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Education Businesses

Competition In the Free Textbook Market 117

bcrowell writes "The NYTimes has an editorial plugging Flat World Knowledge, a startup that will offer college textbooks inexpensively (~$30) in print, and free as PDFs. They plan to make their profits from add-ons like podcast study guides and mobile phone flashcards. Books will be licensed under CC Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike. Mashups and customizations are encouraged, but the NC license is incompatible with strong copyleft licenses such as the GFDL used by Wikipedia. Other companies trying to find a workable business model for free textbooks include Ink Textbooks (revenue from online homework) and Freeload Press (revenue from ads inside the books). So far, none of these companies seems to have succeeded in building up much of a catalog of books; it seems more common for authors of free textbooks to take a DIY approach, putting PDFs on their own web pages, and sometimes arranging on-demand printing with vanity-press publishers like lulu.com. Lots and lots of web sites exist to help people find free textbooks, and CalPIRG has an active campaign pushing for affordable textbooks."
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Competition In the Free Textbook Market

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  • Paying for textbooks (Score:4, Informative)

    by CRCulver ( 715279 ) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Saturday April 26, 2008 @03:26PM (#23208448) Homepage

    "The NYTimes has an editorial plugging Flat World Knowledge, a startup that will offer college textbooks inexpensively (~$30) in print, and free as PDFs.

    One of the nicest things I find about studying in Finland is that the university provides enough textbooks in the library for students to use. It's nice to escape the cycle of buying textbooks and then having to sell them four months down the road.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by dgerman ( 78602 )
      I once put a copy of the textbook for my course in our library (on reserve). The book got stolen.
      Few weeks later the univ police busted a "textbook thieves" ring that was reselling them to the
      university library (yes, this at the level of a Darwin Award :)

      This tells you how valuable/expensive textbooks are to some students.

      --dmg
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by bhima ( 46039 ) *
      The first time through that comment I read it as "One of the nicest things I find about studying in Flatland".

      Which made wonder what their physics lectures were like.
      • Don't mock that, as we speak there are thousands of physics students that would love to only have to deal with 2d motion.
  • Free textbooks are great and all if you want to learn the subject, like Yale/Harvard's free classroom recordings. But if you're taking a class at a university, most of the time these aren't going to be useful. Economics, engineering, calculus, all classes I've taken in these various subjects have had all the homework directly from the problem sets in the book. I bought one edition earlier than the one recommended for my economics class and I've had to borrow my friends text to do all the work. Great idea, but I don't see it being useful unless you can somehow get all the college professors to start adopting them/copy the homework separately. (Given that a lot of books are written by the professors themselves, they are unlikely to drop a major revenue stream)
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Enderandrew ( 866215 )
      I think the idea is to try and have colleges adopt them. Using a non-standard book for a class isn't very helpful, as you pointed out.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jambarama ( 784670 )
      Only useless if you're using one of these to avoid paying for your required text. If this is your required text, no homework problems. As a side note, what are you going to college for anyway, to learn or to do homework? And the two need not be mutually exclusive, these books (if well written) and the recordings you suggest could be fine supplements to your existing set of materials.

      I think there is an even bigger need for these type of books in elementary and secondary schools. These books are no ch
      • err... "these books" (beginning the second sentence of the second paragraph) is supposed to reference elementary/secondary textbooks, not the ones from TFA. Sorry for any confusion.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by cbart387 ( 1192883 )

        Only useless if you're using one of these to avoid paying for your required text.

        It really depends on the prof. I have had profs who will put a book as required even though it's only for a reference manual. In that case, I use my judgement if I'd want to use that book as a reference manual or not. Sorry Mr. Gittleman, you won't get any more money from this student.

        That was just a caveat, I do however agree with your point. I would always buy the Math books, international edition :), because you know that there will be problems for homework. Also, the math books usually give you

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Adambomb ( 118938 )
      I can't think of a single course i took where the vetted textbook isn't available for student-use photocopies in the library. I would have LOVED something like this to be able to have all the hardcopy data and simply photocopy the problem sets (and possibly the corresponding back of the book).

      Is this something thats specific only outside the US? Do american universities not do this as well?

      And dont give me the "but it's never in long enough" cop-out if they do =). You can photocopy a whole semesters worth o
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by archshade ( 1276436 )
        I'm finishing my first year of uni in a couple of weeks and I'm really happy that my lecturers have gone to the trouble of producing "tutorial books" which are just questions for each of my modules and short answers in the back.

