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An end to unsolicited review copies of textbooks, please

January 29, 2014, 5:17 pm

2014-01-29 16.29.42The picture you see here is my afternoon mail today. It consists of two copies of a new Calculus text (hardcover), two copies of another Calculus text (hardcover), and one copy of an intermediate algebra text (softcover).

I did not request a single one of these. I certainly did not request duplicates of two of them. The last time I taught intermediate algebra was the mid-1990′s. I am not on a committee that selects textbooks. I have no use for these books other than to prop open a door. So why did I get them? I have no idea.

When I think about the waste and expense of these unsolicited review copies of textbooks, it makes me downright angry. I went to UPS.com and used a back-of-the-envelope estimate of weight and shipping distance, and got that the total package of these books would have cost about $20 to ship to me from its point of origin. That’s not a large sum, but how many folks at my university got similar packages this week? It adds up, and students end up paying the price for it in the form of higher textbook prices.

I am hopeful that free, open-access textbooks will eventually become the norm — like Matt Boelkins’ outstanding free calculus textbook (the one I actually use when I teach calculus) or Ted Sundstrom’s newly-open-sourced book on transition-to-proof. But I also think that we will never see paid textbooks fade entirely from higher education. Until then, can I make some suggestions to publishers that would at least keep the costs down (relatively speaking)?

  1. Instead of sending out unsolicited review copies of books, do this: Put a sample chapter of the book online for free. Then send me an email with a link to it, along with a link to click if I want a paper copy of the whole book. I’ll go check out the electronic chapter and if I like what I see, I will contact you and then you can send me the book. But let’s end the wasteful and costly practice of unsoliticed review copies.
  2. Even if you don’t try out suggestion 1, don’t send me two copies of the same book. That just doesn’t make any sense at all.
  3. Use your textbook representatives to gather some intel on the courses I actually teach and then avoid sending books — or links to books — that are for courses I do not actually teach. The textbook rep doesn’t have to talk to me if that’s too much. Just check in with our department staff, or look it up online.
  4. Let me reiterate a suggestion I made a long time ago: Adopt the practice that, once you update a textbook’s edition, you post the previous edition online as a PDF for free. This helps you sell books because if I am unaware of a particular title and there’s a new edition you want to show me, I can go browse the old edition and decide Cool, this seems like a good book, I’d like to see the update. And it keeps you honest, preventing you from creating a whole new “edition” with merely superficial changes.

It’s worth a shot anyway.

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