of the university.

Some universities take it a step further and include the cost of textbooks in tuition. Be glad that isn't happening globally. That's the worst case scenario here - students are just billed for course materials without having any say in the matter.

Which ones?

Here's just one of them Northwest Missouri State (scroll to the bottom) - http://www.nwmissouri.edu/admissions/laptop/index.htm

Note that their stats about how rentals save students $1160 a year are sort of BS. On books where renting saves you a lot of money over the full retail price (which no one ever pays anyway), you can usually just buy the book outright for the same amount on Amazon (and then sell it back when youre done for a ridiculously lower total cost of ownership).

Publishers have had a solution to this for years.

Just come out with a new edition each year where you move the problems around so that people have to buy the new textbook and cannot buy used. And in the occasional case where that does not work, change the title of the book occasionally so that students do not know which second hand book to buy.

I had only one course that I can remember where we had to buy a published textbook written by the professor teaching the course. He apologized for this up front, and used the royalties (and most likely a bit more) to throw a small party at the end of the course.

Most of the time when we had professor written material we only paid $10-20 to cover the cost of having a pdf printed and bound by the university print shop.

My university (Utah) does not allow this.

It took me three years to realize that I didn't actually need textbooks. My senior year, I didn't buy a single book, just the course packs put together by my professors (if they had them).

The course packs were either all original material, or an original composition of parts of case studies, essays, and text books; they were almost always under $50 (except in the case where licensing the copied portions drove the cost higher).

If a professor is actually just teaching out of a standard text book, all the relevant information is taught in lecture. If there is an express need for a textbook, it's on reserve at the school library.

I would urge every student to only consider purchasing a textbook if they really think they need it two weeks into class. Textbooks are overpriced, only a small amount of the information is relevant to the class, and the information is often redundant and can be found in lectures/slides. (if the idea of coming to class without a book is scary, check your school book store's policy on returning books)

Did you read the article? It wasn't actually the textbook he needed, it was the unique online access code. They don't keep spares of those in the library.

The comment is still on-topic. I've begun to have the same realization halfway into college.

I (fortunately) realized this in first year when I, at the end of a semester had opened exactly one of the 4 textbooks, and then only read < 1 chapter.

The alternative to buying a copy of texts you really need (and I know there are a lot of legal issues with this) is "finding" the book online (and I haven't yet had a book I couldn't find trivially). A couple of PDF's instead of a pile of dead trees, and I have the added advantage of in-text search.

I got by with purchasing "international editions" from India on eBay, which had the same content in English, but with cheaper quality printing and no color. It was about $15 for a normally $150 book. Between that and downloading PDFs of other textbooks, I got through each semester with just around $50 of textbook budget.

Even if you don't need the textbooks, they might still be well worth it. For me, at least, they cost a small fraction fo the tuition. If you are paying $50K a year for your education, you need to maximize the value extracted. I got more from lectures when I had read the relevant chapters first.

Alternatively, buy the international edition, which is usually the exact same book but soft-cover, at half price. You can usually make it back, or even turn a bit of profit, at the end of the year.

Really, in order to complete your coursework you need a one-time-use "access code" that came with your textbook, and no one can share books with anyone else or borrow them from the library?

It boggles my mind that Stallman went out and spelled out a totally crazy-sounding future in "The Right to Read" (http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/right-to-read.html), and yet somehow bits and pieces of that future keep arriving.

It's shocking how close this dilemma is to the one facing the protagonist in Richard Stallman's essay, "The Right to Read." (http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/right-to-read.html) In fact, though its depiction of the future is still far-fetched in some respects, the salient points seem to have turned out exactly as he predicted.

The system that people here would like to see disrupted is a system that may be going away by itself. Publishers see that it is going to be too hard to sustain a revenue stream by selling books in the future --- they have been moving to services for quite a while. Students are too good at getting books. My students buy foreign editions at 10% of the US price. They download pdf scans from torrents. There are many ways to find used books. Stupid measures like the "useless new edition every 3 years" are just delaying tactics. Instead, publishers are selling services, like online testing and homework grading (cf. Pearson partnering with Coursera). These require students to purchase access codes keyed to individuals, and may be harder to get around. (The textbooks are often thrown in for prices around $20. That should tell you where the money is.) The publishers know they have a great market here. Professors hate grading papers, it hardly counts at all toward professional advancement, and it takes time and energy away from research, which does count. All that said, the circumstances described in the original article are appalling.