        We do have 2 required books that we were told to buy but I managed to get though the first term without them and one book I haven't used at all. The other one I have. Its a good electronics textbook clear and a decent level of detail. I don't think theres any reason why any of the
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      You know, I think you hit it on the head with the revenue stream quote. I don't know how many times I've sat in class and thought about how I could be watching a video of the prof. and reading a standardized text book and not paying 2 grand a semester. In fact, I have had quite a few audio books on a subject that were better than the professor for about 600 dollars lees. Free-market is a joke in the U.S.
      • If you want an education, then go to the library. If you want to network, acclimate yourself to the social milieu of your chosen field, and party, then go to college. You aren't paying for textbook knowledge... of course at only 2k per semester, you're not getting in with the right crowd anyway, but that's a whole other discussion.
        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          exactly, and most state colleges don't give any thing but text book knowledge like you say, but to get the job you need the piece of paper. I'm sure I could pay a professional from my field 15k to make me his assistant and teach me all he knows for a year and I'd know more and save money then when I'm done w/ school, but I'd never get hired since I don't have a degree.
          • That's the truth, I wish I would have taken some of the y2k jobs I was offered in '99. I would be much better off now. Without a paper, I can't get a job, even if I know more than most of the grads that have jobs.
    • by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Saturday April 26, 2008 @05:55PM (#23209202) Journal
      ...all classes I've taken in these various subjects have had all the homework directly from the problem sets in the book.

      The problem of multiple book editions is one reason why I now always try to make up my own questions for assignments. That plus my students get used to the type of questions I ask so the exam is not very different to what they are used to.

      In fact I am convinced that the only reason the books for large 1st year courses have new editions so frequently is to change the question numbers to suppress the second hand market. In one extreme case I'd pointed out several errors in a text to the publisher and they published a new version without any of the errors fixed but the questions numbers all changed (but with the vast majority of the questions exactly the same!). Unfortunately it backfired because I was the course convener that year and we changed to a book from a different publisher...which then prompted the original book's author to contact me through the editors to fix the errors! Needles to say this interest in profit over accuracy did not leave me with a good impression!
      • After listening to my father (adjunct faculty in the Math Department) complain about new editions ONLY changing the numbers of the exercises, and NEVER correcting typos in the text, I have come to believe something different.

        The reason the second hand market needs to be suppressed is not because PUBLISHERS are greedy. It's because PROFESSORS and UNIVERSITIES are lazy (or cheap). [Disclaimer: perhaps it's true that they don't get paid enough to do the work they shirk.]

        The reason the books have intrinsic val
        • The reason the second hand market needs to be suppressed is not because PUBLISHERS are greedy. It's because PROFESSORS and UNIVERSITIES are lazy (or cheap).

          I don't follow you here. University profs do not need the second hand market to be suppressed. I take your point that we may be complicit in that we let the publishers force the students to buy texts because we assign assignments from the text's questions rather than write our own. However this scheme would work just as well if the publishers updated their texts once every 20 years. The rapid changes of editions only benefits the publishers and not the profs. In fact just the reverse because you then hav

  • by iamsamed ( 1276082 ) on Saturday April 26, 2008 @03:31PM (#23208484)
    What irritated me most in College and especially 'B' school was that these textbooks would run for $80-$130 a piece (and many were soft cover!) and the exact same material was available in some layman's book for under $50. AND, the next Semester rolls around and guess what? Yep, the instructor is using the "new" edition and you have to buy the "new" edition. It was usually a new cover and higher price...that's about it.

    Now, someone once argued with me that information changes and you need to have the latest info. Well, I replied, there's several years lead time from writing to publishing a text and therefore, it's out of date before it's published. And besides, tell me what advances in business that are occurring that requires those in B-school to have the "latest" info? Hmmm? (Even in the group psychology class where you'd think with the social sciences improving there'd would be a need for up to date info. Nope. I had to buy a $120 paperback that told us about Myers-Briggs and when you had a problem with an employee, the correct answer for everything was send him to "sensitivity training". I'm not fucking kidding.) If you have to teach the latest info, then you shouldn't use textbooks.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      And besides, tell me what advances in business that are occurring that requires those in B-school to have the "latest" info? Hmmm?

      About half of my b-school classes have two books. One a typical textbook and the other a publish on demand soft cover book that is a compilation of academic papers or important articles from the business press. Some of these papers/articles are classics, some are quite recent. Such compilations do need to change each year. The remaining half of my classes have one book, a com
    • Out of pique I once did a mini personal project around my Psych 101 class.

      I had stumbled onto an edition of the older textbook after having duly bought my new one.

      The new one was *smaller*. That's right, the folks who published the thing decided that "Students who paid huge sums of money to go to college and buy a $88 dollar book would rather buy a 580 page book instead of the 730 page book."

      Um... If our deal ol' student prefers to party and wants to skip a few pages, fine. But when I read the chapters in p
    • You can't blame the professors here (unless they wrote the book, which would open a whole different ethical can of worms in and of itself)

      A prof can't exactly assign an out-of-print version of a textbook as reading material, as he cannot guarantee a supply of those books.

      A 'good' professor will structure his course in such a way that both the current and previous editions of the text may be used (unless the content radically changed between the two).

