Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Textbooks: Hope on the Horizon for Students?

As a textbook author and an educator, I'm keenly aware of both sides of argument. Given that context, I still have to side with students. Textbooks are far too expensive. At the community college, the cost of the books for a course often exceeds the tuition. I'm hoping e-books, rentals, foreign editions, open courseware, etc will all lead to lower textbook prices.

Challenge on Textbook Pricing

Textbook companies have faced a number of challenges in recent years, such as open course content, an increasingly vibrant used-book marketplace, new publishers proposing alternative pricing models, and new federal rules requiring the unbundling of expensive add-ons from the traditional texts.

But a case that came before the U.S. Supreme Court last week suggests that the textbook companies might soon face an even stronger threat: themselves.

If the case Costco Wholesale Corporation v. Omega, S.A., falls for Costco (the high court heard oral arguments last Monday), the textbook publishers could see the U.S. market flooded with less fancy editions they have produced for students in poorer countries. The foreign editions might be flimsier, but their content is the same as in the editions the textbook companies sell to U.S. students — and they are “often half or a quarter of the price of the domestic editions,” according to an amicus brief filed in the case by the Association of American Publishers.

In other words, students who don’t mind shoddier textbooks could buy editions intended for students in poorer countries at a fraction of the cost of what they would normally buy at their campus bookstore.

Textbook publishers are - understandably - lining up against such a potential ruling.

The textbook companies, meanwhile, say such a ruling would be disastrous. The anticipated decline in revenues from domestic sales, their lawyers say, would make it impossible for them to afford “the extensive research and development necessary to ensure that the information in textbooks is current and accurate.”

“Most educational publishers currently print at least two different editions of their textbooks — one for domestic distribution and one or more for international distribution,” the Association of American Publishers wrote in its note to the court. “The domestic editions are often printed in the United States using high quality products and binding and are bundled with supplemental materials including teaching aids and online resources.”

The editions made outside the United States, the publishers continue, are made cheaply “using lower quality paper and covers, removing color images, and using inferior bindings,” and “priced based on what the purchasers in the intended market can afford.”

If the Supreme Court interprets copyright law such that books manufactured abroad may be legally sold to U.S. college students for the same price as they are sold to, for example, Indian students, the publishers argue, all hell will break loose.

“Copies of foreign editions would be imported en masse, by large campus-based bookstores, Internet resellers, and others,” they write. “The loss of revenue from domestic editions would drastically reduce the ability of publishers to compensate authors for their work and lead to significant changes in the publishers’ business models which, in turn, will cause ripple effects beyond the publishing industry.”

Nicole Allen, from the nonprofit Student Public Interest Research Groups argues "... that the current model — which historically has limited the power of students to choose how much they pay for their course materials — is on its way out. Earlier this year Student PIRGs endorsed a new model pioneered by Flat World Knowledge, which lets students choose whether to pay for binding, color, e-learning supplements, and so on."

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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