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A simple idea for publishers to help students (and themselves)

February 8, 2010, 7:00 am

OXFORD, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 08:  A student reads...
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I’m doing some research, if you can call it that, right now that involves looking at past editions of popular and/or influential calculus books to track the evolution of how certain concepts are developed and presented. I’ll have a lot to say on this if I ever get anywhere with it. But in the course of reading, I have been struck with how little some books change over the course of several editions. For example, the classic Stewart text has retained the exact wording and presentation in its section on concavity in every edition since the first, which was released in the mid-80′s. There’s nothing wrong with sticking with a particular way of doing things, if it works; but you have to ask yourself, does it really work? And if so, why are we now on the sixth edition of the book? I know that books need refreshing from time to time, but five times in 15 years?

Anyhow, it occurred to me that there’s something really simple that textbook companies could do that would both help out students who have a hard time affording textbooks (which is a lot of students) and give themselves an incentive not to update book editions for merely superficial reasons. That simple thing is: When a textbook undergoes a change in edition, post the old edition to the web as a free download. That could be a plain PDF, or it could be a  Kindle or iBooks version. Whatever the format, make it free, and make it easy to get.

This would be a win-win-win for publishers, authors, and students:

  • By charging the regular full price for the “premium” (= most up-to-date) edition of the book, the publisher wouldn’t experience any big changes in its revenue stream, provided (and this is a big “if”) the premium edition provides significant additional value over the old edition. In other words, as long as the new edition is really new, it would cost the publisher nothing to give the old version away.
  • But if the premium edition is just a superficial update of the old one, it will cost the publisher big money. So publishers would have significant incentive not to update editions for no good reason, thereby costing consumers (students) money they didn’t really need to spend (and may not have had in the first place).
  • All the add-ons like CD-ROMs, websites, and other items that often get bundled with textbooks would only be bundled with the premium edition. That would provide additional incentive for those who can afford to pay for the premium edition to do so. (It would also provide a litmus test for exactly how much value those add-ons really add to the book.)
  • It’s a lot easier to download a PDF of a deprecated version of a book, free and legally, then to try your luck with the various torrent sites or what-have-you to get the newest edition. Therefore, pirated versions of the textbook would be less desirable, benefitting both publishers and authors.
  • Schools with limited budgets (including homeschooling families) could simply agree not to use the premium version and go with the free, deprecated version instead. This would always be the case if the cost of the new edition outweighs the benefits of adopting it — which again, puts pressure on the publishers not to update editions unless there are really good reasons to do so and the differences between editions are really significant.
  • The above point also holds in a big, big way for schools in developing countries or in poverty-stricken areas in this country.
  • Individual students could also choose to use the old edition, and presumably accept responsibility for the differences in edition, even if their schools use the premium edition. Those who teach college know that many students do this now already, except the old editions aren’t free (unless someone gives the book to them).
  • All this provides publishers and authors to take the moral high road while still preserving their means of making money and doing good business.

Some individual authors have already done this: the legendary Gil Strang and his calculus book, Thomas Judson and his abstract algebra book (which I used last semester and really liked), Fred Goodman and his algebra book. These books were all formerly published by major houses at considerable cost, but were either dropped or deprecated, and the authors made them free.

How about some of the major book publishers stepping up and doing the same?

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