An open letter to the college textbook publishing industry.

24 02 2012

Dear Textbook Publishers:

I’m not surprised to read (via Neil Schlager) that students are increasingly uninterested in paying the high prices that you charge for your products. According to the Book Industry Study Group (or BISG),

students are rebelling against the rising costs of textbooks in a variety of ways. Some students are settling for older editions of assigned textbooks. In fact, less than 60% of surveyed students purchased current print editions – new or used. The frequency of illicit behavior such as photocopying (measured for the first time in this survey) is less than expected. Still, it remains an issue with 4.1% of students saying they engage in these practices frequently and almost 25% saying they do this occasionally. Among the legal, low-cost alternatives students are exploring are textbook rentals, which 11% of respondents report using, a significant increase over the past year.

“Or,” as Neil writes, “they’re doing their best to pass the course without getting any version of the assigned text whatsoever.” How is that even possible?

This situation is so bad that it makes me wonder whether you folks see this as a problem or a business opportunity. The BISG quotes Kelly Gallagher, Bowker Vice President of Publishing Workflow Solutions, as saying:

This is a critical time for publishers to explore research and use it to identify the creative new business models that will power their businesses tomorrow, next year and into the next decade.

Too bad the BISG is doing the wrong kind of research. You folks should worry about what professors think about textbooks, not what students think about them. Here’s why: Professors are the ones who actually assign your textbooks to students. In fact, students are highly unlikely to buy any textbooks whatsoever unless their professors assign them. Therefore, you might ask the BISG to try surveying people like me rather than our students as professors actually matter a lot more than they do when it comes to your eventual sales.

One of the things you might ask the BISG to ask professors about is how exactly they use their textbooks. The only way that students can actually pass a class without buying the current version of the textbook is if the current version of the textbook (or any textbook at all) is unnecessary for learning the required material. And if the current version of the textbook (or any textbook at all) is unnecessary, then why should any student bother to buy it? Make better textbooks and professors will make better use of them. How do you make better, more useful textbooks? Work with professors, not against them.

I guess I shouldn’t have expected you all to figure this out as the educational technology industry hasn’t figured this out either, but a guy can dream, can’t he?


Jonathan Rees
Professor of History
Colorado State University – Pueblo




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