Textbooks are Terrible.

In addition to being an author, I am also a student. Since having returned to college, I have learned a great many things, but the one thing that I've learned in every single class I've attended is that college textbooks are terrible.

I don't mean that they're dry, or boring, because honestly any non-fiction tome on a subject that you're not interested in can feel that way. I mean that they are pieces of writing that are created for a purpose, and they do not serve that purpose well at all.

I have had sections in all of my college textbooks that I have had to reread over and over again, searching for a missing piece of information or instruction, only to realize after that I was not at fault at all; the information I needed to accomplish the task set forth was simply not there. Sometimes the missing steps would appear in other, seemingly unrelated parts of the text; sometimes it turned out that the information was actually covered in a following chapter. 

Since my younger brother became a high school teacher, I have been much more aware of the fact that teaching is a skill, a process, that depends on strategies designed to impart the information and techniques that one hopes to instill in the learner. It's not something that just anyone can do. But the most basic aspects of usability and design seem to have been neglected in the production of textbooks, and I'm not sure why that is.

I'm certain that the authors of textbooks likely have a deep knowledge and understanding of their subject matter. I'm not here to slight their expertise. I actually think that it's the publisher's responsibility to make sure that they're releasing a quality product, and they're failing at that. 

This is astounding especially in light of how expensive college textbooks are. The price of textbooks has increased by more than eight hundred percent in my lifetime; that's much faster than the increase in the consumer price index, and even faster than the cost of medical procedures, a famous price index bugaboo. 

And all of this is continuing in an environment in which information is growing steadily cheaper. Books on hundreds of subjects can be had for cheap or free thanks to the internet and digital publishing. Just a couple of weeks ago I balked at spending $9.99 for a novel in e-book format. 

As a note, I do think this kind of pricing is unreasonable for an ebook, especially for a novel that's been on the market for well over a quarter of a century. Pricing like this is still common for big publishers. Support cheap ebooks; support indie authors.

So in this new environment of cheap and free information, textbook publishers have sought ways not to lower pricing but to increase it. Ebook versions of most textbooks are available, but are excruciatingly expensive, sometimes over a hundred dollars, with no possibility of resale. More importantly, textbook companies are creating online companion material that must be paid for in addition to the cover price of the text itself. Fortunately most of my classes have not required this material. Only my economics classes; a situation that I find hilariously ironic.

The fact is, the textbook market is a market that would seriously benefit from some competition. But major textbook publishers, including heavyweights like Cengage and Pearson, respond to low-cost alternatives by attempting to sue them out of existence. Competition in this market would do more than lower costs; it would also result in a higher-quality product. The product would selected by the educators who are going to be teaching the material contained therein, and hopefully thus more effective as a companion to that process.

This is their response to market disruption; to cling to the old ways of doing things by leveraging the power of the courts. Not to adapt to take advantage of the new reality.

Despite what we may hear, these large companies are not innovators, and this fact is not limited to the textbook industry nor just to publishing in general. As the economy changes (and I contend that it will never be the same as it was before the Great Recession, which in itself constituted a kind of apocalypse), it is the small companies, the start-ups and the individuals, who will chart new courses and discover new ways of monetizing their labor, and the rest of us will follow in their wake. 

These enormous companies are simply massive enough to resist the inexorable pull of change. But they won't be able to forever.