A Defense of Used Books at the Text and Academic Authors Association

Last August, I wrote about the high price of textbooks and what I feel is an exploitative relationship between authors and publishers on one hand and the students we serve on the other. An officer of the Text and Academic Authors Association (TAA), to which I belong, came across the post and asked me to write up my argument for the TAA Newsletter. The piece is coming out in print next month, but is already up on the TAA website. The post itself is in the member’s only section of the site, but I’ll post it to my portfolio once it’s out in hard copy.

My argument is this: academic writers have a higher obligation than just to make royalties, and that’s to disseminate knowledge. We are incredibly generous in sharing our work with each other — most academic journals pay nothing at all, most academic publishers pay little or no royalties — and need I add that I wasn’t paid anything by the TAA, nor would I have been in just about any other academic association’s newsletter.

When it comes to sharing information with students, though, we demand they pony up. Top dollar, even — it’s not at all unusual for an intro-level textbook to top $100 US. I blame the publishers — especially the practice of including essentially useless test banks, CD-ROMs, supplements, etc., as well as insisting on full-color printing, flashy covers, particularly useless online extensions, and so on. Many fellow TAA members, however, blame students, for supporting the massive trade in used text books. The availability of used books, they argue, forces textbook publishers to step up the revision cycle and add more and more useless junk to the texbook package to differentiate their offerings.

I call BS. If the used book market ceased to exist tomorrow, I very much doubt the price of textbooks would change one whit. Used book sales have been a part of the book trade since there was a book trade. The sale of used books is one of the best established exceptions to an author’s rights under US copyright law. There’s always been a trade in used books, and as long as there’s books, there always will be.

More importantly, the cost of textbooks is a huge barrier to education for our poorest students I’ve had dozens of students in my 5 years as a teacher that simply would not be able to remain in school if not for the ability to buy the books they needed used and sell them back at the end of the semester.

And why shouldn’t they? What do most textbooks offer students? Some TAA members believe we should encourage students to think of their books as lifelong resources. That’s a laugh! First off, most students don’t read their textbooks when they’re in the class, let alone once the class is over. The average textbook is ponderous, boring, dry, and sucked clean of any vestige of human warmth.

And no wonder! The link is to an article about high school textbooks, and will scare you senseless. The same four companies mentioned in the article publish most of the college textbooks, too, and while they don’t have to go through he big state selection committees that are responsible for the dumbing down and blanding out of high school texts, I’d bet the mindset is more or less the same.

I think we owe it to our students and to society as a whole to make sure we offer quality textbooks that students can afford. There’s no reason textbooks can’t be made the same way trade paperbacks are made — to be sold for $18.00, or even $30.00 to subsidize an instructor’s manual. Just the ANTH 101 classes in a year at my community college would use more books than most literary fiction sells — it’s absolutely not a question of making up suitable volume. Strip away the flashy production values and the useless extras, and give students book they’ll not only be able to afford, but one they might even think about keeping.

3 comments to A Defense of Used Books at the Text and Academic Authors Association

  • Anonymous

    Ben,
    I somewhat agree,
    Ben,

    I somewhat agree, though I think there is a case to be made for works that present a general overview of a topic at an introductory level. Those books wouldn’t generally be useful to an advanced student or professional in a field, who have presumably moved on in their understanding. But for a student for whom a 101 class might be their only exposure to a subject, yes.

    SO I don’t think we need to do away with textbooks, but radically rethink them. They need to evolve. That doesn’t mean adding some licensed video clips — I have all the clips I need at YouTube. It also doesn’t mean a crappy website — again, I can find all sorts of relevant erb material myself. It does mean engagingly written prose, something that focuses as much on questions as general concepts, and something that deals with the realities of students’ lives without being patronizing.

    There are a few good $20 paperbacks that cover just about everything a 101 student should learn in Anthropology, but they’re not the books the publisher’s reps push, for obvious reasons. I’m at a large community college where I don’t get to pick my text — the school negotiates with the publishers, so the important factors are business matters, not academic ones. *That* to me is a biger poblem than used book sales!

  • Anonymous

    Before I graduated
    Before I graduated university I was highly critical of textbooks as a resource in general, let alone their prohibitively high price. In most cases, 90% of my learning came from in-class discussions and outside research from sources like the Internet and libraries. Textbooks were only relevant to me when the instructor required work specifically from them; e.g., analysis of a particular author’s viewpoint on a subject. Even then, I reviewed the books in the library when possible or through other no/low-cost means.

    Textbooks are an archaic concept that should be abolished. I learn far more from engaged conversation and personal exploration than some dry, overpriced paper brick.

    Books of value to students should be the same ones that are of value to professionals in the appropriate field.

    That, and the Internet makes free distribution of present understanding much more readily available. I’ve never understood the point of $1000 white papers and $500 journal subscriptions. After all, aren’t we supposed to be advancing knowledge through communal exploration?

  • Anonymous

    Have u try the online
    Have u try the online bookstore Cocomartini.com
    http://www.cocomartini.com

    I get all my textbooks for this semester from this bookstore. All are brand new textbooks and half price discount textbooks.

    Good luck and wish some help.

    hehe ^_^

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