Sunday, 25 September 2011

How can a textbook cost more than my rent?

As overheard in the slightly confusingly named Miami University, which is in Oxford (not the English one, but in southern Ohio) last summer. Uttered by a student starting round about now, who with dismay was looking at the prices of textbooks in the bookstore affiliated with the institution, and realising that the most expensive book for her course would cost more than a months rent. (Or, in the case of the typical Miami University student, a terms worth of tanning salon appointments)

There were, or are, other options possibly available to her. She could rent the book from the store. Or, if one was available, buy or rent a digital copy from a service such as coursesmart, though the savings over buying the print version are often disappointing. She could try and get it out of the college library (unlikely, as they don't often stock textbooks which are out of date a year later), or even try the public library (tho' I'm guessing that borrowing a $215 textbook for a term isn't going to be a likely option from that route).

Or go for what's been described as the "less legal" options of finding a copy online. Yes, like the music, film and TV industries, there seems to be a rise in the availability of academic text books appearing online, either cheaply or free. Not so much "less legal" as completely illegal. But with the high costs of textbooks, sometimes measurable in the hundreds of dollars each, it was perhaps not a matter of if, but when. And therefore, students now have "services" such as LibraryPirate, as simply described in TorrentFreak.

What makes LibraryPirate more interesting than similar rogue services is that:
  • They are focused solely on academic textbooks.
  • They are going at it in two ways, by stripping the DRM from digital versions, and by helping students to create their own PDFs by quickly photographing an entire book.
And looking at their legal threats bar chart, some publishers have noticed them. Which they've ignored.

Academic publishers could, of course, reduce their prices drastically. Though this would involve restructuring their whole business model, upsetting shareholders, and may not stop book copying and piracy. Heck, if people will torrent a 99p or 99c album track rather than purchase it from iTunes, a massive price reduction may not stop this.

Alternately, there's a counter-argument that some publishers have known this is coming for a while, and are cashing in while they can. It's possible in some circumstances; several studies indicate that students have been willing (reluctantly) to keep buying textbooks even when prices have increased steeply. That particular linked study by Dr. Koch also indicates that the governmental system of college education funding support has possibly made matters worse, not better:
By building textbook cost increases into its approved financial aid formulas, Congress has placed itself in the position of ratifying and even encouraging further textbook price increases.
What else could publishers do? Possibly band together and get governmental help in trying to close down such sites, though if they become distributed, or set up in some Cryptonomicon-like data haven, that's going to be tricky. It's notable that The Pirate Bay has been in operation for eight years, with only a few days downtime, to date. (Looks further) As a side point, even said Pirate Bay now has a (small) selection of academic materials.

Arrrgh! | Pirates

Whatever happens, it's going to be an interesting academic year, for students and researchers looking for cheaper options for getting the information they need. And especially for academic-oriented publishing houses, facing the combined threats of open access, repositories, Google Scholar and mass article theft and distribution on their journal side, and the straight-out threat of people being able to torrent whole books for free on their textbook side, or find legal and free alternatives online.

I would possibly feel a bit sorry for the publishers who are charging students and universities large amounts of money per individual book, journal or article. But part of the weekend was spent rebuilding my biography on this website, which involved looking for long-forgotten papers and articles I'd written. And there's a load online - but publishers are, for many of them, charging silly money. For example, $25 plus VAT for a 15 year old article?! And worse, "£22.60 copyright fee + service charge (from £8.60) + VAT" for a 17 year old article which wasn't very good when it was fresh. It's also personally annoying to see a "copyright fee" to pay if I wanted to get back a copy of the damned article I co-wrote in the first place.

Either the articles are selling, in which case publishers are making a buck - a lot of bucks - from my work (albeit work that was done during taxpayer-funded time). Or they aren't selling, either because they aren't free or good value or relevant to anyone, or erm because they're not very good. So sympathy for academic publishers is somewhat lacking from me, and it's a reminder as an author-victim (?) that I should go and promote the e-petition on this (Knowledge generated by government funding should be freely available) some more. If only university repositories had been available back in the day, as that would have been the place to put my content in. Wish I'd kept a copy of every article, too.

Textbook Prices

But back on the academic textbook front, there's a problem. If academic book piracy and torrenting really takes off this year, could this impact the production of up-to-date books for students? In some subject domains, such as math, I'm guessing that textbooks don't require much updating, whereas in others (the physical sciences with e.g. new elements in the periodic table, particles inconveniently moving faster than light etc. or politics or history) there needs to be regular new editions. What would happen if the publishers of academic textbooks told new authors, and the updaters of previous editions, that their cut, revenue, royalty or whatever

So can textbooks still be produced at the fraction of the cost, or profit, that they are now? Some commentators think this isn't possible, with the many people involved in book production needing paying, while used book sales can also have an effect on new book sales. Others think that market pressures, and the increasing range of places you can buy a particular textbook, will eventually cause market price corrections.

I'm not so sure. The problem of academic journal and article prices has gotten worse over the last fifteen years, despite the emergence of the Internet and many projects and initiatives during that time. It's only very recently, with open access and repositories, that a significant shift across all subject areas, and not just a few, seems possible with journals. So it may be unrealistic to expect a sudden, radical shift in the book pricing and distribution model, from publishers.

And the alleged high production costs of academic textbooks is still unconvincing, simply because there are many specialist and niche and heavily researched books out there in the marketplace, and they aren't being sold at a couple of hundred bucks each.

It may take the extensive piracy of textbooks - if it happens - to force publishers to look at alternate pricing structures. A warehouse full of unsold, $200 a copy books may focus the mind.

Alternately, there's the authors themselves. Though heavily supported by the publishing houses who produce their academic books, could some be supported by other, independent, much more streamlined means? A small number of authors have put their academic textbooks online, of which one of the most well known is Keith van Rijsbergen's 1979 (second edition) Information Retrieval - though this was not a problem with the original publisher. What would it take for many of the authors of academic textbooks (new ones, and annually updated) to write for textbooks that were published in unconventional ways, or were available only online?

Who knows. It's going to be an interesting, and turbulent, year in many areas of academic publishing anyway.

Update In response to the first comment, here's one list of the "12 Most Expensive College Textbooks in America".

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