> Instead, publishers are selling services, like online testing and homework grading (cf. Pearson partnering with Coursera).

This is the place where it's going to get worse. The traditional model is that testing and homework exercises are done by TAs, but universities are finding out that you can contract out these services to the textbook publisher.

Yea, most of the time the access code is purchasable separately without the textbook, and many do allow paying online directly for them.

My first business was a college textbook trading site for UMass Amherst. I was approached for a partnership by i2hub which later became connectU. I was a sophomore in college, couldn't even afford a laptop or computer and was blown away at how much students were loosing when selling their textbooks back at the end of the semester. There are 25k students spending $1k/year on books and selling them back for a max of 25% of the purchase price. The community was loosing $10m every year. I started the site cause I was pissed off and was scratching my own itch. I didn't have time for politics. My site looked like shit, but within a few months over 10% of the population was usin it and I was making money.

This is sort of OT, but I always love to share this little tidbit of my time at Xavier (I graduated in 2001). At the end of the semester, the bookstore would put out these huge boxes and when they would refuse to buy back people's books (because the same book was not being used the following semester), people would just chuck their books in the boxes. I'm sure the bookstore was just selling those books to some other efollett (or whatever) bookstore. I used to go and snatch tons of books out of those boxes and sell them on half.com or amazon marketplace...similarly, profs would put the sample textbooks outside their office doors for people to take if they wanted them...those went on half.com and amazon marketplace too...I at least took a bite out of my textbook expenses that way.

Pretty much everything surrounding tertiary education needs disruptive companies to come in and restructure it - but particularly the dodginess around textbooks / school bookstores.

On the surface the conditions even almost seem ideal - you have an existing oligopoly where each player has huge overheads and then on top of this add huge markups. You have a somewhat captive market (the students are entirely captive, while the professors are generally pretty free to choose the books that they want), and a product that's targeted towards younger, educated people (people to whom technology isn't a huge burden).

The only thing that's really standing in the way of someone shaking things up is in convincing the professors that your option is better than whatever's being offered by the incumbents. I really, really hope that at some point soon someone takes on the publishers - with a serious product, they'd have the potential to win, and more importantly, to do something useful for making education more accessible.

> Pretty much everything surrounding tertiary education needs disruptive companies to come in and restructure it - but particularly the dodginess around textbooks / school bookstores.

Textbooks for introductory courses don't change much between editions. The pagination may change slightly, as might the odd illustration, and that is that. What needs to happen is that the students need to get off their collective asses and buy the previous edition of the text from their colleagues from the year before. Nothing else will bring prices down. It's not likely to happen, considering just how spoonfed students at your average college are.

I mostly got away without buying new textbooks after first-year - there were a couple of classes where I needed them, but in a lot of cases I knew people who'd taken it before and lent me the book / the prof had kept with the old version (or in some cases gave old as well as new question/page references), but I've found that it's the first year courses where they mix up the books the most.

My own personal experiences have been with archaeology texts where the chapter-end studies were replaced with a different culture, physics texts where the figures within the questions were changed and maths texts where the questions were the same but reordered. Yeah, you can learn the same stuff from the textbook's main content, but if you get assigned a list of questions to complete and those questions don't match with this years' then buying the previous textbook is essentially useless. In my later years, the homework was never "do these questions from the book", so the texts dated less.

Here's a proposed solution: Do away with textbooks. Have tax payer money go to a national comittee of member professors who work on updating the standard curricula (with good version control), any time there's a change or new hotspot in the area of say cell biology, they can review/update and "push" their changes to the master for merging. Then the teachers can just "pull" the updated version to their pc's in the classroom, students could do the same. Have the same thing at the college level. If a student for some reason has no internet access (shouldn't internet access be a right by now, try functioning without it), he can receive a printed version. There are so many positives to this (environmental, educational), but I suppose the interest groups involved who profit from "learning" (which should be the most important free/open thing we promote), would never let this happen ...

Have tax payer money go to a national comittee of member professors who work on updating the standard curricula (with good version control), any time there's a change or new hotspot in the area of say cell biology, they can review/update and "push" their changes to the master for merging.

