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Fighting the Textbook Cartel

Anyone who's ever taken a moment to contemplate how textbooks can be so wildly expensive and so abominably written comes to three easy conclusions: 1) Someone is making a bundle, 2) that someone is not the grad students who do the real work of putting together a textbook, and 3) there must be a better way.

For many years, education experts, politicians and students have railed against the stratospheric price of textbooks, but still, the price tag soars--$80, $150, even $200 for a book that's boring, out of date and obviously written by committee.

Now, Virginia state delegate Christopher Peace, a Republican who represents a large swath of the area between Richmond and the northern Virginia suburbs, is proposing that the Old Dominion strike back at the textbook publishing cartel and deliver more timely materials to classrooms by creating a state-sponsored digital database of print-on-demand textbooks. Peace tells me it would work like this: "We create the infrastructure and become our own distributor of Virginia-only texts that meet our schools' Standards of Learning. We can push the existing publishers to become more innovative, bring in new publishers, and get more up-to-date materials to our kids."

Peace says bigger states such as California and Texas dominate the textbook industry; when legislatures in those states insist that, for example, that ethnic politics take precedence over historians' judgment of the way history played out, those editorial decisions are then foisted upon the rest of the country--in the same way that tougher emissions standards in California change the way cars are made nationwide. Peace's political agenda here is to defend Virginia from what he sees as California's social agenda--he'd like, for example, for homeschoolers to be able to download a chapter on creationism and plug it into a biology textbook.

But leaving aside such political manipulations and countermanipulations, the economic model has promise. Virginia now spends about $100 per student on textbooks each year. Peace estimates that his database could save as much as a quarter of that and could smash through some of the ridiculous practices that states now accept; for example, when some Virginia counties have sought to load textbooks onto computers and skip the dead trees edition entirely, the publishers required those school systems to buy the books in order to get the discs. "The books just sit in cellophane wrap in warehouses, untouched," Peace says.

Sun Microsystems executive Scott McNealy has proposed a similar end run around the textbook cartel--the creation of open-source software that would be available without charge to all schools to end the practice of buying new math textbooks every couple of years. "Math hasn't changed since Isaac Newton," McNealy asks, so why are states spending hundreds of milions each year to enrich the textbook industry?

Peace wants to set up a study group in Richmond to look into how to make this change; it won't happen overnight--he's talking about getting the study done by the end of 2008--but it's a popular and just cause. When even a used textbook can cost $100, something is terribly wrong.


By Marc Fisher |  January 16, 2007; 8:03 AM ET
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Comments

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That's a good one! The Commonwealth of Virginia thinks it should go into the textbook publishing business? They couldn't run a hot dog stand and now they want to publish our kids' textbooks?

Textbook publishing is a highly competitive field. The publishers are publicly traded, and does anyone seriously think they're making oversized profits for their investors? Let us know which ones they are, so we can buy their stock.

If there are uncompetitive practices -- e.g., a collusive cartel -- then there are laws for dealing with them. But the idea of the People's Republic of Virginia becoming a publisher is a bit over the top. If they can't enforce the existing laws, how can they operate a new enterprise?

Posted by: KK | January 16, 2007 9:01 AM

On the college side, I have a single marketing textbook that cost me $262 for my current grad level class. If I was smart I would have gone on ebay to get an older edition. Oh wait, my school requires I order a custom package with a 40 page workbook included. Cartel indeed!

Posted by: RL | January 16, 2007 10:05 AM

And somehow thousands of homeschooled kids in VA manage to get a quality education each year without any traditional textbooks. I'm not sure the VA dB would be any more accurate than traditional textbooks, but it should be a lot cheaper, and corrections won't have to wait 3 years for the next edition. 2 out 3 wins for me.

Posted by: COD | January 16, 2007 10:23 AM

"Peace's political agenda here is to defend Virginia from what he sees as California's social agenda--he'd like, for example, for homeschoolers to be able to download a chapter on creationism and plug it into a biology textbook."

A-ha! More garbage from the world of evangelical Republicans to proselytize their religious views upon the school children of Virginia. Peace doesn't want California to influence the school children of Virginia but his hypocracy will allow him to influence the same children with his religious views.

Posted by: Give me a break | January 16, 2007 10:24 AM

I suspect that there are too many intersecting interests-- it's not just the textbook industry, there's the educational certification cartel, various state and federal education programs. Additional reading: the Wikipedia entry on 'Rent Seeking'.

