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Customized Self-publishing is NOT the Future of Textbooks

There’s a webcast interview over on the O’Reilly website that you might want to watch. Joe Wikert has John Conley of Xerox on the hot seat, and they discuss the future of textbooks. They talk about a number of topics, but the core of the interview is custom textbooks.

This is a hot topic right now, and textbook publishers are very excited about it. They’re talking about how it’s going to open up opportunities for professors to select just the content they want to teach in the class, and so on and so forth.

The interview is worth listening to, but I’m more interested in what wasn’t discussed. Mr. Conley clearly sees things from the industry viewpoint, and it sounds to me like Joe Wikert does as well. But I see things from the student viewpoint, and I noticed an important detail that they glossed over.

You see, I know the real reason publishers like custom textbooks.

Professors like the option of customizing their textbook, but publishers like the idea because custom textbooks are profitable. They’re a lot more work than doing a large print run of a single title, and they sell for less, but they’re still profitable. Did you ever wonder why?

It’s because there’s no (or little) resale market. So every student who uses a given custom textbook is going to have to buy it from the publisher.

If a professor pulls together material from several sources into a custom textbook, the students who use it won’t be able to resell it (except to the next class). It’s likely that no one else will be using those same chapters at another school, so that means that the students cannot go online and sell the textbook. The student is stuck with the full cost of the textbook, so whatever great deal that you think they got on the price of the textbook isn’t one.

On the other hand, if a professor uses a stock textbook then the students can sell the textbook on any number of websites. They can also buy them there (oh, the horror!). And that is exactly what publishers want to avoid.

Folks, I have an old rule of thumb for situations like this. When someone is excited about selling you a cheaper product than what you usually buy, don’t spend your money until after you figure out what is in it for him. In this case, it’s the lack of a resale market. Publishers love it, but at the same time it harms students.

Used textbooks (especially ones on the internet) are the bane of publishers everywhere. Back in the old days, students had to buy locally. That limited competition (and kept prices up). But now, thanks to the internet, I can buy from anywhere in the US. The internet has created a single textbook market and it’s forcing all sellers to compete, and that drives prices down.

The used textbook market is also why publishers put out new editions every few years, but that’s a topic for another post.


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Mike Cane February 29, 2012 um 5:56 pm

Now that’s an angle I’d never considered. Well done, Nate.

Belinda February 29, 2012 um 6:16 pm

I work at a university press – a big one – that produces textbooks for uni students, mostly working in new editions. Whilst there isn’t a resell value for other courses, usually the lecturer of the course will use the same book – or something similar – for a couple of courses at least. It’s a hell of a lot of work to compile the list of content that goes in to the custom pub, and there are not inconsiderable costs in producing it, too. There is still some resell value at the same campus the book is used at. That said, they are quick to produce, we don’t have to create additional content, there is little extra editorial costs, and there have to be big numbers of students before we’ll consider doing it. It does make them profitable, but it’s not due to lack of resell opportunities.

Haden February 29, 2012 um 9:10 pm

But there’s no consideration of a couple things here: I never sold my books back because I kept them for reference. I often got stuck with a new edition and high price. Customized books of late do seem to be at a lower price, so if they compete with the used market by getting a student exactly what they need for the class and nothing more and nothin less, and a student uses the book cover to cover, and if the student doesn’t have to print out handouts from blackboard etc because they are in the custom, and all at a lower price, there is some value there. For some students and also for profs. when I taught I wanted students to have a single text but wouldn’t feel comfortable demanding purchase of high priced titles; I taught from a custom book and felt perfectly fine requiring students buy it, it was $40 not $80.

Nate Hoffelder February 29, 2012 um 9:22 pm

But I could have gotten the more expensive book for less than $40.

Haden March 1, 2012 um 1:06 am

Not necessarily, but perhaps. Regardless I appear not to have made my point clear: that there is some value to the student and to the professor in customization, all the value is not only for the publisher. a point the article didn’t consider.

Paola March 1, 2012 um 5:03 am

There is another problem with customised textbook: either they are not going to work, or they are going to require a lot of work (from either the person commissioning them or the publishers) to make them work. If I take a chapter from thext X, and another one from text Y, in all likelyhood they are going to use different notation, or different examples, or different styles, and just pulling them together will look and feel exactly what it is, a collection of odd chapters taken here and there. What I really see as the future of textbooks is professors sharing their lecture notes, or making them available for free – indeed this is already happening in some cases, e.g. check this out:
Bear in mind that the author is a big shot in economics, and his textbooks are a standard graduate reference.

Nate Hoffelder March 1, 2012 um 6:48 am

I agree. OER (Open Educational Resources) is the future, yes.

Harvey Deneroff March 1, 2012 um 11:29 pm

I should note that custom textbooks have been around a long time and predate their modern incarnation. Once upon a time, it was not unusual for college bookstores to print (i.e., bound xerox copies, which could be quite bulky) of readings for professors. Though, as a college professor, I have never done something like this, a colleague who does finds it quite convenient; interestingly enough, she observed that most of her students preferred hard copy editions to the ebook ones.

Nate Hoffelder August 7, 2012 um 4:20 pm

I’m not alone:

Simply put, customized editions don’t have buyback value because they are such limited-edition one-offs particular to one course, professor, institution, etc.

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