ravages_of_rinderpestA friend, who was commissioned a few years ago to write a college-level textbook, has not been contacted by his publisher for two or three years, despite active to-and-froing before that over a substantially written manuscript. He attributes this silence to loss of interest, and has laid down his pen, having plenty of other things to do.

Of course we are aware there’s trouble at t’mill — trouble which is threatening to convert what looked set to remain a wonderful cash-cow business into a gigantic Rinderpest epidemic. Reports like this, about Rutgers saving their students the piles of money they used to have to invest in those bothersome textbooks indicate one of the roots of the problem. Increasing numbers of students are renting their textbooks or buying them second-hand, if they are not being given them free by these library-reserve, course-pack, custom-text arrangements.

We all know that dripping roasts dry up eventually, and the Georgia Tech decision, while still being appealed, provides justification for many universities for the “fair use” (as the courts have decided this is*) of free material lifted from copyright works without any remuneration of the authors. If people are just going to grab chapters and give them free to their students, why would you slave away at writing a huge textbook? Or, as a publisher, why would you invest the funds needed to get a textbook off the ground?

It’s tempting to assume that that’s that: free customized textbooks, provided on-line, are going to take over from the printed textbook. Yet it remains a lot of work to compile a set of free on-line resources for your students, and even more to shape them into coherent pedagogical shape: as much work as writing a textbook, say, for which of course you’ll get paid. Making the effort is an altruistic move: after all you don’t have to buy the damn book; by adopting it you will even get a free copy from the publisher plus copies for your teaching assistants. So why go to the trouble? Just make the kids buy the book! Having publishers produce textbooks ends up looking like an efficient way of dealing with teaching. Of course we all wish they didn’t cost as much, by hey, that’s life!

Alternatives were discussed last August by Robert Harrington at The Scholarly Kitchen. Despite the concerns expressed in the essay and the comments thereon, Flat World are still in business though their books do have to be paid for. Textbook publishers are offering all sorts of alternatives; mixing and matching, on-line supplementary resources, and other innovations no doubt. It would be a mistake to assume that the game is up for them, however troubling the times may be.

Another consideration, perhaps, may be that students, by paying their fees, might be reckoned to have a right to an good education. Being fobbed off with a free book may be adjudged a violation of that contract, even though it does save them the outlay for a real textbook.

My friend, in cynical mode, says that most of his students don’t buy books anyway. If they cannot find free material on-line, they abandon the attempt to “research” a topic.

Maybe we need a new concept — the digital fallacy — a belief that since X could happen because of the internet, X will happen. We tend to allow the wonder of the World Wide Web to blind us to the fact that certain things work fine just as they are.


* Not that I should be interpreted as disagreeing with the court. The wording of our copyright law is clear in including as fair use “teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use)”. The publishers’ only appeal  against this rests in the qualifier that “the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work” should be considered when assessing whether any particular use is fair or not.