Posted by: MattF | January 16, 2007 10:33 AM

We should do this! After all, what we're really interested in buying is the content of the textbook - not the paper. (You can get paper by buying the Weekly World News.) The printing is entirely secondary. Totally aside from issues of balance and political correctness, it would allow for updated materials to be rolled out much more quickly, and make it easier for schools to buy only as many books as they need - and get more quickly when needed, without a lot of unnecessary warehousing.

Posted by: Demos | January 16, 2007 10:40 AM

Maybe they can use a wiki model.

Posted by: Falls Church | January 16, 2007 11:18 AM

Ummm... Give me a break, you do realize that it's spelled "hypocrisy," right?

Don't be so quick to rule out a decent idea based solely on a guy's religion. This could be a good idea and is worth exploring.

Posted by: Pompous Magnus | January 16, 2007 11:28 AM

I'm a graduate of Wilson and a current student at the University of Michigan. Many students here spend upwards of $500 per semester, or about $1000 a year on textbooks. Those of us who are more savvy about it by them online for less than half of the list price, but many entire departments, and Spanish comes to mind, require you to by bundled materials.
There is also almost no competition between bookstores to provide competitive prices. We have three bookstores that supply our campus(none of which are university owned or operated)and for the most part they all carry slightly different inventories, presumably so as not to encroach on each other.
For Fisher, or anyone else reading this who might know a thing or two about anti-trust laws, is the current situation even legal?

Posted by: ann arbor | January 16, 2007 11:34 AM

Hey RL -

You could probably find both the workbook and textbook on Half.com or Amazon. I bought 95% of my books that way for business grad school, and some were the "bundled" copies.

Posted by: AG | January 16, 2007 12:02 PM

I think this is a concept worth exploring. Many university research libraries now subscribe to electronic versions of research journals, which cuts the cost of dealing with paper copies from printed volumes. One just searches the database and downloads or prints the desired article. It saves physical space, too.

Even though I'm a crazy liberal originally from CA, I don't think making a creationist chapter available is in itself harmful, so long as the SOLs don't require my kids to learn it. I think that's what we have to keep an eye on, the SOLs and making sure they require a mainstream education that will prepare Virginian students well in a competitive workforce.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | January 16, 2007 12:02 PM

To ann arbor:

Sadly for you, I don't think what the stores are doing is illegal, unless they are gathering or communicating directly about what stock to carry and what to charge. That would be a violation of the Sherman Act.

If they merely carry different stock, they are simply competing by providing different products, recognizing that students' willingness to pay is very high (e.g. they have few other choices if a professor stipulates which book will be used). Professors often make choices based on content, with little regard for price, since they do not pay for the book. (They often receive free samples from the publishers, so that the professor will choose the book and require the students to pay for it.) So, therein lies the problem: those choosing the material do not have to pay for it, and those who must buy it have no alternatives, but for used copies (quickly made obsolete by new editions every couple of years).

Since the Sherman Act probably won't save you, I suggest you and your classmates tally what you pay for books and complain to the professors. They are likely unaware of the financial burden of buying textbooks. Also, sometimes the university library keeps copies of textbooks, so that is another (albeit not perfect) alternative.

Posted by: Dabbler in Antitrust | January 16, 2007 12:10 PM

Cheapest way to find textbooks I've found is www.bigwords.com. It's basically a database that searches all the used and new textbook sites and gives you two options. First, the cheapest way to buy them all from one site, and 2nd to buy each individually at its absolute lowest price. Keep in mind, the more you share this site, the fewer books for you to buy. I'm only sharing b/c I'm in my last semester of grad school.

Posted by: ER | January 16, 2007 12:22 PM

I used to be a textbook coordinator for a K-12 district in Texas, and your statement that Virginia spends $100 per student is hard to comprehend. Texas provides each student with every book they need at no charge (unless the book is not turned in at the end of the year). I left there two years ago and the average price of a book was almost $100, so some kids were running around with thousands of dollars in textbooks checked out to them. I might add that trying to collect for lost books was virtually impossible and the state left the school district responsible for any shortage in inventory, which often left poor districts owing hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state. There has to be a better way.

Posted by: Linda | January 16, 2007 12:24 PM

To Ann Arbor:

This is not new. I'm also a Wilson grad, and found out that my fresh/soph English textbooks had a shelf life of 2 years...This was at GWU, 40 years ago and the author was our Dept. Chair.

As far as the textbook costs, please remember that the publishers are forced to deal with 50 state legislatures and much of the nonsense that they put out. Peace is worried about California and everyone with half a brain is worried about Kansas. Of course one wonders how much time and effort the publishers spend attempting to tread the fine line between the two.

