December 4, 2013

New bill in Congress may make textbooks free


An rough approximation of what textbook publishers see when they hear this news.

An rough approximation of what textbook publishers see when they hear this news.

Following the field of textbook costs has been like watching the Titanic heading for the iceberg for a long time now. It’s a giant teetering business model that appears to begging for someone to break it (even though, fundamentally, it may be less unstable than its foes would hope). As prices have risen—over 80 percent in the last 10 years alone—new models have sprung up: first, using the resources of the internet to vastly expand the sale of used textbooks, and then a series of rental alternatives through specific sites like BookRenter and Chegg, as well as general retailers like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

The newest development in this area takes it to the extreme: free digital textbooks, which is the idea behind the Affordable College Textbook Act, a bill recently introduced in Congress by Senators Dick Durbin and Al Franken. The bill would create a grant program that would support the creation and use of so-called “open textbooks,” meaning textbooks that are licensed under terms that allow them to be accessed and distributed for free.

Another aspect of their openness is that they can be updated as information changes, undermining once and for all the planned obsolescence of print textbooks, which has been a considerable factor in the stranglehold that textbook publishers have had over students in the past. (Though publishers have very handily managed this problem by making access to the e-textbooks expire after certain periods of time, meaning that students are still forced to buy new copies, whether or not they contain new material… and with no used textbooks to sell for beer money to boot.)

The bill (full text here) comes on the heels of earlier successful open-textbooks initiatives at the University of Illinois, the University of Minnesota, Rice University, and Washington State.

Though it’s unlikely that textbook publishers are going to let let this go forward without a fight, an idea like Affordable College Textbook Act not only has the laudable aim of reducing education costs in a time when they’re skyrocketing on all fronts, but it also shows up certain awkward features of educational publishing: for instance, the college textbooks which students are required to buy are usually written by professors. So the publisher is, in a sense, the only outsider in the equation, and one that’s benefiting substantially from the investment universities have made in professors over time. Open textbook models essentially encourage instituitions to keep professors doing what they’re already doing, i.e. compiling educational material, without involving an outside partner, who profits coming and going.

Textbook publishers haven’t yet commented, and for now the mood is optimistic: in a Minnesota Daily article on the bill, Minnesota Student Legislative Coalition Chairperson Matt Forstie was quoted, sayingThis is the future of course content in higher education.”


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.