      The practice of putting out a new edition every 2-3 years
      • by Raenex ( 947668 )

        The practice of putting out a new edition every 2-3 years strikes me as the most blatantly illegal and immoral practice used by the publishing industry.
        Illegal? What's illegal about putting out a new edition of a book?
  • Adoption by opencourseware would no doubt improve visiblity of these projects. I also wonder if content taken from opencourseware could be put into these books.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by guacamole ( 24270 )
      Where do you get the idea that opencourseware constitutes complete course material? Opencourseware is simply a central web site for individual class web pages. Professors at any university, not just MIT, often setup web sites for their courses. On such web sites, you can usually find the course syllabus, list of homeworks, and sometimes homework solutions and occasionally lecture notes of variable quality. Does that constitute everything you need to learn the subject? Most of the time no way. I have been lo
      • opencourseware utilizes textbooks, which is why I suggested they might be able to adopt some of these "free" textbooks, allowing for a truly free class. MIT said one of their goals was allowing people in developing nations to get their education without actually attending MIT. Because of the textbooks, that isn't feasible unless people in developing nations have access to those books.

        As for content from opencouseware going into books, opencourseware does provide lectures. Where do you think textbooks get
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by guacamole ( 24270 )
          It really depends on the subject and professor, but at least at undergraduate level, lectures or lecture notes alone rarely substitute a good text when one is available.

          I am not really sure what you mean by "opencourseware does provide lectures". Most opencourseware class web sites provide neither lecture notes nor recorded lectures.
          • There are several schools and sites that contribute to opencourseware, but last time I checked, most MIT classes specifically provided recorded lectures and lecture notes.
  • by line-bundle ( 235965 ) on Saturday April 26, 2008 @03:44PM (#23208558) Homepage Journal
    One of the reasons textbooks cost so much is because professors' salaries are bad. There is a very very good incentive for a professor to charge a lot for their book.

    Also I am not too keen on the lower cost electronic versions of the books unless the publishers are monitored carefully. The electronic editions I have seen cost slightly less than the paper edition, and expire after 6 months. Students then are poorer as a result.

    • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      I believe the price has more to do with publishing companies, rather than the professors who write them.
      • the publishers get about 65% of the money, the store about 20% and the author about 10%

        http://www.fis.ncsu.edu/ncsubookstores/images/textbook_dollar.gif [ncsu.edu]
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        There are 3 professors I know of who wrote their own book (well one is technically just notes and questions but it is as good as a book)

        one has it free for students in his class on his website

        one has it free for students in his class on his website and has an arrangement for really cheap printing if you want.

        one sells it in the bookstore for a lot of money and the other professor who teaches the course switched to a free book halfway through.
    • by dgerman ( 78602 )

      You are assuming the prof who _asks_ you to buy the book for his/her course makes money from that. That is not true unless he/she authored it too.

      The prof gets perks (free copies of books) though.

      --dmg
    • by bcrowell ( 177657 ) on Saturday April 26, 2008 @04:11PM (#23208686) Homepage

      One of the reasons textbooks cost so much is because professors' salaries are bad. There is a very very good incentive for a professor to charge a lot for their book.
      Speaking as a college professor, I think you're wrong on both points. Professors' salaries are actually very reasonable these days. Also, very little of the retail price of a $130 goes in the professor's pocket. Most textbooks do not make any significant amount of money for their authors -- the exceptions are home-run books aimed at the most popular freshman courses, and there just aren't that many of those. The typical motivation for a professor to write a textbook is that he doesn't like the choices that are already available.

      The reason for high textbook prices is profit-taking by publishers. In the last 25 years, textbook prices have risen much, much faster than can be explained by inflation.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by cvd6262 ( 180823 )
        As a professor, I second both your points.

        I will also add that many professors would love to contribute to open materials, but cannot because posting something to their website doesn't count in one's tenure dossier. If a company like FlatWorld Knowledge can underwrite the textbook (even with just the promise to make it available, no upfront cost) it will encourage the production of open educational material.

        However, I contacted FWK and found that they're only focusing on business and economics texts for the
      • The reason for high textbook prices is profit-taking by publishers. In the last 25 years, textbook prices have risen much, much faster than can be explained by inflation.

        I do not believe that it is quite that simple. As technology has made the used textbook market a national market rather than a local market fewer new textbooks are being sold. The overhead has to be paid for by a diminishing number of books. If the price increases were merely price gouging then publishers in related markets would move i
      • My (first) textbook is in production now; I'm not in it for the money. Rather, I want to contribute to the field by offering a new perspective on the subject. But this won't happen if people don't read my book, and I figure that people will be more likely to read my book if it backed and marketed by a major publishing house.
        Now, I recognize that the publishing industry has its flaws. But my publisher has helped make my book a better product, through editing, peer review, and professional mark-up. Fo
      • I feel your characterization of lulu.com as a "vanity-press" publisher is pejorative.
        A more accurate description would be 'print-on-demand' publisher.

