I took my daughter Rebecca shopping for her textbooks a few weeks ago at the college bookstore. I walked out stunned with a $300 bill for a soft-cover math book (used) and a soft-cover set of chemistry books (new). And I didn’t even buy any English books yet!
So Michael Granof’s op-ed piece Course Requirement: Extortion in the NY Times hit a nerve with me, and probably every other parent writing those college checks. Granof, a professor at the University of Texas, proposes a “site licence” approach to textbooks based on the projected number of students enrolled, just as a corporation purchases software. Books would be available electronically, or could be purchased in hard-copy form for an additional fee. Instead of being in the paper-pushing business, publishers would become more like software companies focussed on managing contracts for their materials, managing revenue streams, and finding new material and providing updates and revisions. Colleges and professors would be willing to experiment more with classes and new authors, because they wouldn’t be locked-in to the used book market. Textbook authors would find more small markets for their books – it’s all electronic – and could focus on new work and timely revisions for a global economy with deterministic royalties. Libraries and bookstores could invest in “instant book publishing” machines and materials (one machine sampled built an entire book in 15 minutes) and would no longer be risking significant investments in academic inventory (both new and used). And finally, students would find their out-of-pocket expenses for books get more in line with other segments of the book industry.
Hey, as a technologist I’d rather deal with electronic forms of content than hunt for a book on Amazon. As a textbook author, I’d love to spend my time writing new works in operating systems and networking and getting it to students and professors right away rather than worry about whether my older books are being resold and resold until they’re obsolete. And as a parent, I think we’d all like colleges to be in the business of educating our kids, and not in the business of book inventory management.