Posted by: Catcher50 | January 16, 2007 12:25 PM

"Even though I'm a crazy liberal originally from CA, I don't think making a creationist chapter available is in itself harmful, so long as the SOLs don't require my kids to learn it. I think that's what we have to keep an eye on, the SOLs and making sure they require a mainstream education that will prepare Virginian students well in a competitive workforce."

It might not even be that bad for them to learn a little bit about what these guys think - after all, they're going to have to live in the same world with them.

When you think about it, it's really kind of odd. We recognize the need for our kids to know something about other religions and cultures such as Islam and the middle east, but seemingly give no thought at all to the need for them to understand other (homegrown) cultures within our country.

The way we talk past (and sometimes hurl invective at) each other, we may need for the redneck kid to take a class on northeastern secular liberals - and vice versa.

Posted by: Demos | January 16, 2007 12:27 PM

"for homeschoolers to be able to download a chapter on creationism and plug it into a biology textbook."

And there it is. Maybe we should allow teachers to teach that Aliens put us here, because their is about as much academic support and factual historic support for Aliens as there is for creationism.

How about this. How about the VA legislature writes the books for all subjects. I'm sure Mr. Peace knows about sociology, history, engineering, calculus, law, medicine. I've been looking for a doctor whom doesn't believe that evolution hogwash. And Nuclear Weapons Engineers whom don't believe in traditional, leftish, biased mathematics. We don't need no stinking tracking systems; The Caucasion humanlike male with long hair who lives in the sky, outside of space and time, and who is responsible for all our successes and failures, will make sure everything is ok.

This is just another attempt by a Right-Wing hypocrist, so weak in his faith and life, that he has to force his superstitions on young unsuspecting minds. I'm suprized it is so blatant, normally you would expect a stealth effort to water down the educational standards.

A digital download book system would be wonderful if it were implemented by an entity that had no vested interest in the contents of said system. The book industry is the only entity which could get this right.

Since VA republicans suddenly don't mind spending taxpayer money on Education, why don't they just subside some percent of the cost of the books? How about the Universities swallow the cost of the books in tuition?

VA would be better served by a legislature that focuses on serving the it's constituents and tax base (Read: Blue Va) with such things such as transportation projects, advancing education, specifically math and science curricula, Smart Growth, et cetera.

Posted by: Joe M. | January 16, 2007 12:46 PM

"for homeschoolers to be able to download a chapter on creationism and plug it into a biology textbook."

And there it is. Maybe we should allow teachers to teach that Aliens put us here, because their is about as much academic support and factual historic support for Aliens as there is for creationism.

How about this. How about the VA legislature writes the books for all subjects. I'm sure Mr. Peace knows about sociology, history, engineering, calculus, law, medicine. I've been looking for a doctor whom doesn't believe that evolution hogwash. And Nuclear Weapons Engineers whom don't believe in traditional, leftish, biased mathematics. We don't need no stinking tracking systems; The Caucasion humanlike male with long hair who lives in the sky, outside of space and time, and who is responsible for all our successes and failures, will make sure everything is ok.

This is just another attempt by a Right-Wing hypocrist, so weak in his faith and life, that he has to force his superstitions on young unsuspecting minds. I'm suprized it is so blatant, normally you would expect a stealth effort to water down the educational standards.

A digital download book system would be wonderful if it were implemented by an entity that had no vested interest in the contents of said system. The book industry is the only entity which could get this right.

Since VA republicans suddenly don't mind spending taxpayer money on Education, why don't they just subside some percent of the cost of the books? How about the Universities swallow the cost of the books in tuition?

VA would be better served by a legislature that focuses on serving the it's constituents and tax base (Read: Blue Va) with such things such as transportation projects, advancing education, specifically math and science curricula, Smart Growth, et cetera.

Posted by: Joe M. | January 16, 2007 12:48 PM

The publishers need to be held in account. I work at a relatively large university and let me tell you, the price of your textbooks are due in no small part to the idiotic advertising budgets. I have 12 full time tenured or tenure track faculty. On average, each receives 10-12 FREE textbooks from publishers. Let me clarify that by free, I mean unsolicited, unwanted, and unused textbooks. THEN the publishers send each book via courier (generally UPS or Fedex). The cost of that can add about $10 per book. Lets assume (to make the math easy) that the average cost of a textbook is $50. So, 10 books at $50 plus $10 s&h multiplied by 12 faculty is $7200 in free books given away to one department at one school. Now multiply that time the many departments and schools in the country and it is very apparent that the publishers are WASTING money in an idiotic way to get professors to use their books. Excuse me, but the publishers are making up that money somewhere at it is the wallets of students and their families.