The print textbooks used in schools in several parts of east Asia have had a rational production process like that (hire experts to determine what is really essential content, and then have pedagogical experts work out the best way to present the content) for years. That's one of the big reasons why, even when Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore were poor countries (are you old enough to remember those days?), they made good educational progress through effective schooling for the broad national population, and why none of those countries are poor anymore. The United States is still too "fat and happy" (I like that dialectical English term for "complacent") to do something as efficient or rational for its school system.

A master textbook designed by a committee? It would probably be the most boring dull thing ever.

Worse, this is effectively what you already have in state school systems like Texas where you have a committee approving the sanctioned books for the public schools.

The results of this is the inclusion of intelligent design, downplaying of evolution, etc... etc..

Well, the biology textbooks put together by states north of the Mason-Dixon Line should be alright... =P

Applying software development models will fix it! =P

If all you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_of_the_instrument

Digital textbooks are a pain.

I had a similar problem with a Chemistry professor who thought it was brilliant to let students do their homework on a website held by Pearson. The access to the website was conditional to the purchase of a code found in the textbook, which code was expiring at the end of the semester (4 months after registration). She also found that it would be a brilliant idea to give 30% of the term's mark on homework; it would give a chance to student who had a hard time on the exams.

So what happened is that in order to be eligible for that 30% part of your final mark, you had to pay an extra 150$. Otherwise, you simply couldn't do and submit your assignments.

In other words, you first pay the university to be taught the course but, oh that's not all. You can't actually get the course for that price; no you have to pay an extra 150$ to really do the course.

After fighting with her for two weeks at the beginning of the term, she gave me the choice between subscribing to the service for 50$ to only get an access code, without the textbook. Or I could get the questions on paper, and submit them manually, but only if I would take a rendez-vous every time to get the questions, and answer them on site for the duration of the rendez-vous, which was ridiculous. In the end I bought the 50$ access code, in shame. Maybe I should have fought my case, but I was already sick of this 2 week fight over one of my 5 other courses.

I think there's a fight to be done there. There must be laws that force the prof to disclose how much money they get from publishers. There must be laws that disallow linking marks to the purchase of some material. It seems obvious to me that once I paid the price of the course to the university, I should be given access to the same share of marks than student who will pay for whatever other extra. Maybe I would have a harder time doing the course without the textbook, but that would be my own decision, and I would still get the chance to have all my marks if I work hard enough.

To end this long post, I'll admit that although I don't agree with piracy, I do use bootleg copies of textbook if I don't consider them of worthy quality. I don't like to be forced into buying something I don't like. However, I will (and do) pay for the books I consider worthy, and be quite happy to do it. For instance, I don't like the book required by my C++ class, so I will most likely use a bootleg copy, and buy another book that I find of better quality.

The reason that happened wasn't because the lady is getting kickbacks from the publisher, it was that she wanted to unload the setting of questions and the grading on someone else. It used to be that you had TAs for that when the workload became to large for the professor to handle, but we are seeing third parties moving into this market niche. (Hey! An idea for a startup!)

There is not enough information here to decide if the professor is lazy or the university is overworking her - we would need to know about her course load, class sizes and other duties. However, there is no excuse for this stealth increase in tuition, this cannot be allowed to happen.

CU Denver undergrad students seeking a degree are forced to take a few 3000+ level courses to meet a cultural diversity requirement. Most other general education requirements can be met by taking equivalent courses at a community college which is what I did. I've always speculated that these are required in order to help the college get some extra money from students. Some of the options for these courses have required materials that can only be purchased from the university bookstore and they consist mainly of printouts of wikipedia articles.

My school changed it so that the AP US History test only counted if you got a 5. If you got a 4, you were exempt from taking US History, but you didn't get credit, so you had to take another history class instead.

If you made a 4 on the AP US history exam, you most likely learned more than the average student who made an A in college US History.

They also severely limit credit by examination. It's all about making people pay for classes.

There is an issue that hasn't come up yet: why does a professor recommend a certain text for a class instead of the students buying the textbook that they like best? After all, for each kind of course the various publishers each have a textbook on offer.

Here's the dirty secret: with the teacher's edition there comes access to the solutions and a bank of exercises and test questions. If there's a set text it's likely that the students pay for the convenience of whoever teaches the class.

Nothing prevents you from reading any textbook you like. But, among many reasons why there's a standard text, is so that you can tell the students "Read chapter 5 about fluid dynamics, it's on the exam." Then after the exam, nobody can complain "my textbook didn't cover the same material, you need to adjust my grade".

What's dirty or secret about that?

