Thursday, November 4, 2010

Evolution of the college textbook, redux

There was a lot of buzz in late February about a publishing platform called Dynamic Books that Macmillan was rolling out, timed to launch with about 100 titles students would be able purchase for Fall term of this year, according to a Publisher's Weekly article.

If you go to the Dynamic Books catalog page today, you'll find two Economics textbooks listed, one each in Life Sciences and Math / Statistics, and a dozen in the Physical sciences. That's a total of sixteen. And guess what? Well into Fall term 2010, only one of these books is for sale -- the rest are "coming soon."

No surprise, right? Things take longer than Marketing VPs might hope before they actually gain traction.

Since last week the blogosphere has been lighting up over a new new development in the world of wishing universities and the students who are their raison d'ĂȘtre would help e-books make inroads into a market worth something on the order of $7-12 billion (depending whose numbers you trust). The brave new idea? How 'bout if "colleges require students to pay a course-materials fee, which would be used to buy e-books for all of them" -- to quote a 24 October article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. And why would such a measure be necessary? Because "students tend to be more conservative when choosing required materials for their studies. For a real disruption in the textbook market, students may have to be forced to change."


I work as a staff member at UC Berkelely, and have a cousin who is currently an undergraduate at Cal. That means I have an up-close view of the pain students and their families are feeling due to an unrelenting series of tuition increases over the past several years (32% last year alone), as state support for higher ed has dwindled. The California State University system was in the news (again) just last week: its trustees are considering increases of 15.5% this year and next, just as they warned was likely when the last increase was announced in this past June.

Part of my up-close view of students' pain comes via Facebook's Questions feature. Because I'm FB-friends with my Cal-enrolled cousin, I see questions stream by from her friends who are desperately seeking copies of a textbook someone else might have from a prior semester so that they can share or buy or rent or something as they study for exams in a class whose books they can't afford to purchase. Ouch.

I think it's pretty certain that students who are "forced to change" to a system that charges mandatory course-materials fees on top of rapidly escalating tuition costs are going to be ... unhappy, let's say. I think this is probably so even though the administrators who are experimenting with such models are aiming at lowering textbook costs for students, which is a very good thing.

It'll be interesting watching this one play out.

E-textbooks are certainly coming. Whether it's textbook publishing platforms that make it easier for professors to contribute to and pick-and-choose from available textbook material; or professors who choose books students can opt to purchase in electronic form; or administrators who ram e-texts down impoverished students' throats, ready or not ... one way or another, the future is nigh.

But university administrators are going to have to make a very clear case -- to students -- for near-term savings for students who are subjected to course-materials fees or similar mandatory schemes. Otherwise you can bet the building take-overs won't be reported from the Berkeley campus alone...

Thanks to Janne Huttunen for making her photo of the November 2009 occupation of Berkeley's Wheeler Hall available on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.


  1. "'ll find two Economics textbooks listed, one each in Life Sciences and Math / Statistics, and a dozen in the Physical sciences. That's a total of sixteen."

    Nope. 2+12≠16, 2+12=14

  2. Thanks ThisJustin, but the "word problem" didn't translate quite right into an arithmetic expression. It's 2 + 1 + 1 + 12 = 16.

    Thanks for reading the post...