I’ve been following a conversation on one of my ListServs for textbook authors about strategies for “beating” the used book market while keeping textbooks affordable. There were two recent pieces in the New York Times on the subject of costly textbooks: That Textbook Costs How Much? $200 (NYT, April 10, 2008) and Knowledge is Priceless but Textbooks Are Not (NYT, August 30, 2007).

There has also been a lot of buzz about pending legislation in Congress (House Bill H.R. 4137) about making the true cost of college available to students, parents, and the public (including the price of the textbook materials).

The website Chegg.com (featured in a January article in Businessweek) provides a service, like Craigslist, for students to buy and sell books from each other without a middleman.

In 2005, Henry Roediger wrote an excellent article Why are Textbooks So Expensive?, where he points out that the true “parasites” of the industry are the used book sellers:

They are true parasites, deriving profits with no investment (and no value added to the product) while damaging their hosts. The issue here is similar to that in the movie and recording industries for pirated products that are sold very cheaply, denying the companies and the artists their profits. One major dissimilarity in these cases is that pirated movies and music are illegal whereas the used textbook market is legal.

It is interesting to debate strategies for lowering textbook costs while still providing authors (who do most of the hard work) and publishers (who organize, print, and distribute the original materials) thier due. And while some of the proposals I’ve heard are interesting, most do not get at the basic paradigm shift in information accessibility.

Today, we can all access high-quality materials for many subjects on the Internet for free. Information is perceived to be a “free” resource. While there are some benefits of texts (peer-reviewed, checked for accuracy, a consistent voice to the whole set of materials), we are probably only a year or two away (if that) from having at least one complete text, in every subject, authored by someone from academia, available online for free. If you don’t believe me, you should visit Connexions, Textbook Revolution, or Online Science and Math Textbooks, or Online Mathematics Textbooks.

There was a time when books were so difficult to obtain that very few people could explore knowledge through the written word. Today, the pendulum has swung completely in the opposite direction. The thinking by many students (and parents) is … WHY should we pay for books when the information is freely available?

That’s what academic authors should be thinking about.

If you’re going to put your heart and soul into developing a textbook, what benefit are you going to provide in these products that someone else won’t just provide free on the Internet? You can’t compete with “free” unless there is a clear learning benefit to the materials that you provide.

Our Board of Trustees recently asked the faculty association to look into using all open-access materials for our classes to cut down on the book costs to the students. I don’t think that materials on the Internet (or our students) are quite ready for it … yet. But the free materials get closer to approximating textbook-quality every day, and there are the benefits of interactive materials on the Internet (which we cannot provide in a printed book).

Academic authorship of texts might be about to become a pro-bono venture – something to count towards tenure, but not something profitable. If authors want to be paid for their work, they will need to begin thinking about what kind of cohesive learning material package they can provide that will NOT be available on the Internet for free. Materials might be accessible only through subscriptions. Learning materials might look an awful lot like video games.

There are over 100 virtual worlds (like Teen Second Life and WebKinz) for kids under the age of 18 right now. These kids are growing up in a world that is so completely different from the one that I grew up in (and I’m only 33), that I can’t imagine what higher education will look like once they get done with us. Do we seriously think that these kids, who will have done the majority of their learning through games and game-like activities, will power down at college to learn from textbooks?

We have, for the first time, open access to information in a way that has never before been possible. Students have, for the first time, access to learning that is more engaging than lecture and texts. Well, actually, before there were books, learning was probably much more engaging – oral lessons and practical experience.

If you have already published a large body of textbook material, I would start thinking about how you will move your hard-written work into the next generation of learning materials (call it Textbooks 2.0, although calling the material textbooks might be an oxymoron). The world is changing, as will our place in it. Adapt or become extinct.