The Future of the Text Book: A Printbook, an eText and a Custom walk into a bar.

Well, it’s still Banned Books Week so I thought I’d follow up on this and talk about text books. I’ve just come from a meeting with a Leading Publishing House (LPH) who, in this fine age of diversification, have made some serious moves into electronic publishing and learning systems. This really doesn’t identify any of the major players because they’re all doing it, we just happen to have a long term relationship with LPH. My students are not the largest purchasers of text books, a fact that LPH’s agent confirmed. While Engineers buy a lot of books, Computer Scientists tend not to buy many and will, maybe, buy one serious text if they think it will be of use to them.

It’s not hard to see why. Many programming language or application books are obsolete within weeks or months, sometimes even before they arrive, and when the books cost upwards of $100 – why buy them when you can download all of the documentation for free? Unlike Humanities, where core texts can remain the same from year to year, or Engineering and Physics, where the principles are effectively established, my discipline’s principles are generally taught by exposure to languages and contextualisation in programming. There are obvious exceptions. Bentley’s Programming Pearls, almost anything by Knuth and certain key texts on algorithms or principles (hello, Dragon Book!) all deal with fundamentals and the things that don’t change from year to year – however, this is not the majority of recommended texts in CS, which tend to head towards programming language guides and manuals. With very few exceptions, any book on a specific programming language has a shelf-life and, if we are updating the course to reflect new content, then we really shouldn’t be surprised if students don’t feel the need to keep buying the new book.

Ah, the Dragon Book.

In other disciplines, the real text book is still being sold extensively and, interestingly, in Australia the eBook is generally sold in a bundle with the real text, even when we know that the student has some form of eBook reader. The model appears to be “work at home from the book and have the eCopy for skimming at Uni”. Both of these forms are still the text book and, if we’re talking about the text book, it appears to be that if students see the need, they’ll buy it. However, the price is becoming more and more important. Is there a widespread model where students can only buy the chapters they need, much as you can buy individual songs from the iTunes Store, and wait until later to see if they want to buy the whole thing? Well, yes, but it’s not widespread in the text book world and, as far as LPH is concerned, it’s not something that they do. Yet.

What is interesting is the growing market in textbook mash-ups. It is now possible to pick a selection of chapters from a range of a publisher’s offerings, add some of your own content, get it checked for copyright issues and then *voila* you have your own custom printed book with only the chapters that you need. All thriller, no filler. Of course, any costs involved in this, especially costly copyright issues, get passed on to the people who buy it. (The students.) This, fairly obviously, restricts the mash-ups to easy to mash materials – books only from one publisher where the IP issues are sorted, open-source images and the like. One problem that surfaces occasionally are people who put their own work in to be included in such a custom run and it turns out that some of the content is not actually original. This can be an oversight and even due to inheritability sometimes. Suppose that Person A created a course from a text, B inherited the course and made some changes based on the course, then continued to change it over the years. It’s a Boat of Theseus problem because the final work is the work of A and B but probably retains enough of the original text source to cause copyright issues when combined back into a new book. Copyright issues can often be overcome but it increases costs and, as stated, that costs the student more.

Given how expensive text books (still) are and that the custom market still operates at a high-ish price point, I’m still waiting for one of the LPHs to take the radical step of providing books at a price point that makes them effectively irresistible. Look at the Orange Penguin reprints, which I do often because I own a million of them, they cost $10 (cheaper in a bundle) and you can pick them up anywhere. Yes, there is an amelioration of the editing costs because these are all reprints of previous versions. Yes, there are no cover arts costs and they are using relatively mainline stock for the printing. But, hang on, isn’t this exactly what we can do in the custom sense, if we stick to jamming together existing chapters? Yet my early researches indicate that there is no large market of custom textbooks that are anywhere near this cost.

I’m going to put up the naïve and relatively ignorant flags here as I’m sure that LPH actuaries have been all over this so, rather than say “Surely…” (and have to kick myself), let me make this a wish.

“I wish that I could assemble a useful book for my students from key chapters of available works and, with low presentation costs, get a book together for under $40 that really nailed the content required for a year level.”  I’d be even happier if that $40 was $20. Or even free. There are some seriously successful free text book initiatives but, as always, there is that spectre of reimbursement for the effort expended by the author. I’m certainly not advocating doing authors out of their entitlements but I am wondering how we can do that and, with minimal overhead, make all of these books as useful and widespread as they need to be. 

There are some books and sets of chapters that I’d love my students to have, while respecting the author’s right to receive their entitlements for the work and setting a fair price. To be honest, it really seems like I’m expecting too much. What do you think?

4 Comments on “The Future of the Text Book: A Printbook, an eText and a Custom walk into a bar.”

  1. Peter Kelly says:

    That’s the old edition of the dragon book, FYI 😉


  2. I’ve been facing this problem for a course I’m creating, for which there doesn’t seem to exist a suitable text book, much less one at an affordable price. My current plans for the text are at


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