The beginning of the semester brings many student rituals. One of them is buying textbooks. Back in the day, this meant going to the university bookstore which had been temporarily relocated to the student union ballroom and fighting Black Friday-like crowds to hunt down the required books for your courses. If you were lucky, you could find a used copy of the book and save a few bucks. Standing in line at the check-out, you hoped that your bookstore bill didn’t exceed your tuition payment.
My guess is that most students today buy their books on-line and have them delivered. No more standing in long lines. But, I know the cost of textbooks remains a big concern. Some LBS professors have gone with lower cost course packets of proprietary material and have shared the proceeds with student organizations to help fund their activities. Others have experimented with interactive syllabi where all of the readings can be found on-line for free. This works well for some courses, but despite the internet’s vast resources not all academic subjects are covered in sufficient detail with free content.
But make no mistake, the death of the textbook is nearly at hand. Like so many industries that have been impacted by the internet, the business model for this virtual marketplace is in flux. Pay attention, for whatever alternative becomes dominant, it is seriously going to impact your life as a student. Student government leaders get ready, you are going to want a say in what comes next.
At one end of the spectrum is the open source movement. There are some open source textbooks. I know students would love free downloads of course materials but this model doesn’t provide a financial incentive for professors to write course materials. And if I’m an author, I don’t want people changing my prose without my consent. Without someone pushing skeptical faculty to write and adopt these texts, I doubt they will become the industry standard.
States like California and Washington are investing in the creation of open source libraries of classroom materials. The idea is to purchase classroom material from low-bidding publishers for a one-time fee, have up-dates to the texts vetted by faculty experts and the materials made available to all students at the state’s universities. This approach costs taxpayers money and may work for big introductory courses where the savings will come from economies of scale. but it leaves upper division courses in the hands of the publishers. If they lose the big introductory market and have to make it go just on upper division courses, the costs of these products will go up. Without other marketplace innovations, your total textbook bill might not change much and taxpayers will be subsidizing higher education in new ways.
How about having your university buy on-line materials in bulk from publishers (or creating their own) and charging a course material fee to cover the expense as part of your tuition bill? The publishing companies love this idea, which is reason enough for you to fear it. Theoretically, costs savings would come through volume purchasing but this approach also eliminates the used textbook market and creates incentives to hide these costs from unsuspecting students. Replacing publishers with proprietary material produced by the university’s faculty might overcome some problems and provide branding opportunities for the institution, but monopoly provision of products rarely reduces costs to consumers. Nonetheless, some version of this approach remains a likely path forward.
Finally, there is the “itunes” model—a common platform where you can buy individual book chapters ($1.29 a chapter?) or pre-bundled materials and have them downloaded to your device. This model is least disruptive to the industry, gives faculty and students more freedom in choosing materials and should cut costs (no printing, distributing to book stores, etc.). You do need to make the one-time investment in a reader, but prices are falling fast and the new tablets can handle graphs and other complicated images in the same way conventional textbooks do. A similar approached failed before, but the new hardware and wide-spread consumer acceptance of the i-tune model suggests it is a viable model going forward.
The day may soon come when LBS is going to have to make a choice about the form and pricing of class materials. If you have a strong preference for one of the approaches noted above, believe I am underestimating the potential for a true open source solution or have a better business model that what I presented above, leave us a comment. We would be most interested in knowing what you think.