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.