• September 1, 2015

A Textbook Case for Low-Cost Books

A Textbook Case for Low-Cost Books 1

Randall Enos for The Chronicle

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Randall Enos for The Chronicle

It is clear to anyone who looks at the state of textbooks today that the system is broken. It does not work well for anyone, but it is especially hard on students, who typically pay $1,000 a year or more for textbooks.

Everyone with a financial stake in the textbook business is looking for a new model. That is especially true for publishers, but also for bookstores and authors. Macmillan's recent announcement of its DynamicBooks program, which provides a high degree of customization with electronic and print-on-demand capabilities, is typical. Most major textbook publishers have or are planning something similar.

Several textbook-rental companies, including Chegg.com, CollegeBookRenter.com, and BookRenter.com, have made inroads into college campuses, and major college-bookstore operators are exploring rental programs as well. Start-ups like Flat World Knowledge offer their textbooks free on the Web and sell a variety of versions of the text (print-on-demand books, printable PDF's of chapters, and MP3 files) and support materials. Connexions and numerous other groups provide platforms for a growing number of open textbooks.

After some particularly effective lobbying—especially by U.S. PIRG, which organized a campaign for affordable textbooks—Congress has weighed in. As part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, effective July 1, colleges and universities, "to the maximum extent practicable," must provide students with information about textbook requirements when they register for classes.

Colleges have, historically, been largely absent from direct involvement in the textbook market. Faculty members usually determine the textbooks needed for their courses, according to their own preferences. Publishers then sell those selected textbooks to each student through bookstores.

Further, academics frequently write textbooks for publishers. And unlike colleges' handling of patents for potentially lucrative discoveries, the institutions usually take no ownership interest in the intellectual property that their faculty members create for textbooks, even when the resulting income to the faculty member is significant. Although textbooks are important to teaching, most of the decision-making and money are outside of an institution's control.

That should change. If colleges act decisively, they can reduce costs, enhance pedagogy, increase student success, and change how textbooks and related course materials are created, distributed, and used. They can also demonstrate to students, parents, and legislators that providing an affordable path to academic success is an institutional priority. But if colleges do nothing, they leave their students vulnerable to market forces and may lose control of how teaching and learning are conducted.

Whether or not colleges act, the textbook market will change. All of the players—authors, publishers, bookstores, professors, and students—know that the status quo cannot hold. The question for college administrators is whether we will drift through the coming changes or be leaders in meeting the challenges.

We can provide immediate relief to students and, in the longer term, create sustainable, responsive, and cheaper ways of producing and distributing textbooks and other course materials by taking three steps:

Encourage and embrace rental programs. They are the best way to reduce costs in the immediate term, and a variety of options, offered by textbook-rental firms and collegiate bookstores, already exist. In general, a textbook rented through such programs costs 30 percent to 40 percent of the list price. Students who purchase textbooks may pay more than the list price and get only half of that back when they resell the books at the end of the semester. Textbook-rental programs are, at their core, a way of rationalizing the chaotic used-textbook market. Contracts with bookstores may need to be renegotiated, as bookstores will need to invest in book stock, and their profit formulas could be adversely affected. Publishers can be expected to complain, but students will save money and have their academic lives simplified. 

Establish metrics for textbook costs and goals for their reduction. To make significant changes, college presidents should publicly state their commitment to reduce textbooks costs. For example, a 5-percent campuswide reduction in costs in each of the next five years is an easily achievable goal. A bolder goal would be a 10-percent reduction in each of the next five years, with the aim of reducing textbooks costs by half. Setting the bar high is likely to drive innovative practices more quickly.

As for measuring any successes, the best available metric is the total cost of textbooks to students. Because students can acquire books from many sources, the exact cost to them is impossible to establish, but the theoretical cost is usually easy to determine at the course, department, school, campus, and university levels. Most or all campus bookstores have data on expected enrollments as well as the required and recommended textbooks for all courses. With those figures, colleges can estimate how much textbooks cost their students and measure any success in reducing those costs. In order to motivate faculty members, departments, schools, and campuses to help reduce textbook expenses, their costs should be publicly disclosed.