The reality is that most fields of academia have a professional group for which the faculty and they departments pay membership dues. The dues pay for printing the professional journals of academia. In EVERY journal, is a section with book reviews. The faculty here rely on the book reviews because they are written by people they know and respect and THOSE are the books faculty ultimately use. As an aside, the faculty will often sell their books to book buyers at cut rate prices. The most a new, unused freebie garners is $20 for the science textbooks.

So, how do you ramp down the cost of textbooks? Despite my liberal leanings, I don't agree that this is something to be fixed legislatively. I think the real pressure ought to be in a public outcry over the poor business management of publishers. "We've has enough adn we're not gonna take it anymore!" Second, the publishers could find, I believe, huge profits in electronic downloads. Faculty could download excepts of a textbook free of charge. Students could download and if they choose, print a copy of a book that has been chosen for their class. Older books that may be out of print could be made available with little cost to the publisher. Just my two cents.

Posted by: LM in WI | January 16, 2007 12:51 PM

And with this discussion, is it no wonder that McGraw Hill is splashing Bonneville's radio stations with positive Halliburton-type ads?

Come off it. The Chinese don't want to emulate businesspersons so that McGraw Hill makes money. They want to emulate Yao Ming so that they can make money.

McGraw Hill is da bama of the week. Week. Week.

Posted by: Bigg | January 16, 2007 1:16 PM

"And there it is. Maybe we should allow teachers to teach that Aliens put us here, because their is about as much academic support and factual historic support for Aliens as there is for creationism."

Jeez, don't you know anything. The Earth is just a farm, people are the food crop and harvest season is just around the corner...

Posted by: Anonymous | January 16, 2007 1:29 PM

Hooray for a politician thinking outside the box and willing to take on a business powerhouse like the publishing industry. My experience with textbooks both thru my education and my kids is that only a portion of the book is used anyways. Why not download only the chapters the teacher plans on using? In subjects like history where the content is changing daily, why not have access to the latest information? Students could then highlight pages making it easiier for them to study. And it saves money.

This idea is a no-brainer!

Posted by: NOVA parent | January 16, 2007 2:25 PM

Joe M. has given us a gold-plated example of the need for greater understanding between Americans.

Most Washington Post readers would be up in arms if someone had charicatured conservative Muslims in Iraq (or Hindus in India, or Buddhists in . . .) in a similar way. But we think nothing of totally trashing fellow Americans with no attempt to understand their point of view, or even extend the minimum human respect necessary to support a civil discourse.

Why is it so easy for us to fall into treating family worse than neighbors?

Posted by: Demos | January 16, 2007 2:48 PM

As I understand it, publishers come out with new editions each year, and schools require those latest editions. Unfortunately, most of the changes from edition to edition are either minor substantive changes, or purely cosmetic. Schools could easily stick with older editions, except for science and civics courses. Even then, teachers could use low-cost xeroxed supplements to update the textbooks.

Further, forcing students to load up on glossy and heavy books strains their backs as they lug around 30 pounds of books in their back packs. No joke--I weighed my nieces' middle school texts. The science text weighed almost 10 pounds!

On a related matter, how many college professors require students to use their own books? Here they have a direct financial incentive to stick it to the students, as they pocket the royalties. I recall reading some years ago that U Minn required professors using their own books to waive or forfeit the royalties. This is a great idea and should be written into law--such as No Child Left Behind, or federal aid to higher education funding. Want federal aid to education? Can't collect royalties on books you make your students purchase.

Posted by: Garak | January 16, 2007 3:20 PM

Demos..

Would you claim to give my religion of Alien worship a level headed view or analysis? If I were to claim that I worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster, would you not come to some assumption or judgement on the likelyhood, veracity, and reasonableness of my claims?

I've tried to understand the faith that people feel, and it is absurd to me, and i'll never understand it. That such faith is so easily portrayed as absurd is not my fault.

Posted by: Joe M. | January 16, 2007 3:42 PM

Nope - not true. There are still several profs at the Univ of Minnesota who require their own books, including a mind-numbing music prof and K.A.M., the Art History prof who thinks every rock with a ding in it is a fertility symbol. They each sell thousands per year to the thundering herd classes they "teach".

Posted by: Gopher | January 16, 2007 3:49 PM

What I find fascinating is the way no one seems to understand the role of used books in the process. Used books are bought from students at a maximum of 25% of the new copy's suggested retail price. Then they are sold to the student at 75% of the new copy's suggested retail price. Sounds like lot of money for the local bookstore. Nothing for the author or publisher.

Then these used sales cut into the time for an author and publisher to amortize their investment in a book (which for a major intro text can run from $500,000 to $1,000,000). If in a class of 100 students 60 of them buy used books, only 40 are paying for everyone's materials. 60 of them are just supporting the bookstore.