        In my opinion, one of the big differences between the two is marketing to the author, and the requirement of a minimum press run by vanity publishers.
    • That's not the reason. The median salary of a professor at a UC campus is about $130.000. How much more should they get paid? The biggest problem is that the established text book authors and publishers have too much market power. For many subjects there are really just one or two really good books. In other cases, professors are just lazy and want to teach the course using the same text they had been using for the past 20 years, and for more part they don't care whether the book costs $50 or $150.
      • by maxume ( 22995 )
        If the material isn't changing and the book gives a good presentation of it, what's lazy about continuing to use it? Sounds prudent to me (or are new books almost always cheaper?).

        There is a disconnect between the current ease of mass electronic publishing and current text books. This article provides evidence that it is going away. 20 years ago, developing free (both unencumbered and no cost) electronic texts didn't make a huge amount of sense. 10 years ago, it only made sense if you bothered to think abou
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Unfocused ( 723787 )
      I had a prof a few years ago who asked to see all students who had bought his $60 textbook. He had a jar of $2 coins on his desk, and when one of those students went to see him, he would give that student one of the $2 coins. That $2 coin represented his cut of the sale. He refused to take royalties from students, as he had wrote the textbook specifically for students, not to make money. The publishing company set the price of the textbook, and it seemed the publishing company got most of the profit from i
      • Nice of him.

        In my undergrad university, if a professor used his own book for the course, he was required to donate the proceeds that he'd get for the books sold for that course. This was to ensure that the professors did not put personal profit over the students' educations.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      most professors make between $80k and $130k per year at my university.
      Associate professors make a little less with most between $50k and 90k per year.

      and I can prove it if you ask.

      now why do you think that $100k is a bad salary?
    • The few profs I've seen who are self-published or published by a small house don't have expensive books out there. And in every case, every one I've talked to said that they make squat for royalties. I would imagine that the more expensive the book is, the more likely it is to be published by a bigger house, which usually means less royalties.

      Also it seems like there's a lot more money to be made in the commercial sector, in general. And most of my teachers were actually human beings (big suprise, right?)
    • professors' salaries are bad. There is a very very good incentive for a professor to charge a lot for their book.
      It is rare for the assigned textbook to have been written by the professor. Even in the exception, professors are unlikely to receive more than a couple of dollars for each book sold, or say $100 for a typical class. That's not a large supplement to a professor's salary, especially given that it takes a year or more to write a book.
    • by Gates82 ( 706573 )
      I fully agree that electronic copies that are available (legally) of textbooks are complete bunk. This semester I purchased a Thinkpad Tablet and went virtually paper free (only paper I produced was to turn assignments in). All handouts, homework, and graded assignments were either downloaded or scanned in. I looked at online textbooks to avoid carrying around excess materials; only two of my books were available in an electronic format and both were 80% the cost of the physical textbook and only came wi
  • Prices in the 60's (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Jeff1946 ( 944062 ) on Saturday April 26, 2008 @03:46PM (#23208572) Journal
    My second semester freshman physics text (Sears and Zemansky, the standard of its day (1965)) has the price of $7.50 stamped in it. This was about 4x the miniumum wage. It has ~500 pages, weighs 2.2 lbs (1 kg), and no color.

    No reason why this book could not be used today, except a conspiracy by publishers to raise profits by adding lots of extra material, color photos etc, frequently changing editions to devalue used copies.

    Life was good then, the was no tuition at the University of California where I attended and gas was $0.29 a gallon (6 gal = 1 hr minimum wage). The biggest downside was no word processors.

    • by dieman ( 4814 )
      I know a few of the colleges at the University of Minnesota have reverted to developing their own course packets instead of using books. Its obscene when the cost of a math book is $130+. I think my course packet cost was somewhere less than $45 for the same class, well over half off. This project has the upside that schools can collaborate on these 'course packets'.
    • by Hadlock ( 143607 )
      the was no tuition at the University of California where I attended
       
      I always wondered how my dad, a son of a carpenter, managed to afford to attend Berkley.
    • This was about 4x the miniumum wage. It has ~500 pages, weighs 2.2 lbs (1 kg), and no color.

      If anyone is curious: http://www.dol.gov/esa/minwage/chart.htm [dol.gov]

      $7.50 was 6x minimum wage in 1965, equivalent to $43.50 today.

      Modern college Physics books are good for 2 or 3 semesters, so they should cost $87 to $130.50. Looks about on track (and they have color!): http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_gw?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=physics+for+engineers&x=0&y=0 [amazon.com]

    • Thanks, Governor Ronald Reagan.
    • I'd almost take that deal. My wife and I have a combined debt of almost $70k in student loan. Partly for living expenses, but a good percentage of that is school costs (like fees), and books.
  • by zappepcs ( 820751 ) on Saturday April 26, 2008 @03:54PM (#23208602) Journal
    Slightly overlooked here is the fact that the Internet has commoditized information. That is to say, it has done to book sellers what it has done to the **AA.

