Dan Gillmor

Why I don't force my students to buy an expensive textbook

In the online “digital media literacy” courses I teach for Arizona State University’s online program, the required reading includes my 2009 book, Mediactive. Most of the students don’t buy it.

The reason? I’ve published the book under a Creative Commons license that lets them, or anyone else, read it online (or download it) at no cost. Some buy it anyway — it’s not expensive, especially the ebook edition — and to those of you who do, thanks, I appreciate it.

My use of Creative Commons licensing is mostly about my objections to the draconian “All Rights Reserved” mentality our current copyright system engenders. My goal is to be heard at least as much as to be paid; but being heard is a prerequisite in any case in a world where the traditional ways of making and selling books have undergone such change.

Another reason I’m glad to be making the book available this way is my growing disgust at the academic publishers, which have pushed textbook prices into the stratosphere. It is a greed-infused ecosystem, where publishers rip off students in ways that should shame everyone involved.

Students are beginning to push back, in part by choosing courses with lower book costs. A good strategy — in part because it’s forcing the textbook industry to rethink the outrageous overpricing it’s gotten away with for so long.

Teachers and administrators are pushing back as well. The “open textbook” initiatives we’re seeing in K-12 schools and universities are evidence that people have had enough of the publishers’ greed. For example, a school district in Arizona is saving a lot of money by providing material created through this system, aiming the course reading at mobile devices. Maryland’s universities are moving in this direction with a pilot program. Foundations, recognizing a profound market failure, are moving into the field as well.

Textbook pricing is a classic bubble. It will burst. Harvard professor Gregory Mankiw should enjoy the ridiculous royalties on his grossly overpriced economics textbook while he can. Supply and demand will be arriving in what has been a rigged market, sooner than he may think. Those crashing revenues will be a nifty case study for an open economics text a few years from now.