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Just Say No to Endlessly Revised Textbooks

As an adjunct professor with no benefits, zero job security, ridiculously low pay, and a level of vocational respect equivalent to that accorded toilet-bowl cleaners, I know that my heart ought to go out to the publishing industry, another great loser. As most of us are aware, publishers are besieged—by the ruthless conglomerates that now own them and that find their low profit margins nearly intolerable, by digital technology and digital competition that is assassinating their business models, and by a dumbed-down readership that is abandoning print faster than you can say “Snooki.”

All that is very sad, but college-textbook publishers deserve whatever terrible misfortunes may befall them. As my only means of voting against these behemoths, I intend to dump all textbook publishers from my syllabi—including the company whose textbooks I have utilized for eight years in my world-literature course. Anecdotal evidence shows that the sorry practices of this giant—let’s call it “R.A. Blackhole & Co.”—are widespread, if not pandemic, in the industry.

In the past, I have been consistently irritated by my dealings, or rather nondealings, with Blackhole. The company is labyrinthine, so my attempts to reach responsible parties by phone have been useless, and my e-mails have never been answered. Also, according to the quick math I calculated for this rant, I have over the years steered more than $30,000 in textbook business to Blackhole. But I have never received the slightest acknowledgment, nor has their salesman in this area ever been in contact with me.

Before returning to teaching, I spent many years in the financial-services industry (which, despite its bad reputation, is, in my opinion, kinder, gentler, and more fair than academe), so I recognize that $30,000 is chump change to the big boys. Even so, my insignificance does not excuse Blackhole’s lack of common courtesy.

What finally provoked my rage and my determination to act is this: For the second time in four years, Blackhole will issue a new edition of its very expensive two-volume, brick-thick textbook. From the projected new edition’s table of contents (published online), I quickly discerned that five of the 16 readings I assign from the current collection will have new translators; some texts will be eliminated; and, of course, the pagination of all the remaining selections will differ from that of the current edition.

The company, I’m certain, plays musical chairs with translators and authorial selections for a reason that has little to do with improving quality: Blackhole and other textbook publishers regularly update editions so that students won’t be able to buy used textbooks, which are of no benefit to the companies’ bottom lines. Again, having served in various capacities in the securities industry, I applaud companies that seek healthy profits, but I am no fan of those that behave stupidly in that pursuit. Professors—the folks who choose textbooks—are the publishers’ all-important customers. However unintended the consequences, edition changes make professors’ lives miserable. As a marketing strategy, this maneuver is hardly visionary, even taking into account the prosperous professors who write or edit textbooks.

My world-literature volumes are heavily underlined and annotated, and my lecture notes are filled with page and line references along with many direct quotations—almost all of which will become mush when Blackhole rearranges its textbook firmament. Having twice spent scores of summer hours preparing Blackhole-dependent course material, I have no intention of wrecking another season in a dance to Blackhole’s ever-changing tune.

I have discovered that 15 of the 16 partial or complete Blackhole texts that I now assign in my course have free versions available online, and I am also exploring a print-on-demand course-pack alternative with my university’s bookstore. I will take one of those two routes forevermore. Admittedly, I am as negligible as a snowflake as far as Blackhole is concerned, but I believe that others share my disgust, and that eventually many of us will abandon the publishing giants.

If I’m right, I have only this parting shot for Blackhole and its cohorts: Have a nice death.

Robert Chambers is an adjunct assistant professor of English at Kennesaw State University.

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