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.

70 thoughts on “Why I don't force my students to buy an expensive textbook

  1. Bubble? In grad school, some 25 years ago, I published an article (in my own newsletter) about how broken the textbook market was (exemplified by a programming text that sold for multiples of what it’s nearly identical popular version sold for, in regular bookstores). Prices were ridiculously high at the time, and even then, this wasn’t a new phenomenon.

    Having two kids in college now, the price of books doesn’t appear to me to have inflated any more than tuition has, since then. If anything, it would appear to have inflated less.

    So what makes you feel that the current market is a bubble?

  2. I realized there was a huge problem when I saw a stack of Redhat 7.3 Unleashed books for sale at full price in a college bookstore around the same time that Fedora was coming on the scene. These books were likely getting blown out at Microcenter for pennies on the dollar but because they were “college textbooks” they sat there at retail price.And don’t get me started on the outrageous prices that books like K&R C 2nd edition are still fetching after all of these years. 

  3. +Daniel Carpiaux Digital books are just as expensive as the regular books in some cases. My wife took an accounting class that had an online textbook option but didn’t allow it to be downloaded or anything without using their Flash player.Not to mention the head of the department had this mistaken notion that purchasing the book online instead of in the bookstore was tantamount to piracy. But I’m pretty sure she was only one crank phonecall away from secreting herself into a tin-foil room and rocking away in the fetal position.Oh, and I almost forgot that the instructor had a strict “no cellphones, no computers” policy, so even though my wife did buy the textbook she couldn’t bring it to class because of their stupid DRM.

  4. +Daniel Carpiaux you would think that would make them cheaper right? It doesn’t though. They’re the same price usually.Nothing like spending $400-$1000 in books every year. You can’t just buy them off your seniors because they release a new edition where the chapters are in a different order and they changed the colour on a graph.E-texts also make them difficult to resell. If they can be transferred there’s nothing stopping one kid from buying a copy and selling it to his peers for $10 each. So they are usually loaded with DRM. The first week you often find much of the class doesn’t have their books. In a class I attended recently a guy had borrowed money from his grandma for tuition but couldn’t afford the books. They were just photcopies, but cost more than the tuition.

  5. +Eric Muller unbelievable! thanks for the bad news. here i thought everybody would be on the side of the student trying to get them through the education system without costing and a leg. it’s a damn shame you guys are being exploited like that, and the government regulates this industry? when i was a kid, my mother was complaining about spending $2500 for a MA at Berkeley in the early 70s. you could buy a new VW bug for that, in those days!

  6. The one teacher I had was writing a textbook, and was teaching from it at the same time, so he handed it out as photocopies for free using the class to proofread. (you got marks for finding errors.)Textbooks are for profit business. In a lot of cases the content of the classes is pretty static, so textbooks get cosmetic upgrades. In one class the teacher gave page numbers for the current and previous textbook and recommended we get the cheaper used one if it was available. All that changed was the chapters being shuffled.I was taking computer programming so some of the texts were out of date when they were printed, but not completely irrelevant to neophytes.It’s not the teachers that want it like that, they will generally show students how to do things as cheap as possible.

  7. i’m sorry to hear that. that doesn’t sound like a very effective or efficient way to study subjects for a future career. is this a college or university? hopefully, this process improves as you get higher into the dad used to teach auto mechanics at a community college, but he never mentioned problems with the textbooks or curriculum, just at how difficult it was to get tenure!

  8. Starting out thousands in debt is considered normal now. There isn’t any reason why it can’t be free aside from some people making a lot of money from it. This keeps it in the realm of the elite and affluent.Having a post-secondary education gives you a better chance of finding a job. It doesn’t mean it will pay well though. So you start out in debt wondering where everything you were promised was.An alternative is to not bother and head straight to the shitty job skipping the debt part.It’s going to cripple and doom the country.

  9. i hear you, it’s so different these days compared to what was normal. i remember when community college was completely free except for books. then it was $6 a unit.i had worked for a doctor that his father paid for his whole education, so of course he was obligated to take over the practice when it was dad’s time to retire. i don’t know what the solution is as times are always changing for newer generations in a way that’s unpredictable. of course, not having debt offers a freedom that doesn’t exist when fully laden with debt and a reasonable paying job.

  10. Similarly owning a house and car are typical goals following post-secondary education. So you leave school and find a decent paying job and reward yourself with a modest house and car. That’s another $200k on top of what could be $50k. Then you work really hard to not go bankrupt and ruin your credit, and then you retire.You likely have kids and a wife in there somewhere. Your wife perhaps contributes a second income and has to pay off her own student loans, plus you have to save for your kids tuition, so another $50,000 each on top of the expense of having kids.

  11. i hear you! i remember graduating from high school back in 1982 and life was daunting then as well, although not as expensive in comparison to today. modern life is all about making money and having stuff without making sacrifices… is this possible? i wish I had some advice for you other than “don’t waste time” and “save as much money for retirement as you can”! thankfully, my dad really pushed me hard to have a wife and kids, so i didn’t do that! lots of guys i know have court ordered child support payments, who wins in that deal? good luck to you, i hope the education you’re receiving is going to pay off. my dad pushed me to be an engineer too, i should have done that in hindsight!

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