    While it is not in the public eye as much, several here have pointed out the huge monetary waste in buying/selling text books, and the book sellers/education system keep updating so that users are caught in a continual upgrade cycle. When there is a method of cheap updates the continued use of repetitive upgrade cycles in paper issued texts is nothing short of usury.

    Any educational institution that wants to be a valued place to attend should be flowing with the times and 'getting it' now, not 4 years from now, or not when the board members want to think about it. This technology is here NOW, and it's yesterday's news, not some high tech promise for the future.

    Yes, it only takes one meeting to start the ball rolling to ensure that the electronic texts match what classes and professors teach, and that the paper and electronic forms are identical in content. The fact that they are not yet is nothing less than gouging.

    Yes, damn it, it is THAT simple. We will NOT buy your text books UNLESS you provide electronic access to the same identical texts. That is ALL it takes. Publishers will jump to get the business.

    Look, if I can buy the book for $90 or get access to it from a school server in electronic form for $25, I'll probably go for the electronic. The costs of books is about 30% printing/distribution. The rest has to be done for both formats.

    I stopped buying programming books some time ago because all I need is behind that Google screen. Even very high quality PhD materials are available on the Internet.

    While people are worried how they will make money they have missed out on the fact that information itself has now become a commodity. Time for change, here and now, not next year. The **AA is having to deal with it and their example of doing so is not one that publishers really want to go with. They need to look at social websites and other popular websites to ensure that their chosen method of 'upgrade' is going to work.

    My suggestions?
    Offer electronic texts, sell paper based Q/A sections. DRM won't work, so there will be copying, can't get around that. The photocopier put paid to any such scheme long ago. Now it's just easier. Make it easily available. Make it fun. If an account based system is used, make it more useful than just retrieving texts. Add value to the account. Charge for the account through the school system so that students have an EASY way to pay if they wish. When you have done it right students will be making your website their homepage, if you're looking for milestones in your effort.

    As far as information goes, give people readers for your content for free, and make them work on ANYTHING. Charge a service fee for the account, and only charge for premium content beyond that. Yes, there will be copying, but then people borrowed books all the time before this anyway. Quit fretting and suing, just make your content the best available and work out how to survive on lower margins in a commoditized market.
    • by AP31R0N ( 723649 )
      Off topic and sincere question here: What is the deal with using *s when typing RIAA? Is it because it's a dirty word? Or you're afraid they are googling RIAA? Is it fear that saying the unholy name in vain will bring their wrath upon your file sharing? Or is it fashionable?
    • by kz45 ( 175825 )
      Digital music is not a commodity. You may be able to copy the bits at $0, but creating the exact music that you download is not something anyone can do.

      "Offer electronic texts, sell paper based Q/A sections. DRM won't work, so there will be copying, can't get around that."

      The problem is that it *does* work. Even though textbooks are > $100. People still buy them. The only way universities (and the music/movie industry) will learn is if people stop paying these costs. Sharing it on the Internet/downl
      • I have some news that is probably bad in your view. I saw this yesterday "Lars Ulrich suggests Metallica could follow Radiohead" http://www.news.com/8301-10784_3-9929031-7.html?tag=newsmap [news.com] and then there is Radiohead, NIN, and hundreds of small less known bands that sell their products online.

        Digital music is commoditized because without distribution the business is limited to where you can travel and play. The distribution channel propped up a usury business. Now it's gone and the music industry now has to
        • by kz45 ( 175825 )
          "Digital music is commoditized because without distribution the business is limited to where you can travel and play. The distribution channel propped up a usury business. Now it's gone and the music industry now has to add value to what they sell or lower prices. That is the effect commoditization has on an industry."

          The cost of music isn't in the distribution (CD's are 10 cents a piece..it's in the actual content. This is where your logic is flawed. You are paying for the millions of dollars it took to
    • by Raenex ( 947668 )

      Offer electronic texts, sell paper based Q/A sections. [...] Charge for the account through the school system so that students have an EASY way to pay if they wish.

      It's telling that your suggestions end up mimicking the old system you decry. Why are the Q/A sections any different than useful information in a book? Why is there a need to charge for an account when the software can be given away and run for free on the user's local machine?

      It's hard to charge for stuff unless you control the distribution, yet you don't like the controls on distribution. Catch 22.

  • One of the main problems of the textbook market is that the buyer has usually no choice but to buy the book.

    The real choice is made by the instructor, who has NO incentive to choose a cheaper textbook. Intructors (I am one of them) are heavily sought by the publishing houses (in my experience once exception is O'Reilly, the worse Pearson Education).

    The second hand market is one of the few attempts to lower prices. Publishes counter-act it by dropping frequent updates (usually needless).

