Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ethics of Texbook Editions

This is my first year as a full time professor, and also my first year really having to deal with reviewing, ordering, and deciding on textbooks for the classes I am teaching.  One thing that has become more pronounced in my mind is the ethics behind textbook editions.  I tried to order some textbooks for my classes this Fall, and the bookstore informed me that they could no longer get that book because it was an old edition.  OK, I said, order the new edition and I will request a desk copy from the publisher.  No skin off my back.  I get a free copy from the publisher.  Besides the slight update to my syllabus and quizzes due to (very) minor updates in the new edition, the cost and trouble to me, the professor, is minimal.

But, what are the implications of this?  First, the new edition costs more (textbook prices seem ridiculous to me).  Second, there are no used copies, so students have to pay the full price and don't have the option of saving money on used (although they are renting textbooks now.  Who knew?).

So, why a new edition of a textbook?

First, I understand that all textbooks need updating from time to time.  All fields of study change over time (with the possible exceptions of a few: Math, have we really changed how we do math in the last 500 years?).  So, I understand that there will need to be new editions of textbooks that provide updated information.  But, how often is a new edition needed?  In five years of teaching introduction to Bible at Baylor, we went through three editions of our standard textbook.  Really? Three editions in five years.  Now, to be fair, I looked at the copyright dates in those editions, and they are 3-4 years apart.  So, when I started we really must have been using an old edition, compounding the new edition shock.

But again, I ask, how often do we really need a new edition?  And, are the new editions really updated much?  The answer to the latter question, from my  limited experience: No.  I have had updated editions where the text is virtually identical.  A paragraph is removed in one location and shows up in another.  The chapter titles are changed, but the content remains the same.  A short new section, maybe a page or two, is added.  Really, is this enough justification for a new edition?

Why do we get new editions so often?  Well, the quick answer, as it appears to me on the surface of matters, is money.  Textbooks have to be great for publishers.  They have a book that has a captive purchasing audience.  Now, of course, they have to compete with other textbooks for the same field, but once their book is adopted, they know they have a certain number of students who will be required to purchase it.  After the initial run and sale of these textbooks, the sales will go down.  College students will sell their books back to bookstores nationwide, flooding the market with used copies.  Then, the next semester, most students will buy used copies, for which the publisher and author get nothing.  So, in subsequent years, the royalties from textbooks sales will drop dramatically.  The first year was great, but following years are not so hot.  How do we solve this?  Print a new edition.  Require bookstores to order the new edition, which in turn forces professors to adopt the new edition.

On the surface this looks like a racket to me.  Publishers and authors, in order to keep the money flowing in, create "new" editions which might not be very new.  They exert pressure on campus bookstores to buy these new editions, which in turn forces the professors hand.

Now, I do want to be fair.  This is only how it looks on the surface to me.  I know very little about the publishing industry and I am not trying to make them look like monsters.  I do not know all of the costs that go into publishing a textbook.  I have no idea what their profit margins are.  I have no idea what their original investment in a textbook is.  All I can say is that "new" editions that really do not provide substantial updates and improvements seem unjustified to me and the primary motivation for these updated editions seems to be primarily financial. 

Please, if you have more information and could enlighten me, I would love to hear another side.

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