Thursday, October 05, 2017

Is the Textbook Market doomed?

I always tell my class that its OKAY if they don't have the latest edition of the textbook, and if they can find it a  cheap, an earlier edition (often on Amazon, sometimes on e-bay), that's fine.  A while back at the beginning of a semester I was curious if the book really did have many cheap editions so I typed in the books name.

I found a free pdf copy as the fourth hit.

This was NOT on some corner of the dark web. This was easy to find and free. There were a few things not quite right about it, but it was clearly fine to use for the class. I wanted to post this information on the class website but my co-teacher was worried we might get in trouble for it, and he pointed out that the students almost surely already know, so we didn't. (I am sure thats correct. When I've discussed this issue with people, they are surprised I didn't already know that textbooks are commonly on the web, easy to find.)

I know someone who is thinking of writing a cheap text for a CS course. It will only be $40.00. That is much cheaper than the cost of a current edition of whats out there, and competitive with the used editions, but of course much more expensive than free. I think once students start getting used to free textbooks, even $40.00 is a lot.

STORY THREE (What I do): For discrete math we had slides on line, videos of the lectures on line, and some notes on line. For smaller classes I have my own notes on line. The more I teach a course the better then notes get as I correct them, polish them, etc, every time I teach.  Even so, the notes are very good if you've gone to class but not very good if you haven't (that is not intentional- is more a matter of, say, my notes not having actual pictures of DFA's and NFA's).  I have NO desire to polish the notes more and make a book out of them.  Why do some people have that urge? I can think of two reason though I am sure there are more: (1) To make money. If you get a text out early in a field then this could work (I suspect CLR algorithms text made money). I wonder if Calc I books still make money given how many there are. But in any case, this motivation is now gone--- which is one of the points of this post.  (2) You feel that your way to present (say) discrete math is SO good that others should use it also!  But now you can just post a book or notes on the web, do a presentation at SIGCSE or other comp-ed venues. You don't need to write a textbook. (Personally I think this is a bit odd anyway--- people should have their own vision for a course. Borrowing someone else's seems strange to me.)

DEATH SPIRAL: Books cost a lot, so students buy them cheap or get free downloads, so the companies does not make money so they raise the price of the book, so students buy them cheap...(I"m not going to get into whose fault this is or who started it, I'm just saying that this is where we are now.)

With books either cheap-used or free, how will the textbook market survive? Or will it? Asking around I got the following answers

1) There will always be freshman who don't know that books can be cheap or free. This might help with Calc I and other first-year courses, but not beyond that.

2) There will always be teachers who insist the students buy the latest edition so that they can assign problems easier, e.g., `HW is page 103, problems 1,3,8  and page 105 problems 19 and 20. This will help the textbook publishers in that window between the new edition coming out and the book being scanned in. Is that a long window?

3) Some textbooks now come with added gizmos- codes on the web to get some stuff. For the teachers there may be online quizzes. Unfortunately this makes the books cost even more. I personally never found such things useful, but others might.

4) If a student has a scholarship that pays for books, and the students buys the books used on amazon, can the scholarship still pay for them? I ask non-rhetorically. Even if the answer is no, so the student has to buy books at (say) the campus book store (will they still sell books in 10 years?) this is not enough to save the market.

5) Rent-a-books. I've seen these services. But they still cost too much.

6) e-books. If e-books catch on  then that might get rid of the used-book market. And if they are cheap enough that might help. But the flip side- once e-books are out there  it might be even easier to find a free copy online someplace. (Side note- Many people tell me that math books just don't work as e-books.... yet.)

7) The basic problem is cost. Is there a way for publishers to keep costs down? Or is even that too late as students get used to free or free-ish books?

So I ask again, non-rhetorically- is the textbook market doomed?


  1. The textbook market is only "dead" because publishers insist on charging $240 new for a textbook that was essentially created 25-30 years ago and sold for around $30 at the time. I will gladly recommend a text strongly if it is reasonably priced. Consolidation in the textbook industry has left few competitors and pricing beyond reason in the hopes that there will be enough suckers out there to pay full price for new.

    The hard copy market changed with the recent US court ruling that international editions can be imported into the US. I am happy to support use of those editions. Obviously book publishers still make money on those editions but not at the exhorbitant rate of their regular editions. If texts are cheap enough students will buy them - I see many of them renting texts these days.

    (I have open book/open notes exams in some of my courses and one can't really have student electronic devices, so used, rented, and international editions really take up the slack.)

    The issue now is that there are few publishers one can actually trust. Even a good publisher can be bought up by a major publisher and the price of texts jacked up like crazy. Often authors make initial deals on price but when those expire all bets are off.

    As an author one can no longer trust the industry overall. There are some publishers associated with institutions that are not going to be taken over (e.g. a university press).

    The other good solution now available for authors is to self-publish at a reasonable price, something that was unheard of in the past. The new technology of MOOCs facilitates this in a big way. Using such a text in a MOOC is a sure-fire way to hit any minimum sales number.

  2. Please let me agree with all that Paul Beame said. His observations that "there are few publishers one can actually trust" and "a good publisher can be bought up by a major publisher and the price of texts jacked up like crazy" have a corollary: "academic authors are well-advised to retain copyrights."