    The only way to count
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Why? I don't understand this. Does it matter from which book you learn a subject? I'm studying CS in Germany, and while I have bought some textbooks, I never *needed* to. You can get by with the library, the lecture slides, your own notes, and looking stuff up on the internet. The professors tend to hand out exercise sheets or put them on their website, so you don't depend on textbooks for that either. What makes the situation in the US so different?
  • by MrSteveSD ( 801820 ) on Saturday April 26, 2008 @04:08PM (#23208668)
    Back in the mid 90s when I was at Uni, there was a lot of complaining over the price of books, e.g. £25 for each volume of the Feynman Lectures on Physics. There was also a lot of anger towards copyrights. I remember a sign in the college Library with a cartoon cat warning students not to photocopy sheet music, and people had written underneath "Music is not just for fat cats to make a profit".

    If we could have magically just duplicated our books, we would have been handing them around to everyone and spending the money on beer instead. I'm not saying it's right, but we definitely would have done it. Today that "Magic Duplication" is very easy to do since I'm sure most books have been scanned in by somebody. I can imagine DVD's with thousands of books on them being passed around colleges all over the world.
    • In my experience (at CMU) that doesn't happen. A lot of people don't buy books because they just aren't necessary (you can get the problems from friends and a lot of times lecture notes + internet are good enough). However, when people actually do need books, they usually buy them. Most people get used copies from the bookstore, upperclassmen, or the internet, though.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        I've thought about not buying the books myself, but often it's a matter of convenience. For example, I'm in Matter and Interactions (an "honors" intro physics course) and we've had to buy, each semester, a $120-ish, paperback textbook. It's a decent textbook, sure, but horribly overpriced. But having to chase down a copy from the library or a friend whenever I want to do the homework (which can be at strange times) or when I (and consequently my friends) need to study for an exam is a big hassle.

    • by MBC1977 ( 978793 )
      I do (even though I get them for free through my university) because I believe that information is a chargeable asset and not a commodity. One of things that frustrates me is the fact that people believe that if someone invests the time and energy to create / compile / design / or market, that it should be sold for next to nothing. I'm sorry but I don't have an altristic view of society. Time is money. If I'm not making money than its not worth my time. If you like giving away your work, then great. I
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by MrSteveSD ( 801820 )

        I do (even though I get them for free through my university) because I believe that information is a chargeable asset and not a commodity.

        Not all information should be chargeable. Should you really have to pay £25 ($50) for each volume of the Feynman Lectures? He's been dead since 1988 so getting paid is not going to be an incentive for him to write any more books. A lot of the books you need for courses tend to be classics and their authors are often dead. Publishing houses make a mint out of these classic books, especially when they are only available in hardback (the cardboard must be made from very rare trees or something).

        Fo

        • by MBC1977 ( 978793 )
          When you look at all of the costs in the supply chain, textbooks updates (new proofs, spelling, questions, pictures, etc.) orders received, manufacturing and distribution costs, merchandising, etc. And while not all aspects of that example may apply; I believe yes, there is some justification for the price.

          "For more current books, perhaps lecturers should just make their books available electronically and bypass the publishing houses completely. They'd probably make more money by having a "donate" butto
          • When you look at all of the costs in the supply chain, textbooks updates (new proofs, spelling, questions, pictures, etc.) orders received, manufacturing and distribution costs, merchandising, etc. And while not all aspects of that example may apply; I believe yes, there is some justification for the price.

            Surely the marked increase in the price of hardback books vs paperbacks gives you some clue that the pricing is a tad arbitrary. It goes above and beyond any increase in costs. It's worth looking at Rip-off 101 [maketextbo...rdable.org], which was a recent study about practices in the publishing industry.

            If your a professor, you have no guarantee that all of students in the course will purchase the book

            What does that have to do with a book being made available electronically? If the books are physical there is no guarantee everyone will have a copy either. In fact if a book was available electronically, it's more likel

      • I do (even though I get them for free through my university) because I believe that information is a chargeable asset and not a commodity. One of things that frustrates me is the fact that people believe that if someone invests the time and energy to create / compile / design / or market, that it should be sold for next to nothing.

        Your point would be valid if people actually spent time actually redesigning the books. To illustrate my point, let me point you to Discrete Mathematics and its Applications. Knowing that I'd have to take a discrete mathematics course in the upcoming semester, I went ahead and purchased a used copy of the fifth edition (the latest edition at the time) from a friend who had already taken the course. However, when the new semester rolled around, I found that the professor was using the newly released six

    • by maxume ( 22995 )
      State colleges in the United States(so, publicly owned universities) charge $3,000-4,000 a semester for tuition(That's reasonable ballpark in-state tuition at in-residence colleges. Expensive public schools charge a heckuva lot more, private universities barely let you look at the grass for a heckuva lot more and community colleges charge a heckuva lot less).

      That doesn't make $400 for books any cheaper, but quite a few of the people who are finding $10,000 year to go to school are actually pretty willing to
  • Sure this is a nice service, but it is dependent upon instructors/authors to upload books to Flat World Knowledge. Most professors, in my experience, like money more than spreading knowledge and competence. They will likely choose not to participate unless there is some incentive for them to actually upload the book PDF.