As for the content versus a paper copy, the publishers would all love to offer the content electronically. Most of them are prepared to do this today, but customers aren't buying. The publishers are not printers. They don't care how the material is delivered.

More could be said on this, but in neither college nor K-12 are the publishers making a killing of oil-industry proportions. All the major publishers are publically traded and their financials are available to you. There are problems with the industry, but the industry is bigger than publisher and customer. The used market is huge and it is leeching the money out of everyone's pockets.

Posted by: David - LiteraryTech | January 16, 2007 4:01 PM

Wow, lots of assumptions about homeschoolers (no textbooks, creationism, etc). Homeschooling is nothing if not a highly individual decision, and the reality is that we are all over the map in terms of religious and political views. What the majority of homeschool families share is a conviction that education is too important to our children to leave in the hands of public school systems which fail to meet their particular needs. Quality educational materials are no more or less important to homeschoolers than to anyone else interested in their child's education. I am sick of hearing homeschooling assumed to be the exclusive domain of the Christian right, as delegate Peace implies. This is simply a false assumption, propagated by certain groups for their own benefit.

Posted by: Homeschool Dad | January 16, 2007 4:18 PM

Joe M.,

I would assume that you have what you consider to be good and sufficient reasons for what you believe. I'd take the time to ask "why would an intelligent adult think that?"

Let me be blunt. I'm comfortably certain that you believe some things (political, religious, philosophical, aesthetic, whatever) that I would consider absurd and illogical. (You have to - my own mom does - no two people, however intelligent and reasonable, agree on everything.)

I'm not going to mock you by saying that "their is about as much academic support and factual historic support for Aliens as there is for " what Joe M. is spouting - even though I may believe it to be true.

I'm not going to say that your point of view represents "just another attempt by a" left-wing, secularist "hypocrist, so weak in his" philosophy and world view ", that he has to force his" left-wing political correctness "on young unsuspecting minds. I'm suprized it is so blatant, normally you would expect a stealth effort to water down the educational standards."

You just threw insults around, and imputed hypocritical motives to people - you never managed to "easily" portray anyone's faith as "absurd." A really good, pointed parody based on what people actually do and say - a la Monty Python perhaps - can be entertaining and educational (though too often mean-spirited enough to engender more hatred than understanding).


Intemperate language like this feeds the worst stereotypes that conservatives and religious Americans have of liberal and secular Americans. Why indulge in it? What's the purpose, other than getting a little in-group fun at the expense of someone else? There is a downside, you know - it's directly feeding the social divisions and political rancor that's poisoning our public life.

And yes, some of the people you're mocking likely mock you back - but after all, don't you think of yourself as being on the side of rationality, reasonableness and self control?

Posted by: Demos | January 16, 2007 4:53 PM

And really, "the Flying Spaghetti Monster?"

Posted by: Demos | January 16, 2007 4:56 PM

It is about time that legislators start addressing the ridiculous textbook prices. A $125 textbook was assigned in one of my classes this semester. I instead bought an older edition of the textbook for $7, and that included the cost of shipping! The only difference between the two books was that the chapters were shuffled around! The textbook companies are worse than the oil companies when it comes to price gouging.

Posted by: Tirade | January 16, 2007 5:43 PM

Sounds like on cartel to another to me. Those prices will be sure to creep up too.
I love how you want to devalue information to practically nothing. Great idea.

Posted by: Deanna | January 16, 2007 6:42 PM

I did have this one professor who required us to buy his 'California Politics' book for a course on CA Politics which he wrote. But then he took the entire class out to a *really* nice dinner based on the royalties. I thought that was cool. And the book was not an insanely expensive book, either.

Posted by: Columbia, MD | January 16, 2007 8:05 PM

The textbook may be the most important item published and it should be tested and evaluated to see what works and what does not. To be sure, mathematics has not changed - but the teaching of math had better improve or we will have another generation where many have no sense of numbers and what is "right."

Just look at the average graduation and the sea of flash units going off and tell me that we have a system for teaching physics. Most people don't have a clue about how far their flash will work.

In an ideal we would know if a new text works or not and we would use only those that do the job.

Posted by: Gary Masters | January 16, 2007 8:13 PM

The textbook may be the most important item published and it should be tested and evaluated to see what works and what does not. To be sure, mathematics has not changed - but the teaching of math had better improve or we will have another generation where many have no sense of numbers and what is "right."

Just look at the average graduation and the sea of flash units going off and tell me that we have a system for teaching physics. Most people don't have a clue about how far their flash will work.