Set up an investment fund that would allow faculty members, programs, and departments to acquire or create alternative content. If even a fraction of the money spent on textbooks by students could be directly invested by colleges for textbook development, better and cheaper content could be developed and delivered. Colleges should invest $200 per full-time student in a three-year project to develop or purchase textbooks and other instructional materials, initially focusing on the 100 undergraduate courses with the largest enrollments.

Textbooks could be developed and deployed in a variety of ways. Universities or multi-institution groups could commission content created by faculty members that would then be owned and managed by the universities. Alternatively, universities could use their market power individually or collectively to make bulk purchases of content from publishers. It is hard to know what sort of deal the University of California system or the Council of Independent Colleges might be able to make with Pearson or McGraw-Hill, but it would certainly be better than what students get today.

Other portions of the investment fund would very likely support technology infrastructure. University presses could contribute productively to this effort by providing editorial services that support content creation. Multi-institution collaborations would be especially powerful if that content was then made open-access, to allow for sharing across colleges and universities.

After a year or two, with investment at that scale, enough content would be in place that a modest student book fee of, say, $50 could be easily justified, and, within three to five years, that fee could rise to $100. Students might still need to purchase textbooks on some occasions, but their costs would probably be reduced by half. The initial investment could be repaid through the student book fees, and the fund could be renewed with continued fees to allow for updating older content and developing new materials.

Another important part of such a strategy involves technological infrastructure. Today textbook publishers call for students or campuses to access content from the publishers' systems, which means that content comes from multiple platforms outside the campus, making integration with course-management systems difficult and raising concerns for privacy and security. It also positions publishers, who can observe how students interact with the content, to know more about how students behave than some colleges or professors do. Knowledge about how students use learning materials is an important byproduct of such systems, and faculty members and colleges need to have access to it.

A far better approach is for colleges to manage digital content on in-house systems that are integrated with their course-management systems. Content should be purchased, leased, or created, and loaded into such a system, and it should be licensed so that faculty members can modify it to best meet their instructional needs. Purchased and licensed content would ideally be available as a campus site license—rather than on a per-student basis, as publishers probably prefer—to give students access to the content throughout their enrollment, not just for the time they are taking a particular course.

Textbooks are changing, and they should. Our system does not provide the most effective support for teaching or for students' financial and academic success. If colleges and universities act decisively, five years from now, we will have created a better, cheaper way of providing textbooks—one that serves the needs of students and professors, and that enhances teaching and learning.

David W. Lewis is dean of the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis University Library and assistant vice president for digital scholarly communications at Indiana University.


1. disabilitywoman - July 06, 2010 at 09:13 am

A very important part of textbook reform that needs to be addressed is equal access to textbooks for people with disabilities. Historically, publishers have abdicated their responsibility to provide access to students with disabilities in alternate (audio, Braille, etc.) by insisting that the responsibility to provide alternate formats for those who are "print impaired" belongs to the post secondary institutions. At the same time, publishers require that students who cannot access print purchase a print copy of the textbook in order to release what are often substandard PDF or text files of the textbook which still have to be modified by the colleges and universities disability services office before students can use them. Any changes to the way textbooks are provided need to assure equal access to the disabled populations who need alternate formats that can be easily obtained at the same time that non-disabled students access them.

2. ianbarker - July 06, 2010 at 02:10 pm

Super article, David. Change is warranted, and forthcoming. Not sure I totally agree with all your recommendations though I see where you're headed.

For me, an emphasis on the 'net and digital technologies is the single most important factor in improving the educational content equation, and while you address technology in your post, for me it's far more important than text rentals, for example.

More here, if you or your readers are interested: http://www.symtext.com/2010/07/hey-what-about-the-net/



3. jackyhood - July 06, 2010 at 04:36 pm

Excellent article, David.

The number one concern of adopting instructors/professors is the quality of open textbooks. So our focus is on acquiring peer reviews and accessibility reviews of open textbooks. We have located nearly 500 open textbooks suitable for 2-year colleges. More than 100 of these now have peer reviews and 40 have been reviewed for accessibility. These numbers will increase to 140 and 100 by the end of this year.

We are delighted to announce that Textbook Media is in the process of open-licensing 6 of its outstanding textbooks: 3 accounting, 2 composition, and one American Government. Henry Jud Sage is moving his 8 history textbooks to Creative Commons licensing, and we are assisting Larry Reynolds in converting his open-licensed economics textbooks to the Connexions frictionless-mixing format.