    This gets back to the whole reason why some need the services Flat World Knowledge in the first place: avarice.

    Publishing companies and authors could easily make their materials more acces
    • Sure this is a nice service, but it is dependent upon instructors/authors to upload books to Flat World Knowledge. Most professors, in my experience, like money more than spreading knowledge and competence. They will likely choose not to participate unless there is some incentive for them to actually upload the book PDF.
      Check out the three links at the beginning of the last sentence of the slashdot summary. There are hundreds of free textbooks catalogued at those sites. Some college professors may fit you
      • There are hundreds of free textbooks, but looking through the lists briefly I was unable to find an appropriate book for my profession, which is occupational therapy. Maybe my opinion is based on a limited sample, but, how many books have been published in the last 10 years? For sure it's much, much larger than hundreds of free books that are currently online. If we took a random survey of professors in the world, would more than 5% say they posted their books online for free? In the end, it's not about
  • I, for one, welcome our free textbook overlords. ...I wouldn't mind so much if the textbooks I needed were eBooks, so I could pirate them... but alas, they never are.
  • Intelligent Books (Score:3, Interesting)

    by williamhb ( 758070 ) on Saturday April 26, 2008 @04:29PM (#23208756) Journal
    At Cambridge University, I've been developing a system called the Intelligent Book, that changes the idea of "an online textbook" into something that might genuinely be more useable and useful than a paper book, and much less cost/effort to write. (Though a paper book certainly can be printed from it.) This has some implications for the textbook market if it does take off, because online collaborative/interactive materials provided by a university tend to be free to students, and increasingly to the wider public.

    The public demonstrator is not yet online, so this link just goes to parking, but if you want to revisit it later, it will be gradually going up at http://www.theintelligentbook.com/ [theintelligentbook.com].

    It came out of my PhD, completed a year ago, which in turn was part of a joint project with MIT.

    • by arpad1 ( 458649 )
      Umm, there's nothing there.
      • Re: (Score:1, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Umm, there's nothing there.
        Yes, that's why the grandparent post says "The public demonstrator is not yet online, so this link just goes to parking, but if you want to revisit it later ..."
  • I spent over $500 on textbooks, and when I dropped my chemistry course (I'm in arts, but I wrongly decided to take chem), they said that I can't get a refund because I had had the books for over 2 weeks. It was 1 week into the semester, and I had bought the books 2 weeks before classes started. As a first year, I mistakenly assumed that if I had a textbook in sealed packing with a receipt, that they should return it. I now refuse to buy textbooks from my university bookstore (here at UBC), and instead look
  • MIT has an Open Courseware project that "shares free lecture notes, exams, and other resources from more than 1800 courses spanning MIT's entire curriculum." : http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/web/home/home/index.htm [mit.edu]
    • Unfortunately, in case of most courses listed there, those are simply course web pages (just like at any other school, albeit MIT centralizes this). What you can usually find is course syllabi, homework assignments, and such. Less often you will find homework solutions or even complete lecture notes. It's nice to have access to it so you know what they're doing at MIT, but for most part its still far from offering complete course materials. I looked at the most courses I am interested in, and they still for
  • by bcrowell ( 177657 ) on Saturday April 26, 2008 @04:57PM (#23208914) Homepage
    Nicole Allen, Textbooks Program Director at CalPIRG, wrote to say that a more relevant link than the CalPIRG link at the end of my slashdot summary would be maketextbooksaffordable.org [maketextbo...rdable.org]. That's where the information about CalPIRG's open textbooks campaign is.
  • Announcement is a bit early, the site does not go live till 2009 !!
  • And what happens ? Who will write textbooks ? Well, simple : idealists. Lobbyists. Demagogues.

    After all knowledgeable people will no longer put in the time and energy required.

    So what can one expect to happen ? Textbooks, ALL textbooks will no longer be written, except in order to satisfy, not correctness of science, not ability to make students learn or understand, but ...

    Political (or more general : ideological). Note how one of the first things Harun Yahya did to advance his intelligent design on people
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by fishthegeek ( 943099 )
      I am a teacher. Those "impartial" textbooks you mention are a lot of things but impartial is not one of them. Pick up a given history book and you see an awful lot of bias and authors perspective. Pick up any physics book, biology and just about any other science book and you will find that the author has imbued it with their own special brand of scientific explanation or ideas.
      • I agree. The best teachers at my university invariably taught with their own notes and materials and eschewed the textbook entirely or provided references to any number of suitable textbook or other published sources for references when necessary and let the students choose what worked best for them. The homework problems and notes were always posted on the course websites in such cases so that information which out of necessity required commonality remained so without burdening the students with this year'
    • by Temposs ( 787432 )
      Alright, this is just plain wrong. There's plenty of incentive for professors to write textbooks, even if they don't make royalties off of them.

      First, it is often a requirement to receive tenure or a promotion that you need to write a textbook.

