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?