Jacky Hood
Director, College Open Textbooks
+1 650 949-7091

4. blendedlibrarian - July 07, 2010 at 09:48 am

I'm in agreement with the author that there is much our institutions can do to improve the textbook conundrum in which we find ourselves, and how doing so will help our students.

However, in my own essays on this topic I have advocated for a more assertive role for the academic library in developing new models for encouraging faculty to try other options for creating and distributing learning materials to students. Those who found this essay of interest may also want to read "Taming the Textbook Market at http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2010/06/11/bell or this column on "Curricular Resource Strategies" at http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6712127.html

5. fizmath - July 07, 2010 at 10:40 am

Stop putting out new editions every two years.

6. cel4145 - July 08, 2010 at 10:14 am

Lewis writes, "Set up an investment fund that would allow faculty members, programs, and departments to acquire or create alternative content."

I wonder if this model would be sustainable, and I doubt somehow that commercial publishers would sell rights to their textbooks at a price that would be affordable. Instead, colleges could stimulate an ecology of quality textbook publishing in higher education with more indirect investments by rewriting tenure and promotion guidelines to give credit for open textbook publications that would use a peer-review and publishing model similar to academic journals and edited collections. Those institutions that want to offer more direct involvement could sponsor one or two publications like this, much as they provide some insitutional support for hosting scholarly journals or academic presses. This specific open textbook publication model has the benefit of being a genre that facutly-as-textbook-writers and tenure and promotion committees clearly understand (as opposed to the freely share your materials online via repositories model or collaborating in commons-based-peer-production style via wikis which are more highly experimental publication models that appeal mostly to innovators). Charles M. Schweik posited this model for learning materials in "Free/Open-Source Software as a Framework for Establishing Commons in Science" (see Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, 2007, Charlotte Hessand Elino Ostrom, eds.) and it is a model we are using at Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, a writing textbook for first year composition classes: http://writingspaces.org/. We are also publishing in partnership with a scholarly press, Parlor Press, so any print sale proceeds go to sustaining both Writing Spaces and Parlor Press. This kind of partnership with an academic press could help to assist university presses who are struggling sustaining funding.

Charlie Lowe
Writing Spaces Co-Editor

7. cel4145 - July 08, 2010 at 10:18 am

Note that should be Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom. Here is a direct link to that text on Amazon:


8. starryeyed - July 08, 2010 at 07:36 pm

I do not see how authors are to be paid with any of these models. Yes, I am one. I was brought in at the 3rd edition and spent 3 years on the revision---nights, weekends, vacations, and summers. Because of publisher incompetence with another publisher, the 6th edition has taken up nearly 4 years (but not the number of hours that the 3rd edition took). Thus, author compensation is important and needs to be considered. I may have made more per hour flipping hamburgers (although writing WAS much more fun and fulfilling).

9. agusti - July 09, 2010 at 05:03 am

The University of Texas (LAITS institute) has developed an excellent open-source web-based textbook/course platform for French (http://laits.utexas.edu/fi/). The book is available as free PDF files on the website, and can be ordered from a print-on-demand service or simply printed by the individual teacher/learner.

They apparently did this using a combination of grants and internal (UT) funding. This, it seems to me, could be at least one of the futures of course material production (I hesitate to use the term "textbook" anymore since I think they will be obsolete as such before too long).

This problem is also dealt with in different ways in other countries. Speaking just from a language-learning perspective, in France, Spain and other countries there are excellent course manuals available for a fraction of the cost of what our students pay in the US (20-30 Euro for a manual that covers multiple semesters of language learning).

At least in languages, there are other ways to go, and I think the more of us who go that way, the more demand there will be for similar products. Here's hoping the tyranny of the $300 textbook comes to an end soon.

10. rthull - July 09, 2010 at 07:29 am

Starryeyed the textbook author sounds the note that was missing from David Lewis' piece. While it is nice to suppose that faculty will add writing course materials to their normal duties and gladly cede the royalties to their institutions, the realities of serious textbook preparation render this idea no more than an increased load for little increase in salary. Most textbook authors write on their own time, unlike the scientist who is provided lab space and material support by the institution and her or his grants.