If your instructor uses Tanenbaum's perfectly good question about page eviction strategies from "Modern Operating Systems", rather than writing (and debugging) essentially the same question over again, they can spend more of their time talking to you and helping you.

Also, some set texts are really excellent, and the instructor would not be able to produce as good a resource themselves. Some people are better teachers, others writers. Writing good, unambiguous questions that produce decent answers is much harder than it sounds.

I'm a bit surprised at this article - I studied Physics in the Tel Aviv Univesity (Israel), and I could borrow every course book from the library. Those weren't even necessary, all of the course materials were available from the course website as summaries, formula handbooks and so forth.

U.S universities don't stock their libraries with multiple copies of their course books?

Typically there are 1-2 copies on reserve at the library, but you can only check them out for a couple hours at the time. With a class of 50+ students that's not a workable solution for most. And most don't even try anyway..

Wow. We had dozens of copies of the important books, and you could borrow it for 2-4 weeks at a time (depending on the book).

That's never been my experience. One or two books only, and I'm not even sure students were allowed to sign it out of the library.

Are you referring to TAU? what department were you in?

No, business.

The book is worthless without the online access code.

We used to pass around photocopies of "the diffs".

These were just what you think. The scant things added to this years "edition" so that you couldn't use last years used one. They were rarely more than a few pages long and mostly full of hints on where things got moved to instead of legitimately new content.

Not to mention the typos and inaccuracies that remain year after year.

I would love to see the textbook industry disrupted.. but how? It's so ingrained in the system. Textbook rentals are a start, but still expensive.

I even knew some college students that looked "down" on buying used books, like you were buying someone's used underwear.

I had a professor, way back in the early 00s, who was helping solve this problem. We had no textbook in the class. Instead, our readings were all recently published papers. On the class website he linked to all the papers so we could download and print them if we wanted to. He also negotiated with the author of each paper for the rights to reprint the paper. You could buy the "textbook", which was just a bound photocopy of the papers, for $10 (the cost of printing).

If more professors did this, then the problem would be solved.

I'm doing this with a class I'm teaching, but I think it works better for small research/discussion-oriented seminars than larger introductory courses, where recent papers are most relevant. For intro courses, coming up with good intro materials is a fairly hard problem. If I were teaching an intro course on theory of computation, for example, I would probably still use Michael Sipser's Theory of Computation, because it's good, and I don't think I would be likely able to put together an equally good replacement out of freely available materials. I would, though, try to make sure that the course didn't prevent students from using the previous edition (which is now available cheaply).

This would only apply to upper level classes. The thing about this, there can some specialized classes where reading source papers makes sense. But honestly, even for those classes, usually a good survey book can be better, more concise than the source papers. It depends. But I don't think this would make sense of Algebra or Calculus ... or probably any class besides more specialized ones. I mean, you could teach a Distributed Systems class with source papers; I think that would be OK but it would probably be good to have a textbook as a reference.

> I even knew some college students that looked "down" on buying used books, like you were buying someone's used underwear.

For what it's worth, I did not know anyone with this attitude. Everyone bought either used or international versions off of Amazon.

My husband, who starts back to university tomorrow, just spent $230 on a new textbook, when I found a used copy on Amazon for $48, because he wanted a new book. I spent a while banging my head against the desk and sighing loudly over that one.

On the other hand, he's excited about finishing his degree, which he has put off for many years now, so if this is what does it for him, it's a small price to pay.... at least that's what I keep telling myself. I suspect that once the excitement of the first couple of semesters of "hey, I'm actually doing this" wears off, he'll be buying used books like the rest of us.

To be fair, used textbooks have highlighting in them. I gave up on used books in law school because the existing highlighting and margin notes were often wrong and distracting, and got in the way of my own highlighting which was a big part of my workflow.

I'm sure this was part of his reasoning. Now that you mention it, I'm not sure I would buy one from Amazon for this reason. I bought used textbooks from the university bookstore all the time when I was in school, because I could flip through them and find one that wasn't badly marked up, but you can't exactly do that with an online retailer.

The reality is that people stop buying books that aren't useful. I knew a lot of folks in grad school who just refused to buy books for classes that didn't use them for weekly problem sets. By and large they got away with it.

Find the right incentives. Whatever your solution, it has to make (financial) sense for the school and the professor, otherwise you're not going anywhere.