  3. My view on this is that publishing textbooks was necessary in the old days but is useless (and even a bit weird in my opinion) today. Since it is very easy to publish electronic versions for free on the web, it makes little sense to go through standard publishers. One possibility is to use services that can print on demand, such as CreateSpace by Amazon (but I am sure there exist plenty of equivalent services): Then prices are really low, and authors can retain their copyrights and still publish online. That is, students have the choice to jsut have an (authorized!) electronic version or if they prefer a printed version. Another advantage is that it is really easy to update the textbook to correct misprints or even improve it gradually. This was used for instance by a recent Computer Algebra Textbook (in French):

    As to the benefits for authors to publish in a traditional way, I guess that money cannot be an argument (it is hard to make real money using textbooks). Still, having a known textbook published is I gues something one can be proud of, and one can put on a publication list. This is the benefit for writing a real textbook (as opposed to lecture notes on a website). Related is the possible achievement to be published in this or that very nice collection (such as GTM for maths).

  4. I agree with Bruno here, textbooks are essentially obsolete now that the Web exists. The only service left is maybe printing the books, but this can be done cheaply by any service; no one needs a publisher who "owns" the book and prevents competition on printing.

    As for book authors, I think the only ethical solution here is to publish your course notes on the Web, and refuse to sign any agreement with a publisher who would try to limit the availability of your work. I believe that such agreements are doing a great disservice to students and to readers overall.

  5. One of my former professors, Rich Baranuik, is trying to change the textbook industry. They don't have a lot of books right now - mostly the intro courses - but it's all free and cheap to print.

  6. What if Bill Gates came to me and said he would pay me $100k to write a discrete mathematics textbook and would also hire a copy editor and the only condition was that I release it under CC BY-NC-SA. Would it be a good use of Gates Foundation money? Would it be wise for me to accept the offer? Would it destroy the discrete mathematics textbook industry? Should it?

  7. > (2) You feel that your way to present (say) discrete math is SO good that others should use it also! But now you can just post a book or notes on the web, do a presentation at SIGCSE or other comp-ed venues. You don't need to write a textbook. (Personally I think this is a bit odd anyway--- people should have their own vision for a course. Borrowing someone else's seems strange to me.)

    The author of a text can add a lot of value over class notes, including careful graduated exercises (I like them with worked answers), figures, applied examples, details such as indices, etc. I imagine that it is efficient to have one person put in more work to polish a presentation in this way and then others can use it.

    Of course if you have a different approach than a given book, well, then you shouldn't use it, for sure.

    I like to work on texts as a creative activity. They are Free because I'd like to think they have value akin to an academic paper, and those tend to be Free. (But it can be hard to get academic recognition. Sigh.)

  8. What types of students use textbooks and for what purpose? If there are no questions or readings assigned from the book at it is 100% optional, who buys it and why?

    Also, textbooks in areas like Math and CS are very different from textbooks in other areas like English and Philosophy.

  9. As an author of a (reasonably successful) textbook, I would like to disagree with what many of the posters have said.

    I think textbooks can have real value, especially in areas that are not already well represented (so, upper-level or graduate classes) where it takes non-trivial effort to distill the field and present it in an introductory way.

    Yes, in theory it is possible for an author to post a pdf online -- but in practice, the quality of books "published" that way tend to be poor. (And I know there are exceptions, but they remain rare.) For whatever reason, having a contract and knowing your work will be in print seems to serve as a motivation for people to do a better job.

    (By the way, there is similarly "no point" in publishing at conferences when you can write your papers and post them on your webpage, yet we all continue to chase after peer-reviewed publications...)

    To the first point in Bill's post: encouraging students to use an illegal pdf of a book is simply stealing. The author(s) did real work to write their textbook; if you think all information should be free then please let me know when you are willing to forego your salary as a professor.

    1. How is telling students that getting a used version is okay
      to use? Is that okay? I ask non-rhetorically and politely.

    2. I have no problem with that, assuming the old edition suffices for the class you want to teach.

      In my particular case, I only issued new editions that had significant new content as compared to previous versions. (In addition to corrected typos.)

  10. While I appreciate all of the comments above, I am still left wondering the orignial question- Is the textbook industry doomed? I tend to think in its current form yes.

  11. Another factor that is killing conventional textbooks is that solution sets (either produced by the author/publisher or produced/hosted by third parties such as Chegg) for any published textbook become available soon after the textbook is published. This means that if you give homework assignments like "Do problems 1, 3, 7, and 11 from section 6.1", you can expect your students to submit solutions copied from such a manual.

  12. It is nice to see such a post from one who has EXCELLENTLY moderated the review column for textbooks for years!

    I would even push your question further: "is not the research-papers publishing industry doomed?" If the latter is not, why then the former should be? As "industries", they are both doomed, in internet millennium. But is therefore "publishing" also doomed? The only aspect publishers could require money from readers is that they (publishers) focus on the INHERENT QUALITY of published things. Not on styles, designs and similar mess. I mean: trusted information vs. some bunch of "lecture notes" on the internet.

    I would like to share an interesting experience I've had with NOW Publishers. You send a manuscript. It gets an extremely detailed in-depth review of all contents (extremely in depth! Done mainly by motivated PhD students in the field). BAD: they require a lot of money for printed copies of the book from the readers. GOOD: they allow to put the final version of the book on your personal web page! So, readers have a choice.

    I do not quite understand how this business plan of this publisher can work, but it is definitely a possible solution to the question you raised.

    @ Bryan: I completely disagree. Texbooks are for students to learn something, not for teachers wishing "to make their lives easier." A teacher should take several minutes to slightly change an exercise (numerical values or logic) to see whether they (students) got it.