Another consideration recently articulated at the TAA conference in Minneapolis was the improvement in the quality of content in textbooks over the past several decades. Color illustrations and photographs were absent in texts 40-50 years ago, as were ancillary materials such as study guides, self-testing materials, interactive CD-ROMs, and the like. So the value received per dollar spent, especially allowing for inflation, is much greater now than then.

Finally, rental schemes will work to bring down textbook costs only if publishers and authors benefit from the rental income. A book purchased by a bookstore and rented and rerented to students is no different than a book purchased by an individual and then sold and resold; every use of that book except the first sale earns no income for the publisher and no royalties for the author. Print texts will remain expensive; publishers will have to issue new editions every three or four years in order to stay in business (for every 100 new copies sold the first year, only about 30 are sold the second and only 5 the third!); trees will continue to be cut down; shipping and storage costs will continue to be added into prices.

The real revolution in textbook costs will come when the books are distributed electronically, when use of each copy is limited to one user with transfer to another not readily possible, and when students and faculty resign themselves to reading on their second generation kindles, nooks, and ipads.

Richard T. Hull, Executive Director, Text and Academic Authors Association

11. dwlewis - July 09, 2010 at 09:32 am

Richard Hull says, "The real revolution in textbook costs will come when the books are distributed electronically, when use of each copy is limited to one user with transfer to another not readily possible." That may be so, but only if textbook distribution mirrors what has happened with music. Chapters, not whole books need to be the unit that is purchased, supplemetal material needs to optional not bundled, and the content once purchased should be owned forever and installable on a small number of differnt systems. Current publisher e-text programs offer 180 days on one machine. This won't get it done. The deal has to be at least as good as iTunes or it is not good enugh.

I have to say that I find the arguement that authors and publishers don't benefit from the used or rental market to be a bit much. Ford doesn't complain when I sell my used car; Apple doesn't object when I put my old iPhone on eBay; and even publishers don't object to libraries loaning books. The first-sale doctrine has been an established part of U.S. copyright law for well over 100 years. Get over it.

I response to starryeyed, I fully understand that authors need to be compensated for the work they do writing textbooks, so do editors, illustrators, and designers. One part of my approach would be to have universities commision textbooks, pay the cost up front, and the manage the content in ways that are consistant with effect and affordable education. This is beginning to happen in palces like the California K-12 open textbook project and NFS funded signal processing textbooks in Connexions.

David W. Lewis

12. cmcclain - July 09, 2010 at 09:34 am

@rthul The real revolution in textbook costs will come when the books are distributed electronically, when use of each copy is limited to one user with transfer to another not readily possible, and when students and faculty resign themselves to reading on their second generation kindles, nooks, and ipads.

rather, when authors publish free textbooks online and expect no compensation other than their educational grants, just as researchers receive no compensation for published articles.

A reliance upon grant money may also reduce the textbook redundancies. There are too many textbooks that are identicial in their content.

13. 11159995 - July 09, 2010 at 09:35 am

The author hints at one approach in his third recommendation that has already been pursued by many universities in the development of courseware. On this model, courseware is treated more like patented inventions than like ordinary copyrighted work, which has traditionally been left to faculty to deal with on their own. Depending on the amount of initiative taken by a university and the level of its technical support, the author of courseware will enter into a contractual agreement with the university to share income derived from use of it outside the university; or, even more radically, but entirely within the framework of copyright law as it stands today, the courseware may be treated as "work made for hire," which legally defines the employer (i.e., university) as the copyright owner. This scheme would satisfy the needs expressed by some of the commentators for proper compensation for their investment of time while also acknowledging the investment of money and support personnel that the university provides in the development of the product. There is no good reason that this scheme, already in place for courseware, could not be extended generally to the development of textbooks, which would then be under the control of universities, not profit-driven commercial companies. The author also mentions a possible role for university presses, and indeed some presses, as at Temple University, have already been working with their universities in the development of textbooks for use internally. Presses already have staff with many of the skills needed for publishing textbooks, and I believe they would welcome an increased role in serving scholarly communication by extending their publishing activities more into pure textbook publishing.---Sandy Thatcher, past president of the Association of American University Presses, 2007/8

14. qwerty_asdf - July 09, 2010 at 11:41 am

So students pay a $1000 a year on textbooks. That comes to just $100 per course for a normal 30 hour course load.

How does that compare to their iPhone service contact? Their cable TV bill? Spring and Fall break trips? Bar tab? iTunes bill? Car payment? Pizza delivery?

