Friday, July 18, 2008

Textbook Downloads

When your prices are too high and people need your product, they will find a way to game the system, even if it's not legal. The marketplace is responding.

Faced with soaring prices for textbooks, cash-strapped students have discovered a tempting, effective, but illicit alternative - pirated electronic books, available for free over the Internet.

"We think it's a significant problem," said William Sampson, manager of infringement and antipiracy at Cengage Learning Inc., a reference book publisher in Farmington Hills, Mich. Sampson said that in any given month, 200 to 300 of the company's titles are posted illegally as free Internet downloads. Distributing books for free without permission violates copyright laws and deprives publishers of revenue.
What might a legal market-driven solution look like?


Ronnie said...

There is no long term "solution" to the "problem" of textbook piracy. Information at one time cost money to distribute, after the internet the cost of information distribution slammed to zero, completely changing how information can be marketed. All so called "intellectual property" cannot be protect against piracy and will thus eventually fall to a price of zero. Short term solutions involve paid for premium services, such as a free math textbook with a paid for program that generates custom problem sets after testing students for their strengths and weaknesses. Also advertising and other such cross promotion of products and services can temporarily help create marketable products that can use free textbooks in some way. The problem is any paid for service or product will most likely end up with a cost of zero eventually losing its marketability. The real "solution" rests in a change in who makes textbooks and how information is compiled. Eventually projects like Wikipedia and Textbook Revolution will completely replace all paid for information once they mature into the same quality level of what we grossly overpay for today. If you read the article this line outlines the future entirely "Some instructors avoid textbooks altogether, while still making use of the Web." I highly recommend reading The Economics of Free, an interesting, if not simplistic read.

Darren said...

I'm willing to bet, even though neither of us will be around to collect, that 100 years from now, college students will still be buying textbooks. I haven't yet seen enough evidence that the internet is going to have as dramatic an impact on intellectual property as you say, and relying on Wikipedia is a one-way ticket intellectual vapidity.

Imagine, though, instead of buying textbooks as they are today, you downloaded all of them into your Kindle-type device, one registered specifically to you and with technology to make it so only the most ardent computer science geeks could transfer books from one kindledevice to another.

That would certainly bring down the cost, and it would make the whole process more manageable.

It might help the locker situation at certain high schools, too!

Darren said...

Here is another look at piracy and its beneficial effects, from the Economist.

Ronnie said...

Quite a few colleges are already starting to do just what your talking about, having one electronic device with all your books. The problem is almost every situation in which this happens causes technical nightmares when you want to lock down the product to the point where piracy is difficult. If its difficult to pirate, its usually difficult to produce and use. Quite a few of my classes already relied on PDF essays for reading materials since they don't want to burden students with the costs of books. Some even produce illegal "readers" in which excerpts of books and essays are photocopied and bound together and sold by a local copy shop for $20. I don't mean Wikipedia will be the college book of the future, but I think collaborative projects like Wikipedia could easily replace textbooks in everything but the bleeding edge fields. Math and physics hasn't changed a whole lot in 50 years, why can't 10, 100, or 1,000 math teachers get together and make a perfect set of free textbooks? Those "readers" are what I see as the future, just instead of not having licenses and photocopying, I see freely licensed electronically downloaded materials.

nebraska girl said...

There has to be something better than a book you buy for $50 that the bookstore buys back for $1 and sells again for $50

allen (in Michigan) said...

There has to be something better? Yeah, maybe:

Still thin and rough around the edges but the outlines are there and some of them are filled in.

Lord Floppington said...

The example in the article shows a hardcover textbook selling for $135 and a downloadable version selling for $80. We might guess that the materials, printing, and shipping must therefore be somewhere around $55.

We might also estimate that delivery of the download version is practically zero, but call it $1 just for kicks.

Where does the other $79 go? Aside from the cost to print and ship, it would seem that the only other costs are for the people who write and proofread the text.

We may also safely assume that these writers and proofers are salaried employees, or considered as such. It seems unlikely that there is a textbook equivalent to Stephen King, who gets a million dollar advance for his next volume of US History.

How many books must be sold for that extra $79 to cover the salaries of the writers and proofers? How many people actually write and proof a textbook? And how much of what they write is actually original content? In math, for example, aren't the differences in a new textbook likely to be 98% packaging and organization? Addition and subtraction is still addition and subtraction, no matter which version of a math book you get. Is this way off-base, Darren?

And Darren, imagine a company came to you and said "Take a sabbatical, a year off, and write an Algebra I textbook for us. We'll pay you $100,000." Is that a task you could perform? Could you, and a graphics/layout person, produce a book in a year? If you both got $100,000, that's a little over 2500 of those $79 books. Your Algebra I book could probably sell that many copies on just three or four college campuses. All the rest is pure gravy.

Of course, I'm not in publishing. There must be all sorts of other expenses. It just seems like there is good potential for huge profits. Maybe congress should hold a hearing.

Darren said...

I've long said that I'm in the wrong part of the education business. Textbooks (and the talk circuit) are where the money is.

Regarding Algebra books, though--I don't think another one needs to be written. Ever. Algebra isn't changing and won't change--kinda like addition and subtraction--and there have been exceptional algebra books published for several decades. I myself am a big fan of author Sherman Stein, and he wrote an algebra book that I'd use if I could.

But if you wanted to pay me $100K to write a new one, I'd take it :-)

Ellen K said...

Part of the problem is that textbooks have become unbelieveably costly. Last semester, my son spent over $500 just on books. And what is worse, at the end of the term he will be lucky if he gets 20% of that back. More likely than not, the book will be discontinued or changed, leaving him with a useless pile of books. This is environmentally unsound, it is wasteful and it is punitive in some cases. I have heard of professors telling students to rip out the front page of their English literature books ($145.00) knowing that this makes the books unable to be bought back at the end of the term. I can only think this is done because the universities get a cut.