Friday, 4 November 2016

The death of the textbook?

With costs well over $100 and sometimes up to $500, just how to useful are textbooks to a course? This was the tenor of a LinkedIn thread posted by Nita Temmerman on the Higher Education Teaching and Learning group recently.

Many of the posters suggested that material in texts is often old, cases are out of date and latest research is absent. This is a good point: with the Internet, we used to materials being timely, and to shell out close to $200 for something that reads like it was written five years ago doesn't appeal.

One thing that did not surface in this discussion was how the costs are allocated. There appears to be insufficient price differentiation between e-books, rentals and the hard copy to warrant the printing cost (which is estimated in the US to be around 30% of the total costs; Kurtzleben, 28 August 2012). 20% of the cost of each textbook goes to the bookshop, or the distributor, then around 2% to freight companies. Interestingly the person who makes the most money on a textbook, is the publisher, at 77% - out of which, 10% goes to the author, paying for printing, paying for editing (Kurtzleben, 28 August 2012), and paying privately-owned publication houses their billion dollars in profit per year (Reed-Elsevier earned $1.5b in the first half of 2014; Krisch, 10 June 2015).

Those five publication houses are: Reed-Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis and Sage. These publishers argue that it is the content that costs in textbooks. I would say at 10%, that content is not a significant cost in a textbook. Claiming this simply makes the cost of textbooks seem more skewed.

Textbooks are written by academics, who are not paid for their writing. It counts as a researcher output, and adds to their academic prestige, but returns no capital other than a small royalty each time a textbook is sold. Some academics - if they write a winning text - make a lot of money, but they are like the Diamond Amway salespeople: rare as hens teeth.

Most textbook authors would be lucky to earn over $1000, which puts the whole 'publication' process into a different light.

On the courses I teach, there is one course where the textbook is absolutely essential; one where the textbook could be simply borrowed from the library for the four chapters it uses; and one where the textbook doesn't add value.
  • The first example, where the textbook is essential, is the most difficult course to rework. This is because much of the material in two thirds of the textbook is used on the course. The textbook provides the spine for the course. This means each time there is a textbook upgrade, the course needs to be largely rewritten, with new slides, new cases, and new resources.
  • In the middle example, two thirds of the material come from sources external to the textbook. I could find three other readings to cover three of the chapters, and stop using the textbook, with the exception of one chapter (which does not infringe copyright, at less than 10% of total use). 
  • In the latter example, the textbook has been used to frame the lectures, but is not required for any in-depth reading. All additional material, resources, readings and activities have been added to Moodle from online sources such as universities, research institutes, and academic blogs. 
Interestingly, the course where the textbook is essential is due for redevelopment. When I come to undertake this work, I am actively looking for ways to stop using a textbook. I suspect that I will be able to find targeted source materials in other places, which then frees up the course structure from the confinement of fixed chapters.

In addition, I will be seeking open source publications, where books are share- or freeware. You can choose to use as much, or as little, as you require.

It simply doesn't make sense to continue to put money into the pockets of the big five publishing houses (Krisch, 10 June 2015). 

I can make change by taking small actions myself.



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