This is a completely manufactured problem diven by the desire to diminish the value of intellectual production and stiff the writer. What talented, driven academic in his right mind would ever think of writing a textbook a on a work for hire basis or for free? I'm with Harlan Ellison, pay the writer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE

15. eric_gates - July 09, 2010 at 02:04 pm

Textbook publishers used to be privately held, so they were not held hostage to investors (Us! WE are the ones insisting they both lower prices AND increase profits...which do we really want?). Through a classic process of consolidation, we now have the big three, subsidiaries of Giant public Corporations who MUST return ten percent or die from a lack of access to the capital markets.

Further, Colleges and publishers have worked together to enable a mass production model (I certainly didn't learn English, Math, History, or chemistry in a 400-student lecture hall!) that supports the reduction in costs associated with undergraduate education to the benefit of the school's other missions: research, grants, graduate education, and (OH GOD!) Division 1 athletics (D-1 athletics over undergraduate education. OUCH!).

So the colleges have to accept some blame here. As do we investors for demanding a ten percent return on a business that isn't built to return ten percent, year after year, in perpetuity (does the supply of students to buy these books go up by ten percent every year?). And the book publishers are deperately trying to figure out how to keep the game going for a while longer.

Eventually, something's gotta give.

16. dwlewis - July 09, 2010 at 02:25 pm

I can resist noting that qwerty_asdf uses a free resource, YouTube, to make his point and that Harlan Ellison, despite the content of his rant, has put it up, or is allowing to be put up, for free. And this is not Mr. Ellison's only YouTube video; he has dozens. This is illustrative of both what is available and how it can be used. It shows very nicely, in a small way, the changes to come.

The important question is the one eric_gates suggests, how much longer will we let corporate textbook publishers take their 10% out of our student's pockets before the university, not simply individual faculty, but the university as an institution, acts.

17. bjones_y - July 10, 2010 at 01:10 am

ebooks may be part of the answer, rental textbooks has helped but many time you can buy a used textbook and then resell it for a total cost less than renting. The best is to use a good price price comparison service that reveals new, used, ebook and rental prices. http://www.cheap-textbooks.com/rent-textbooks.htm does this as well as providing buyback quotes.

18. richardtaborgreene - July 11, 2010 at 11:05 am

When INSTITUTIONS manage textbooks, no thinking professor would want to make or use one. When INSTITUTIONS, the euphemism used was the word "provide"d us faculty with computers, we all learned it is far far far better to buy our own on the side and be up to date without central control hassles and updates that wipe out files (for no good reason). Project Athena anyone---MIT brilliance at work.

So the proposal to let the same people who turned a free personal compute resource into a personal hell are now going to turn texts into hell---GREAT idea, why didn't I think of that????

To be sure when commercial presses bought out all the academic presses and jacked up journal prices till no one reads them and jacked up text prices till they, the prices, determine who learns what---when THAT happened we had as much reason to love university management of computing and press management of publishings. BOTH are sick proven incompetents and not solutions to anything.

Ventures, and entirely new legal and product types are needed that bypass harmful university admin control freaks and harmful greedy incompetent academic and commercial publishing freaks. We need a group---extremely well paid---to stay a step ahead of the bad hell-creator guys for generations----that is why new technology revolutionizes the world---it pays an elite group to stay a step ahead of control freak mba-s and managers (created by top ten colleges to stifle everything in the universe except their personal bonus).

19. sici3302 - August 03, 2010 at 09:35 am

The faculty investigated the textbook cost problem at our college, and found that it was the COLLEGE driving up the prices. Our college contracts with Barnes & Noble to run the campus bookstore, and the contract calls for B&N to pay the college almost half a million per year, plus over 10% of the profits! Where does B&N get that money? By charging the students more for the textbooks, of course! Students with money may be able to order their books somewhere else, but the ones waiting for financial aid don't have the lead time or the financial resources to do that, so our poorest students pay the highest prices. Not to mention that state and federal aid money intended for the students to use for books is now ending up in the college's unrestricted accounts, via the bookstore.
If your college uses B&N to run it's campus bookstore, demand to see the contract. Then you'll see where the money goes! The bookstore should be a break-even operation, but colleges have turned it into a cash cow, and our students are paying the price.

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