      Second, professors don't get paid for publishing their myriad journal and conference publications either, so why isn't there a paucity of any academic writing? In all cases of academic writing including textbooks it may increase your prestige and make you known better
  • Oxymoron (Score:3, Interesting)

    by stevejsmith ( 614145 ) on Saturday April 26, 2008 @05:43PM (#23209124) Homepage
    Free market in education is an oxymoron. Through public universities, land grants, tax breaks, tuition breaks, and research funding, the various levels of US government have taken all the market out of education at every level. That's why most top-tier universities charge $1000/mo. for housing, even when you're sharing one room (not one apartment, but one room) without someone else. There is no market when it comes to education.
    • Sorry, I meant sharing a room WITH someone else. For example, I live in a two-bedroom dorm that four people live in. We each pay $1000/mo., and this does not include food. Even though I go to school in Georgetown, one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country, it is still very possible to rent houses in the zero- to three-block radius of campus for less than $1000/mo/room. Like I said - the university charges $1000/mo/half-room.
    • by edremy ( 36408 )
      No free market in education? Not even close- the competition between colleges for students is brutal. If you ever work in higher ed at a competitive school (non-open admissions) the pressure to make the admit numbers for the year is intense. This takes two forms- palace complex and massive discounts to the tuition.

      Palace complex is of the reasons that tutition is skyrocketing- one college puts in a apartment-style dorms and suddenly everyone has to have them or you lose students. The college I work for

  • There are, by now, many free online resources of good quality, especially in fields like mathematics.

    For example, although Ben Crowell, the original poster, doesn't mention it, he himself founded The Assayer [theassayer.org], a site that lists free books, carries reader reviews, etc.

    Since 2001, I've been publishing a number of original mathematics textbooks as ebooks at the Trillia Group [trillia.com], all of which are DRM-free and freely licensed for student's self study. I'd hoped to license the "bits", rather than use dead tree

  • Connexions [cnx.org] from Rice University allows authors to write interconnected modules that do not necessarily follow a linear path. A student can read the material online or create a PDF. One of its main drawbacks from an author's standpoint, that input from LaTeX [latex-project.org] was not accepted, seems to be on the way to being solved. Still, it is clear that from looking at some of the better modules there that at least in the sciences and engineering, a significant amount of time and expense in writing a good textbook go in
  • by xtal ( 49134 ) on Saturday April 26, 2008 @07:26PM (#23209820)
    The basic knowledge in an undergraduate engineering program, and most CS programs, is at last 100 or more years old. The fundamentals, like calculus, are much older than that again. There is no reason other than greed there cannot be a base set of books that contain the fundamental principles.

    The rest is up to the professor. I did not go to university to read books. I can, and do, read at home in my own time. I went to university to learn from my professor's experiences with the material. Professors with no depth of knowledge in the material should not be teaching or relying on books to do that job for them.

    My $0.02.
  • they come up with this right after i finish uni.
  • by meta4 ( 4862 )
    Ben makes an excellent point in saying that "the NC license is incompatible with strong copyleft licenses such as the GFDL used by Wikipedia," because this is true. And the Wikipedia's GFDL is incompatible with the CC By-SA license used by Wikieducator. And Wikieducator's CC By-SA license is incompatible with the CC By-NC-SA used by MIT OpenCourseWare. And MIT OCW's CC By-NC-SA is incompatible with GFDL used by Wikiversity. And Wikiversity's GFDL is incompatible with the CC By-SA licensed images on Flickr.
    • Every copylefted open educational resource is incompatible with every other copylefted open educational resource with a different license.
      The only free-as-in-speech licenses of any importance at this point are GFDL and CC-BY-SA. I'm not a lawyer, but my inderstanding is that GFDL and CC-BY-SA are compatible enough that by dual-licensing a book under those two licenses, I can incorporate photos that are under both licenses.

      In answer to the arguments in your blog post [opencontent.org] about this licensing issue, I don't

  • I'm long out of school, but I've been appalled at where I hear college textbooks have gone - $150 and more. Look at one - how much is empty margin? How much *more* work in making them is there than 20 or 30 years ago? Less, you say, since it's all done online?

    Then why the increase, other than pure profit? Oh, sorry, mergers and acquisitions are *so* good for profit, sorry, I meant competition....

    My ultimate example of ripoff has been, for many years, the bible (K&R): no pictures, thin book (thinner than
  • I am a co-founder of Flat World Knowledge, the company referenced in the New York Times editorial, so take any/all comments with a grain of salt - I'm hardly objective :-) I spent 10 years at Thomson and Prentice Hall. Traditional publishers like these are caught up in changing market conditions that they are in some cases unable, and other cases unwilling, to respond to in ways that are good for customers. Instead, they've gone the opposite direction. The internet has disrupted the business (suprise),
  • Some of the most popular textboooks have been scanned onto the web already. But this doesnt cover many of them.

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