The Last Gasp of the Textbook

So, I’ve got a new thing that keeps me up at night. Over the past year, my co-authors Kathy Cennamo and Peg Ertmer and I have been working on a second draft of the technology textbook. It’s only been out for three years, two if you go by the copyright, but evidently that’s long enough for the publisher to force us back to the grindstone. Despite what I thought were lackluster sales, with me being responsible for two of the largest adoptions, we’ve been spending the better part of a year going back over the book and revising it.

The good news is that we all believe it’s a much better book. Having gone through several changes of editors, a change of publisher (the old publisher was bought out), and a complete revision of the standards the book addresses, the first book had some duplication or at least repetition. In this new edition, we’ve worked really hard to hone it done, smooth it out, while incorporating some of the many new advances in educational technology that just weren’t worth writing about four years ago. For the past three years I’ve been tracking trends and issues and bookmarking ideas like crazy, so that was helpful when we did a thorough analysis of the text and got to work. A couple of the issues remain the same, but some of the chapters have been almost completely rewritten to better address the current state of educational technology practice.

The bad news is, no one is going to buy it. O.K., maybe someone will, but we found out the book is now going to be so expensive that I wouldn’t even ask my own students to buy it. We’ve always thought that writing a print-based book about digital technologies was a little ironic, but there are still many people who use them in their courses. However, I currently have students that tell me while they’d like to buy a print copy of the text for our class (the University provides them a PDF version of the main chapters), they can’t afford the $90. Now it’ll be twice that.

It’s not about the money

You might be thinking, “wow, your royalties will double!” Unfortunately, that’s not likely to be the case. You see, authors write books because they feel passionate about a topic, or at least my co-authors and I do. We didn’t know about the price change until just recently, after we’d done most of the work. But seriously, we just wanted a good product that represented us well. (I’m so proud of my revisions of chapters on differentiated instruction and assessment, I can’t even tell you!) We would have done the same amount of work if the book cost more or less or they even doubled our royalties. For most authors, royalties are so small that we have primary jobs and do this on the side. Compared to my consulting, I made about five days worth of income from my royalties last year, but I’ve spent days and weeks worth of time on this revision. Months would not be an exaggeration. I’ll never make up that time.

What is it all about then? I’m wondering if this is the last-ditch effort by publishers to try to make some cash before the walls come tumbling in. Evidently, they’re not reading the blogs, tweets, and eZines about the death of the textbook. I do. I’ve also been fortunate to evaluate some of the work of the Virginia Department of Education’s Beyond Textbooks initiative that is trying to push publishers to actually leverage the capacity of digital technologies to change the way we use textbooks rather than just selling a PDF file of the print version. (You can read a copy of my first report here, if you’d like to.) The most promising work is not coming from the major publishers, however.

I understand it still takes money to create a textbook, digital or not. I think the idea that we’re all going to get rid of textbooks and tremendously overburdened teachers will now create their own in their spare(?) time is a little off the mark, too. It’s promising to see some new publishing platforms becoming available (including Inkling and not just Apple’s new iBooks), but it takes more than paper to make a textbook. It takes someone hours and hours (and days and weeks…you get the idea) to research and craft content, to review and revise it, and to design and present that information so it’s engaging and relevant to the student. While removing print from the equation is one factor, the hard parts take time. And, ironically, the authors who spend the majority of that time, do it for no set fee and do it to the same degree whether they sell one or 1000 books. So, why $180?

I don’t know that answer. I am going to try to find out, but working with publishers is kind of like visiting the seraglio. Lots of veils and promises of delight shrouded by smoke and mystery. Is it the end of the textbook? Probably not. Will college undergraduates with loans up to their eyeballs buy our book? Also, probably not. It’s a shame, really. Like I said, it’s a good book. It’s too bad no one will buy it.