Rip, Burn and Mash – Downloaders Cast Their Eyes on Textbooks

If you’ve been wondering, as I have, when the E-Book Revolution would find its way to textbooks, it’s now no further than your keyboard.

If any aspect of the book business were ripe for revolution it’s textbooks, because it’s closest to the music industry in terms of the SRI – the Student Resentment Index. College students have been complaining for decades about being compelled to pay preposterously high prices for school books of which they may be required to use only a few chapters. Though there is a secondary market for those books, publishers and authors have gotten around it by producing new editions, often merely cosmetically enhanced, and requiring students to buy them instead of used ones. The process is particularly cruel on families on a tight budget. And it’s not that hot on the spines of students lugging fifteen or twenty pounds of books in their backpacks.

The logical question is, “Why can’t we just download?”

Noam Cohen’s article in the New York Times, Don’t Buy That Textbook, Download It Free discusses new approaches by students and parents who feel ripped off by a conspiracy of publishers, textbook authors, and colleges.

Recognizing the injustice, at least one denizen of academia, Professor R. Preston McAfee of Cal Tech, has forgone the traditional route and a big advance in order to deliver a free download of an economics textbook he has authored. The book is also for sale in an on-demand print edition, but for a fraction of the price that students would have to pay at their college bookstore. “This market is not working very well — except for the shareholders in the textbook publishers,” Cohen quotes Professor McAfee. “We have lots of knowledge, but we are not getting it out.”

Cohen cites other attractively priced approaches to Web delivery of math, science, economics and other big-ticket textbooks. These breakthroughs come along just as tablet-reader technology solutions accelerate. A tipping point may be closer than anyone (except a core group of wild-eyed visionaries like yours truly) could have imagined a few years ago.

– Richard Curtis

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