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No, Institutional Licensing is Not the Solution to Textbook Prices

Textbook prices have been rising faster than healthcare for decades. this has inspired the growth in use of open educational resources and even degree programs that don’t require paid textbooks.

Arthur Attwell, on the other hand, has a different solution. He wants schools to license textbooks just like they currently license access to academic journals.

From Medium:

For years in South Africa, the textbook-publishing industry has face real threats to its future, because?—?faced with non-delivery of books?—?government is desperate to change the way it buys them. Other countries face similar challenges. Government officials often cite the ‘high price of books’ as a key issue. Whether you buy the state’s argument or not, the system is going to change, and publishers can either lead the change or be changed.

To have any real effect, the change must be a fundamental change in the mainstream textbook business model: instead of selling copies, we must sell licences. Specifically, we must sell licences with no limitations on the number of downstream copies. This is especially urgent and appropriate for school books, though it’ll work for universities and colleges, too. And it’s perfectly suited to a world of tablets and ebooks. Best of all, it will save government money and make publishers’ jobs simpler.

Yeah, this isn’t going to work – not even as an intermediate step to OER (what Attwell said was his ultimate goal after I yelled at him on Twitter).

The problem here is that this model would quickly kill off the textbook market.

As you may know, this model is already being applied, with unsatisfactory results, in journal publishing. The multi-national conglomerates that control journal publishing (many of which are also textbook publishers) have a pattern of jacking up their prices year after year. The price-gouging has gotten so bad that we regularly read stories where schools – and even whole university systems – will suspend a contract with a journal publisher.

In fact, right now almost 6 dozen German universities have allowed their contracts with Dutch publisher Elsevier to lapse. They all cited the high annual cost as the reason, and also said they won’t be renewing the contracts until the price goes down.

That is not a stable or healthy market, and Attwell wants to introduce it in textbook publishing?

Okay, but I don’t think textbook publishers are going to go for it.

They’re going to foresee exactly the same problem I can see, that the first time a school decides that a textbook subscription costs too much, they will cancel it and adopt an OER replacement.

In effect, institutional subscriptions are a fast way for publishers to kill off the textbook market.

I am perfectly fine with that outcome but I don’t think they will like it so much.

image by JD Hancock

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Marion Gropen July 19, 2017 um 11:37 am

A lot of publishers in the US are selling their textbooks as ebooks, but only to universities and institutions, and only as a per seat license.

Others are selling ebook textbooks but they’re putting out really superb ancillary products where the students need an individual logins. They get grades reported to the teachers by student, based on that login. The material must be superb, or teachers opt out, and the ebooks get pirated.

Textbook prices have been in a vicious spiral because of piracy (ebook) and the secondary sale market (print). It takes a surprising amount of money to create one, often something approaching $100k. But if you’re lucky, you sell a thousand copies or maybe two thousand in print (and far fewer as ebooks, without the strategies above) — because after the first year, everybody is buying used.

To keep the sales rolling, you need new editions, with commensurate astronomical costs.

The ebook strategies above extend the life of the textbook edition, and you can drop the prices.

If it works, we could enter a virtuous cycle.

No one really wants things to be the way they are. Not even the much-maligned textbook publishers.

Jisc Now Offers Digital Textbooks | The Digital Reader August 7, 2017 um 4:39 pm

[…] have previously explained in detail why site licenses are not in the best interests of students or schools, so I won't repeat […]

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