In an ideal we would know if a new text works or not and we would use only those that do the job.

Posted by: Gary Masters | January 16, 2007 8:13 PM

"But leaving aside such political manipulations and countermanipulations"

No, let's not be so naive. Marc, your ability to "set aside" politics when doing so... suits your politics... is disgraceful. Has the Washington Post given up entirely on the idea of journalists and instead just taken on the model of political pundits and ideologues sell more media?

Disgraceful.

Posted by: John | January 16, 2007 8:23 PM

I think that this all mixes up about three issues:

i. the cost of textbooks in general
ii. the cost of textbooks to the primary and secondary schools of Virginia
ii. the quality and content of textbooks

For the first, what you say is true, and so is what the posters say. The cost is astonishing, the cost for used copies is far lower, and publishers have no scruples about issuing new editions with minor changes. Still, I don't know that the costs are that far out of line with trade publishing, considered per page.

For the second, $75/year/student in Virginia adds up. But it looks to me like much less than 1% of cost of schooling. The examples taken from college or grad school are eye-popping, but don't apply to K-12 education. These schools aren't turning over editions so fast. And I bet that the math chair at T.C. Williams isn't getting dozens of complimentary copies.

Finally, there are excellent texts out there. I can see half a dozen (college) texts from where I sit as I type this. Most were written by persons distinguished in their fields, all by persons who had mastered the field enough to know who to present the matter clearly and to the proper level of detail. For an interesting look at problems with textbooks, have a look at _Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman_ where Feynman recounts his experience in evaluating math and science texts for California.

Posted by: gjj | January 16, 2007 8:36 PM

This is a real bait and switch on the part of the legislature. The cost of textbooks pales in comparison to the cost of tuition. Who sets the cost of tuition at state universities? Why, it's the legislature. Don't allow them to go after publishing companies while letting them off the hook for skyrocketing tuition rates, when the tuition rates are under their direct control. That's something they could reduce in a heartbeat if they chose to, and that has a much bigger financial impact on students and their families than textbooks.

Posted by: Heather | January 16, 2007 9:32 PM

Wait a minute, doesn't Texas often cancel out California when it comes to social agendas in textbooks? One of the big textbook markets leans left, one of the big textbook markets leans right, and the publishers try to stay in the middle in order to make a profit selling the same books in both markets.

As for college, I often checked which books my classes required then rushed to request them from the local library's network before my classmates did...then kept renewing them until I ran out of renewals, then let the overdue fines pile up until after finals. A few bucks in overdue fines is way less than the price of even a used book! ;) Of course, this usually won't work for an entire class at once except for non-textbook required reading (the network might not have 30 copies of a given economics textbook but definitely had 30 copies of Hamlet).

"Further, forcing students to load up on glossy and heavy books strains their backs as they lug around 30 pounds of books in their back packs. No joke--I weighed my nieces' middle school texts. The science text weighed almost 10 pounds!"

The pages are glossy because the paper is treated with titanium oxide.

"The only difference between the two books was that the chapters were shuffled around!"

One of my professors required either the 4th or 5th edition of the testbook. The chapters had been shuffled, so the syllabus sometimes said things like "chapter 10 in the 4th edition or chapter 9 in the 5th edition."

Posted by: Anonymous | January 16, 2007 10:50 PM

It should be noted that the Virginia Legislature and localities pay for all of the K12 textbooks through tax revenues. The K-12 textbooks are not generally purchased by parents or students. Books are bought new and used for several years until worn out or discarded with change in instruction.
Peace's proposal might allow for some of these public funds to be used to buy the books' content for the schools instead of leasing that knowledge from the Textbook industry.
Is this not an issue that should be investigated to determine that we as taxpayers might get more bang for our buck? Would a more open system provide the greater freedom schools or educators would need in assembling content for their students?

Posted by: MB | January 16, 2007 11:28 PM

"I am sick of hearing homeschooling assumed to be the exclusive domain of the Christian right, as delegate Peace implies."

For clarification, Delegate Peace has never implied anything about homeschoolers' religious beliefs (or anyone's personal beliefs on education.) This is about saving the tax payers of VA money while providing 21st century tools for learning.

Here is his editorial from the Richmond Times Dispatch that Marc Fisher is referencing. What an innovative idea.

http://www.timesdispatch.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=RTD%2FMGArticle%2FRTD_BasicArticle&%09s=1045855935007&c=MGArticle&cid=1149192430376&path=%21editorials%21oped

Posted by: SD | January 16, 2007 11:33 PM

One last point: Scott McNealy says that "Math hasn't changed since Isaac Newton". Trends in math education have changed several times since 1960. I am old enough to remember the New Math sweeping in and back out. My son was in the last class at his primary school not to take "Chicago Math". I have been one of about 25 8th graders in a suburban junior high of 300 taking algebra, and have lived to read a Post columnist insisting that universal 8th-grade algebra is essential to the nation's future. How many other changes have there been in that generation? And the case is similar for other subjects: think of phonics disappearing & returning & being pruned back.

