Greedy Publishers Spur the Open-Source Textbook Movement

Now that my son has started college, I have become more aware of a growing problem for students and their parents: soaring textbook prices. Publishers have become increasingly adept at inventing insidious new ways to wring more money from beleaguered college students, who have little recourse but to buy the assigned textbook – or enroll in another course. Publishers have two favorite tactics: make frequent and gratuitous updates of editions (requiring students to purchase new books rather than cheaper used ones), and “bundle” CD-ROMs and other instructional supplements with textbooks (forcing students to purchase of the whole package of materials rather than make cheaper á la carte purchases).

The good news is that documentation of these abuses is now in hand. The U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a revealing report in July 2005. It reflects similar findings by the California Public Interest Group, which has tracked this issue for some time. While it is heartening that textbook pricing is getting new public exposure, publishers may or may not have to change their business practices in the future. They do have a captive audience, after all, and friends in high places in government. That’s why I am encouraged by an even more radical and effective response: the rise of open source textbooks.

First, the facts about soaring textbook prices. According to the GAO, college textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation, averaging 6 percent per year. From the period of December 1986 to December 2004, this represents a tripling of textbook prices. (The report is entitled “College Textbooks: Enhanced Offerings Appear to Drive Recent Price Increases,” GAO-05-806, July 29, 2005.) Since nearly half of all college students receive some form of federal financial aid, we taxpayers are shouldering some portion of this contrived burden, along with the students themselves.

CALPIRG and Oregon PIRG (OSPIRG) released a terrific report in January 2004 documenting the scope of the problem in California and Oregon. “Rip-off 101: How The Current Practices Of The Textbook Industry Drive Up The Cost Of College Textbooks,” conducted a survey of 10 public colleges and universities in those two states in the fall of 2003, and interviewed 156 faculty and 521 students. The key findings:

Publishers often sell U.S. textbooks abroad at cheaper prices, which has created a rich opportunity for Internet resellers to re-import the books and sell them to U.S. students. But the GAO reports that textbook publishers are trying to prevent Internet companies from making large-scale imports of the cheaper books. This game resembles Big Pharma’s pricing policies, which charge U.S. consumers much more for the same pill that goes for pennies in Bangladesh.

While selling books in a digital form — either online or in CD-ROMs — might help slash the retail price of textbooks, don’t count on publishers to share these savings with students. Even though digital music distribution via CDs and online sales have dramatically lowered the costs of distribution, breakage and theft, record labels have not slashed album prices accordingly; they have just pocketed the savings. So, too, textbook publishers are not likely to pass along the cost savings of e-textbooks.

The “value-subtracted” from e-textbooks is even worse than this, however. As Peter Suber of Open Access News reports, some publishers are selling electronic textbooks that “expire.” In essence, students “rent” the textbook rather than own it, thus eliminating the resale market entirely. Books can’t be returned. And they are “locked into” the computers that download them, so that they can’t be copied or distributed.

All of this brings me to the heartening rise of open-source textbook publishing. As Suber blogged on August 9, 2005, there are now several full-blown open-access textbook initiatives underway. These include the California Open Source Textbook Project, CommonText, Libertas Academica, the Open Textbook Project, and Wikibooks. Suber reports that there are also hybrid initiatives like BookPower, whose ebooks are only free to developing countries.

Wikibooks explains the advantage of open source textbooks:

The textbooks on this site are all released under an open content license that means that they are free forever. No one can keep you from using these materials, modifying them or distributing them. Also, the license guarantees that any works that are derived from these materials will be similarly free to modify and distribute, forever.

It’s hard to tell how open-source textbooks will evolve and go mainstream, but certainly every new ratcheting of the screw by textbook publishers will make open textbooks even more attractive. Yet another instance of the power of the online commons, which can subvert unresponsive markets, construct new communities of practice, and grow with self-reinforcing momentum in highly efficient ways.