This past weekend, Bob made a good point about the current textbook system: it’s a self-sustaining cartel. The publishers keep coming out with incrementally versioned editions of their books, and the teachers blithely require this latest text. Obviously, the purpose of this is to remove the secondary market for any given textbook and ensure that the student can be wrung for each possible dollar.

A few points about this. First, you mentioned the movement to a digital medium (i.e. e-books) for textbooks, which would utterly crush the secondary market for textbooks, rendering the old trade-in scheme impotent. However, I’m sure the publishers are sure precisely how dangerous it is to distribute a text in any kind of easily-reproduced format such as a PDF or word document, given that college students are completely willing to skip “investing” $500 in textbooks to get perhaps $250 back at the end of the semester. I suspect matters will continue in the fashion of my Chemistry text, which was a vast panoply of html websites, each of which equaling a few pages in the book.

Second, the nature of the current system as I see it requires a rather perplexing amount of effort on the part of the professors to keep up with the new edition. As it happens, in each of the classes I am taking or have taken, the textbook was something left at home and referred to only for homework problems — because, of course, the textbook (even the latest edition) does a poorer job of explaining any given topic than the professor. But I digress; for a given assignment, the professor assigns problems out of the current edition of the textbook, with associated answers. But when the new edition comes along, the professor must come up with an entirely new set of questions and answers. And, as far as I can tell, as soon as this process finishes, the questions and answers for the now-old edition disappear never to be seen again. Even in a subject like Calculus, which hasn’t changed significantly in the last century, this seems to be the case.

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