A Simple Solution I Wish I’d Thought of First

July 12th, 2009

Textbooks for rent for the semester (i.e. a NetFlix for textbooks.)  What a simple, yet brilliant idea for the times!  And here’s why.

College textbooks (or any textbook for that matter) are outrageously expensive.  Last year we forked over nearly  $1,100 for my daughter’s college textbooks. At the time that seemed way out of whack to me and I attributed it to the specific cluster of science classes she was taking. But since then, I found some eye opening stats:

  • textbook prices have nearly tripled since the late 80s; now they set students back an average of $900 per year, or 14% of annual tuition at an average public school (BusinessWeek, 10/20/08).
  • the price of textbooks is rising at twice the rate of inflation.
  • the College Board recommends that students budget up to $1,229 for books and supplies.
  • it’s no cottage industry.  The textbook market is a  $5.5 billion market.

booksLike most industries, it’s under intense pressure to evolve.  Primarily because of those spiraling costs.  Hence, there are a lot of companies looking at innovation in the primary and secondary education textbook market well beyond just expanding the “used” book market.

There are lots of ideas being thrown around.  Technology being one of the them. There’s significant focus on digital textbooks as a promising way to lower costs and increase options for students, as well as open up the market to more competition.  They are already gaining a more prominent position in the textbooks marketplace.  Companies like CourseSmart, iChapters, Zinio, eCampus, CafeScribe and many others have sprung up.  Traditional publishers like McGraw-Hill and Taylor and Francis have gotten into the ebook game.  And of course Amazon and the Kindle are right in there.  In fact, three textbook publishers that collectively publish 60% of the country’s textbooks recently agreed to publish new Kindle DX versions of their books. At least six universities will be running Kindle pilot programs, wherein a number of students will be provided with the devices to see how students react.

kindleNow I’m an eBook fan, but in my experience many eBooks cost damn near the same as their printed counterpart.  I did some research on textbooks and found that often that was the case with textbooks as well (although I’m sure some educational institutions arrange discounts).  Secondly, many of the eBook texts are purchased based on limited time use only (i.e. a semester).

These issues may be why California has gone even further…into digital open-source texts.  In June, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger promoted his state’s recently announced initiative, which would see it adopt free, digital textbooks in time for the next school year.  Proponents of digital open-source texts tout the fact that when information and facts change, educators can make immediate adjustments.  Take Pluto for example.  It’s still listed in some textbooks as a planet.  And that won’t change until the next textbook comes out. Traditional print textbooks are usually approved by states on a six-year cycle.  But online, you can change the information immediately.

The concept of “open source”  textbooks varies from what most of us have commonly come to think of as an “open source” concept.   It doesn’t mean that you have a textbook created like Wikipedia via collaborative consensus.  Open source textbooks are textbooks distributed free digitally under an open license.  The key feature of an open license is that it permits users to make copies of the textbook and translate it into different formats.  So, open textbooks start as digital textbooks but can be printed in a variety of formats. In California, digital publishers submit their work for approval to California Learning Resource Network, which will then handles the evaluation process to determine if it meets the states’ standards.

Makes sense, right?  But do the publishers of all this text work for free?  How does this stuff get created if it isn’t via a model like Wikipedia?   Are publishers looking at…let me guess…ad supported models?  The more I read on this subject the more I realize there is a long way to go before there’s any real clarity on pragmatic solutions that work for everyone.

Which brings me back to why I wrote this post in the first place. It became a top of mind for me last week when considering textbook options for an integrated marketing class I’m going to teach as an adjunct again this fall at a local university.  The simple fact is that NO marketing textbook can possibly keep up with the fast pace of change in the industry, so last year I opted to use a previous version, then replaced sections or supplemented, where it was outdated, with explorations of current events, case studies and real life examples.   And that textbook cost the students 66% less than the brand new edition (which, by the way, was still outdated by the time it came off the press.)

I looked at eBooks for this year, but while I’m a fan, an eBook text isn’t as user friendly as you might think.  Think back to college when you were studying and all the sticky notes and highlighters you used to mark important sections/concepts so you could easily find them later.  eBooks just aren’t there yet to enable you to make good notes on them in relation to the content or to skim them quickly like you can a book.  So in looking at the options out there for this year, I stumbled across Chegg.com which is a company with a very simple solution for right now.  Books for rent.  Almost any book you want/need.  And from my research, the rental route was even cheaper than most used books.  Sure you can’t resell it. And you have to send it back at the end of the semester, but they make that pretty easy.  And given the astronomical pace of change in marketing, keeping a marketing textbook for future reference has little value.  Instead my intent is really more about getting the kids who want to go into the field to understand it requires lifelong learning, insatiably curious, being fearless of change and passionate for the craft.  The textbook is merely the context in which to put those teachings.

Sites like Chegg and Bookrenter are probably not the end-all-be-all-long-term solution for the textbook market (and I’d bet those company founders understand that and are preparing to evolve as the market does), but they are simple, no fuss, no muss solutions.  So they are great business models for today.