The persons who built and bought Sun computers and so contributed to making Mr. McNealy rich, probably could have learned their math very well from the worst texts of the last 50 years. It is only fair to the educators and publishers to remember how unusual these people are. If nothing else, Chicago Math & its kin may be useful for the Hawthorne Effect.

Finally, the mention of Newton recalls one of the interesting uses of textbooks. At the beginning of the 18th Century, the Cambridge still used Newton's notation for the calculus, and such young men as Charles Babbage thought that it was past time to go to Leibniz's. Ultimately he and his friends accomplished the revolution by publishing a volume of problems in the Leibniz's notation and also a volume of the solutions. The tutors found this so useful that Newton-style calculus quickly disappeared.

Posted by: gjj | January 17, 2007 6:02 AM

Why is everyone worked up about this? I buy my books used on the internet, study them, and when I'm all learned-up, I re-sell them on Amazon or eBay. It's like a big lending library with no overdue notices. Sometimes I lose a little, and sometimes I make a little. The total cost is next to nothing -- or less. This isn't rocket science, but you can do it with a rocket science text.

As to teachers assigning their own books, well, duh. I always thought that the goal was to be taught by someone so smart and so renowned that she could publish a text. What's the expression? "He wrote the book on it." So, why would you want to take a course from a professor who wrote the book and then assigned someone else's work as the text?

Posted by: Thrifty | January 17, 2007 6:07 AM

Thrifty: "Why is everyone worked up about this? I buy my books used on the internet, study them, and when I'm all learned-up, I re-sell them on Amazon or eBay."

I think the issue is less about where one person can buy cheap used books and more about where 1.2 million students can get inexpensive up-to-date text resources. It's hard to find quantities of good condition materials like that on E-bay or Amazon's used book sales.

Posted by: MB | January 17, 2007 6:56 AM

MB--

It has never been hard for me. Do you have problems?

Look, if more people do it, instead of whining on a blog, then the problem is solved for everyone. But, you need to come to grips with the fundamental reality that textbooks aren't both "inexpensive" and "up-to-date."
They are costly to write, produce, edit, illustrate, publish, "accessorize" with additional learning and teaching materials and distribute texts not because publishers are "price gougers" but because this is a very labor-intensive industry which -- unlike our state legislatures -- is drawing on some of the best minds in our country.

Don't you think they should be paid for their work? Should they do it as a public service? Can you cite a single textbook publisher which is earning extraordinary returns on their investment? KK, above, asked that question and here we are, 40+ posts later, and no one has named one.

Posted by: Thrifty | January 17, 2007 8:54 AM

Thanks SD for the clarification, delegate Peace's editorial made no such assertion about homeschoolers. From the header:

"he'd (Peace)like, for example, for homeschoolers to be able to download a chapter on creationism and plug it into a biology textbook"

I guess Mr. Fisher came up with the "creationism" example in the header on his own. Sorry to have mis-attributed the bias, looks like my gripe is with Marc.

Posted by: Homeschool Dad | January 17, 2007 10:59 AM

Some of you are misunderstanding the plan because this article does not explain it all. The idea is not to make Virginia a new publisher. Virginia would produce content that would then become "Creative Commons" and that material could then be used both online and in printable books ("print on demand"). With the Creative Commons license, the material, after being produced, can be freely used by *anyone*.

Peace did mention Creationism, although not here, which believe me, I do not support. But those who responded harshly do not understand that his statement did not at all relate to the government. He was saying that right now if homeschoolers want to teach Creationism, they have to make completely new books. With this plan, they would be allowed to use material that has already been written (just given the rights to it). If they want to delete the chapter on evolution, they have the right to. And if they want to write a new chapter in place of it, they are allowed to do so. Its better this way because at least what they do use will be good, comprehensive material. That just isn't possible with printed books.

Also, its is not that textbooks are unreasonably priced, but that it can be done better for less money. They would be more up-to-date because content would be more accessable. Amongst the plans of VOEF is the idea of allowing material for books to be submited by ordinary people (as Peace has said, "like Wikipedia"). The difference is, this material would be extensively reviewed before use. Textbook creation could be a collaborative effort, and those helping could likely be compensated to encourage professional help.

