Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Free for all, free-for-all

Claire’s post earlier this week (and Iris’ post before it) tackled the question of platform-limited educational tools—specifically, enhanced e-textbooks. And while that is an interesting discussion in itself, it leads the way to a broader discussion that has been going on between the academic publisher and the layperson for a long time. A January 27 post in the Guardian by the UK Publisher’s Association’s Graham Taylor, aptly entitled “Branding academic publishers as ‘enemies of science’ is offensive and wrong,” is a response to the general feeling of the public toward this branch of the publishing world—an opinion articulated by Mark Taylor of the University of Bristol in the January 16 article “Academic publishers have become the enemies of science.”

Really, the title of Mark Taylor’s piece sums it up pretty succinctly: people don’t want to pay for information. And with Google (industriously working to catalog all the world’s information) at everyone’s fingertips, why would they?

The Guardian articles are focused on academic journals, vehicles for disseminating new ideas and continuing development for academics or professionals in the field, while the Apple plan is focused on student textbooks. And while journals and textbooks operate on very different revenue models, they are facing a similar challenge. People want this information for free—or at least, for a very reduced price.

But before we automatically jump on board with the idea of free information, let’s step back for a moment. Are there reasons that these resources should have a price tag? Graham Taylor makes important points about the costs involved with producing a quality journal: content assessment, peer review, the investment of coordinating and distributing journals production.

For introductory-level textbooks, costs come in the form of permissions for quoted text and images, and the production costs of four-color, high-quality, glossy publications. Pedagogical resources like test banks, practice questions, and lecture slides add to the cost of bringing out new texts. For upper-level textbooks, unit costs skyrocket as markets shrink. (How many courses are there on early modern Portugal, for instance?) To simplify: introductory-level textbooks are focused on quality—in content, presentation, and supplementary resource. Upper-level textbooks are driven by relevance—relevance to specific disciplines, niche topics, and specialty courses. Both of these things—quality and relevance—traditionally drive up prices in a capitalist market.

(Granted, there are many arguments that textbooks are serving a captive market, much like healthcare; however, in some cases, I suspect further investigation may find that higher costs reflect larger investment by the publisher.)

Despite all of these reasons for textbook pricing being as it is, publishers like McGraw-Hill are still making an effort to bring down costs through digital versions, such as Apple’s new platform.  (However, note the publisher’s view of this as a test run. Then note Apple’s view of this as a fixed price. Could this lead to another falling-out between publisher and digital retailer, like the 2010 conflict between Macmillan and Amazon?) And, publishers working with institutions such as Indiana University are making deals to get books to students at wholesale prices. In terms of journals, Open Access initiatives are serious points of conversation in the workspace.

Meanwhile, this makes me ask the question: should textbooks be cheaper? Of course as a student, it makes sense to my pocketbook. But if and when publishers lose revenue on low-cost sales models, what else is at stake? Quality? Service to niche markets? Peer review? Reliability of texts? There are important reasons that academic publishing is different from trade publishing. Do we really want those models to merge?

About Leah Thompson

Writing and publishing professional in the Boston area.

One comment on “Free for all, free-for-all

  1. Pingback: Interactive e-textbooks: setting the bar too high? « appazoogle

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This entry was posted on January 31, 2012 by in Business and tagged , , .

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