Full disclosure - I run Reference Tree (http://reference-tree.com) we rent textbooks by chapter from Publishers including those mentioned in the post focussed on the UK higher education market.

Many professors in the UK resist attempts for custom editions and for single access to textbooks, indeed there are those who even go so far as to _avoid_ textbooks pushed in this way - preferring academic relevance over expense account dinners.

I am surprised, in fact very surprised that a university would allow such a connection between a book and a course. it goes against principles of higher education and education in general. What happens if you take the course but can not afford the text (and did not have the patience and drive shown by Luke?) How lacking in belief in their own capabilities to teach and research must an academic be if they must think of these types of activities to shore up their own income?

Many UK academics we have spoken to would rather use the best content for their course from a variety of sources than either custom editions from a single publisher or a single textbook.

Indeed work such as those by Flat World Knowledge and Bookboon.com on a market level as beginning to chip away at this market dominance, however you will still have unscrupulous professors. The growth of Flat World Knowledge in terms of adoptions, shows that there is a clear market out there for accessible alternatives to mainstream textbooks.

This kind of thing seems like a prime opportunity for some good old fashioned student agitation. When I was at uni people occupied the library just because they weren't given 24 hour access to it. They turned it into a free peer to peer skills exchange for a couple of days. They eventually got what they wanted IIRC. This was only about 5 years ago.

Couldn't he at least have given the professor's name? I guess when uni becomes such a massive financial hedge, agitation goes out the window.

I'd be interested in seeing a table of contents, to take a brief look at seeing how much of the textbook is public domain. There isn't enough data to quite be able to tell from the post; an English class could cover mostly PD classics, or mostly 20th century stuff (which I expect to fall into the public domain about the time we just give up on copyright... your guess is as good as mine as to when that is), or anything in between.

For ENG 205 at UMaine, my professor required us to purchase his own novel for the class, and offered extra credit to anyone who reviewed the novel on Amazon...


How was the novel? It sounds amazingly bad.

You guessed it! Absolutely terrible...

The OP paid an extra $150 to take a class that guarantees A's. The alternative was to pay an extra $0 and have to actually earn his A. He got greedy and bought his A.

The system is broken, but to give in to a corrupt professor's bribe in order to get an A isn't the fault of greedy publishers.

I'm going back to teaching this year after being an administrator for 13 years and stories like this just make me mad. I'm committed to join others that make their material available for free (under a creative commons license) and encourage colleagues from other institutions to do the same. The good news is that I soon will have completed a textbook for introductory linear algebra. The not-so-good news (for most of the HN crowd) is that all I write is in French. Fortunately, there are already free textbooks in linear algebra available in English. If enough of us make a stand, within 5 years there might be enough material written to shame anyone showing this kind of disgusting behaviour.

I appreciate writing and teaching are reasonably different lines of endeavor, but I'll go out on a limb and suggest that a professor who can't write his/her own textbook on his/her field of endeavor is not a professor I would be interested in learning from.

The publishing industry is creating a monster with their practices, and they have only themselves to blame. I've seen torrent trackers which are dedicated to textbooks, frequented by students sick of the "new edition" games. I've also heard of students pooling their money to buy a copy of a text, which is then sacrificed to a sheet-fed scanner. Everybody gets an electronic copy that way, for a fraction of the price. Then you have DIY book scanners, which don't even destroy the text (which means you can return it after copying it and sharing the pirate e-copy with everyone).

I remember when I took Digital Design, Cmpt Science 290 (My first introduction to state tables) - the instructor a ton of custom information just for his course - several hundred pages. For $10 he'd offer to give us a custom develop photocopy-package he and his grad students had put together, or, we could just copy off of someone else ourselves.

Interesting to see the behavior of people who are interested in teaching. Anything that gets in the way is seen as a barrier to be overcome.

Utah is about to try out open textbooks for huge savings: http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/2134

Does the education sector need a website naming and shaming classes/professors doing this, or proclaiming those that make efforts to keep learning accessible?

I had a networking prof, which allowed us to use a $15 book for our programming, but required a $225 book to cover the 7 layers. He understood the issue, but could not address all of it realistically. I've had 3-4 1301 classes in which the professors make money off the books/keys. Mostly, after generics, the text book battle seemed to be less exaggerated. There is a trend:

2009-2010 $3100/books

2010-2011 $1500/books

2011-2012 $1000/books

2012 $255/books

I saw the same situation happen for many classes at Rutgers... I was lucky and didn't get burned too badly, but I know those who did.