The bottom line is that this system would create more competition. Call it cliche if you want, but its frankly more American. And as a Virginia student, I can say that while you may have up-to-date books, my school does not. Not only are our books kept for about a decade or more, but the school wastes money on books we don't need and the books we do need have awful explanations. With a better system in place, people who had a better explanation could provide it.

Posted by: Ian Burnet | January 17, 2007 2:16 PM

All of this discussion ... these are textbooks, right?

Just remember "Books is Good!"

Posted by: DC4Ever | January 17, 2007 2:28 PM

Ian Burnet--

How does a system where a state government publishes its own textbooks "create more competition?" There is no competition. The state controls it all.

And why do you think the state government can produce textbooks at a lower cost and a higher quality? What exactly has the state of Virginia ever produced better and cheaper than private providers?

This is your idea of America? This is Cuba.

Posted by: KK | January 17, 2007 2:35 PM

Thrifty: "It has never been hard for me. Do you have problems?"

Yes, I have problems buying quantities of used quality textbooks that meet our curriculum in lots of 1000 to 20000 units. I am stating a real need and I apologize if it sounded like whining.
I would like to pay an author for there work, (and probably more than the publisher would) that I would then own and could print as often as I would like. The out of the box thinking I have is that the traditional methods of distributing knowledge to students might be improved by cutting out the middleman. Publishers may not be hugely profitable, but based on the freebie giveaways noted in these posts, they could stand to be more efficient.

Posted by: MB | January 17, 2007 6:01 PM

MB--

And it's your contention that the middleman adds no value? He just takes your money and does nothing for it?

Look, if you want to cut out the middleman you can. There's enough material on the web -- on professor's home pages, for example -- to fill out a course. All you have to do is the middleman's job. Sort through it all, decide what's most appropriate for the course you're teaching, edit it to make it suitable for your audience, download it, print it, and distribute it. Also, if you want to do this for more than your course (you mentioned 1000 to 20000 units) then you also have to convince 35 to 600 other professors to use your selections. This is called "marketing." Do you think you should charge a middleman's fee for your labors or do it as a public service? Textbook publishers have to charge a fee, and they're not getting rich off it.

As for their "inefficiencies," how do you expect to get a new textbook adopted without shipping it out for professors to read? Etc. And, by the way, once you give it out, you can expect that most of the professors you give it too (except professors of ethics, perhaps) will turn around and sell it as used and undercut your market.

Posted by: Thrifty | January 17, 2007 6:27 PM

KK Paraphrase:

How does a system where a STATE/LOCAL government BUILDS its own ROADS/SCHOOLS/LIBRARIES "create more competition?" There is no competition. The STATE/LOCAL controls it all.

"And why do you think the STATE/LOCAL government can produce ROADS/SCHOOLS/LIBRARIES at a lower cost and a higher quality? What exactly has the state of Virginia ever produced better and cheaper than private providers?

Posted by: Don Q | January 17, 2007 8:35 PM

Thrifty:
Please excuse my not being very clear. I was speaking of the K12 textbook market where the school system rather than a professor produces materials for instructional use, not post- secondary markets.
Open source software has not killed Microsoft and I do not see this action as posing a serious problem for the 6 or 7 publishers that service the K12 marketplace. This may be a way to pay authors to write directly for their consumers and allow the consumers to get what they want in a free market.

Posted by: MB | January 17, 2007 8:50 PM

As I understand it, the state of Virginia will not require it's schools use this 'print on demand' text material. The Text material will be written and distributed as 'creative commons' which is reproducable, copiable and changeable. This will just be another resource for schools to use if they so choose to do so. The state will not be making money off of the material, but school systems, especially in economically strapped counties, will have a source available to them that will help them provide up-to-date text material for their students, either digital or downloaded and printed as needed. School systems may choose or not choose to use the entire text or parts of the text. They can even rewrite whatever they wish without fear of copyright infringement. This same resource would be made available to perochial schools or parents who home school. They also pay taxes.

I am sure that inserting a chapter on creationism or the idea of intelligent design into a biology text is not the intent of this project, especially since the SOL's do NOT support those ideas as science. However, if parochial schools or any parents who support those beliefs (notice I said beliefs not theories) they could insert whatever they wish, especially since they do not have to meet the SOL standards.

There will most certainly be review boards examining and reviewing the material in the texts to make sure it is correct, of the highest standard and that the material instructs and supports the SOL's.

K-12 students in Virginia do not buy their textbooks. They are provided free of charge to the students. However, the school systems and the state of Virginia spend approximately $100 per student for textbooks which of course is our tax money.

Posted by: M.S. | January 17, 2007 9:08 PM

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