In Response to Luke Thomas’ The Textbook Industry & Greed

Recently, a student blogged a very serious post about his adventures in textbook purchasing. His name is Luke Thomas and he is four classes shy of getting his undergraduate degree from the University of Maine. Luke tried to fight the textbook industry, and by some accounts, Luke won. Here is what happened.

Most students do not dig as deep as Luke did about why textbooks cost what they do. But Luke’s case was a perfect storm. He and his now wife were taking a similar course and they wanted to share one of the required books. But alas, the book came with a code that was needed in order to complete the coursework. He was advised by the college bookstore that in order to get the access code from them, he needed to purchase two new books. I’ve got to give it to Luke, he did not give up–he called the publisher (Cengage) and after a bit of time on the phone, managed to buy a single access code.

According to Luke, the bookstore folks were “surprised” he was able to buy a single code without the new textbook and “shocked” that an access code was even required to view the syllabus and complete assignments. Luke decided to research this issue, and stumbled upon the Textbook Affordability Provision of the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), which is in itself a fete if you have ever tried looking for it without knowledge that it exists. This is when he learned that there is a federal law requiring publishers to offer unbundled textbooks and supplemental materials, to price them for purchase separately. Finally, to round out this dog-chasing-its-tail-tornado, at end the end of the semester, the bookstore would not buy his book back because, as he was told, the professor makes changes to it. One more thing–I should mention that the author of the book was the professor himself.

So you might now imagine what possessed Luke to write a post titled The Textbook Industry & Greed: My Story. Luke’s story impressed me. He did not take the answers he was being given at face value, but rather did a little critical thinking of his own. He was persistent in searching for a way to purchase the materials that matched his needs. All of this is admirable. But what impressed me the most was his patience in documenting what occurred as well as his eloquent restatement of the story as it unfolded. This student was able to get to the bottom of what is happening in the textbook industry in one fairly short blog post–including the dynamics between the players. I would dare say that there are some administrators, faculty, policy makers, vendors, parents and so on, that haven’t been able to articulate some of the dirty secrets of how textbooks are adopted in higher education. So kudos to Luke. He figured it out and got what he wanted–he won.

And it seems he keeps winning on behalf of all students as this post continues to make the rounds–from one small blog, to one tech site that spawned a bevy of hacker-friendly comments, to coverage by The Chronicle of Higher Education–all the while in between being shared to and fro on social media sites. But this conversation sounds all too familiar, and while there is a law addressing textbook affordability, there is some question as to how or whether it is being enforced. Furthermore, it seems Luke spent some extra time trying to find a solution for his textbook problem–time he could have spent studying. In fact, it appears that all this fighting caused Luke to receive his access code after the start of classes, making it potentially challenging for him to complete assignments. Thus I have to chalk some points up in the loss column as well.

So considering the many discussions about this topic (in the media, in public policy, at colleges, between parents and students) over the last several years, have we come far enough in acting to improve textbook affordability? Are the right people engaging in these stories? I noticed Luke’s post within a few days of its published date because at Akademos, we follow these issues. While we have a consumer-direct website called that sells textbooks (mainly to college students), we are interested and invested in ways to make textbooks more affordable. From a business point of view, this may go against our bottom line. From an ethical point of view, helping students find affordable textbooks is right in line with our philosophy.

After reading the comments under Luke’s blog post, on the tech site where his post was uploaded, and under the Chronicle post, I feel as if I’ve gotten some good perspective from a variety of folks weighing in. Some common threads include outrage that the professor would require his own book for the course and questions about whether he was profiting unethically from his students. A solution that came up several times is open source or Open Educational Resources (OERs)–textbooks or course materials that are in effect free or very low cost. But the specific points of view on Luke Wilson’s textbook experience range. There are professors who say they try to keep costs down by using older editions or low cost course packs; those that give away author royalties received from their own students purchasing that professor’s book; those that are appalled at the real or perceived ethical violations of requiring students to purchase your book and/or keeping the royalties; those that believe it is OK to keep royalties for your work; those that think it is OK only from students you don’t teach; those that create texts and give them away free; and so on. There is a bookstore manager who suggests more affordable alternate texts to faculty but also squarely places the blame for choosing texts on faculty. And of course, students. The students that share their own horror stories about expensive books that were never opened (lots of those accounts); the ones who say professors actually helped them by choosing lower costs texts; students that get their books at the library; students that do not buy books at all; and of course, particularly on the tech site, students that “steal” their coursework from the web even though the text is copyrighted.

Students are frank about the fact that they can find ways around paying for textbooks–not buying them, buying international editions, and of course, pirating them. So unless those stakeholders involved in the textbook and course materials industry determine a way to keep customers happy–it won’t matter how captive they are–students will find a way to fight the good fight. The question is–who is really winning?

  • Comments (2)
  1. admin,
    Hi Kris, I think students are becoming more well informed. With additional textbook purchasing choices becoming available all the time, those savvy students will grow in numbers. They want cheap, quality college textbooks and they are willing to search far and wide for them (well, in www land anyway). Not like when I was in school and was herded through a process I thought was just the way college worked. Helping students should def be a number one concern here.
  2. Kris Lange,
    Beneath the surface of all the marketing and rhetoric is a very aggressive market; as we all know. Luke cut through the fluff and down to the bone. His actions can magnify a discussion that is badly needed. If bookstores don't/can't adapt and focus on providing value (ie helping) students, more startups and going to sweep the industry to provide the needed alternatives and circumvent the established players. Isn't that the typical lifecycle of all industries?

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