So the professor wrote his own book & then forced students to purchase it every year? Care to explain a little more?

I had the same thing happen at Georiga Tech years ago. My calc professor had the class buy a rough draft of the textbook he was writing. That wasn't as egregious as the situation described here, we could share books. The books were worthless at the end of the semester, though, since he'd have a new iteration out by then.

The book was as terrible as his teaching.

I had a calculus professor do this at the University of Maryland. Her book was awful. Her teaching method was standing in front of the class, and reading from her book. During one class, someone asked her to explain something a different way, and she explained that the way she was explaining it was the best way it could be explained, which is why she wrote it that way. The worst part is, the next year I had another math course where the professor literally did not speak English, and I couldn't understand anything he was trying to communicate, so she wasn't actually the worst professor I had there.

Very, very commonplace even 25 years ago when I was an undergrad.

I am so glad I don't have to put up with (most) of this stuff at my university (The University of Auckland). We do have some online/extra material from Pearson for a number of courses, however this is provided separately from the textbooks and is included in the course price.

Last place I was requires a conflict of interest review when a professor requires a self-authored textbook for class. Their recommended course of action is to donate all royalties from those books to the university.

Yeah, this matches my experience pretty well.

Buying an access code just to be able to do the homework really sucks. (Trying to input mathematical notations onto blackboard is possibly the only thing that sucks more.)

Don't forget international edition textbooks, which just help prove how much of a sham the whole thing is -- they're analogous to region locking on DVDs...

They're a bit worse. I had one international edition math textbook in which numbers in some of the math problems differed from the US edition. I learned this primarily because I bought the US edition "student solutions guide," which is a whole other racket, and the solutions were often slightly different.

Just enough that someone doing those problems out of the book for an assignment would be hosed. It didn't hurt me because my prof assigned his own homework problems, but still, hugely annoying.

Wow. Textbook prices have gone out of control. 25 years ago as a comp sci/math dual major, the MOST I ever spent in one semester was $300.

Which college did they attend? I'm interested in finding out who this professor is...

I'd like to deal with the textbook industry someday.

I work for a company in the Canadian academic publishing industry.

In Canada, it is illegal to require students to pay for their own testing. By law, those textbooks which come with the Access Code for an online quiz are not allowed (if the teacher actually collects the marks for those quizzes). The funny thing is that this law is hardly being enforced! Other posters are right in their encouraging students to make a stand, because the law already backs them up here. With all of the protests in Montreal, I wouldn't be surprised if Quebec were to be the first to fall.

There's a twist to this story, however, and it's analogous to Cold War military spending. During that time, the government was in a position of not knowing how much was enough, so they poured in as much as they could, and that probably lead to a lot of innovation from minds that might not have gotten a chance to do this stuff without the money being there. Granted, it also made a lot of people in American academia pretty fat and happy.

The company I work for is an innovator. We are taking advantage of this high-margin market to fund TONS of desperately-needed R&D in education and provide new kinds of learning products. The axe will come down one day, inevitably, but in the meantime, I at least hope to move the dial on learning methods from 1912 to 2012 and beyond.

Once students do take a stand, the good thing is that they at least won't be getting ripped off directly. Sooner or later though, teachers are going to be demanding their online quiz software back. That'll be a perfect opportunity for a company such as Blackboard to swoop in and add licensing fees to their own embedded quizzing software. This will be easy to digest for school administrators who can see the advantage of the upgrade. But that's when things get back into a stalemate position. Sure, it might be possible to build technology that vastly enhances the understanding of a subject through modelling, etc, but why fund it if either it doesn't change the money coming in to Blackboard or costs the schools too much (would be eating directly into staff salaries, unless you make an argument for the need to hire fewer TA's...).

At that point, I would bet that you might be seeing more innovative models coming from nationally-funded development programs for textbooks (as mentioned in another post), similar to the extremely high innovation that comes out of an organization such as the National Film Board of Canada (http://www.nfb.ca/), clearly run by smart brains. Government orgs aren't generally known for innovation, but it really only takes one country somewhere to do it and others can copy. Otherwise, we will probably have some areas where the model is still predominantly that of selling directly to students, and they would have the funding at least to do this kind of development (though there's probably a 10% chance they would squander what's left of the tits they've been milking for years).

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