We'll give you a deal on textbooks if you don't mind some ads.

In light of my earlier post on academia and capitalism, occasional commenter Jake asks what I think about the newish move, described in this story from the Associated Press, to cut textbook prices by putting advertisements in them.

So, I'll give you some key bits of the article with my thoughts interspersed.

Textbook prices are soaring into the hundreds of dollars, but in some courses this fall, students won't pay a dime. The catch: Their textbooks will have ads for companies including FedEx Kinko's and Pura Vida coffee.

Selling ad space keeps newspapers, magazines, Web sites and television either cheap or free. But so far, the model hasn't spread to college textbooks -- partly for fear that faculty would consider ads undignified. The upshot is that textbooks now cost students, according to various studies, about $900 per year.

Now, a small Minnesota startup is trying to shake up the status quo in the $6 billion college textbook industry. Freeload Press will offer more than 100 titles this fall -- mostly for business courses -- completely free. Students, or anyone else who fills out a five-minute survey, can download a PDF file of the book, which they can store on their hard drive and print.

Textbook are hellaciously expensive, and seeing as how the majority of my students are working at least one job (and often more than that) to pay for school plus housing, transportation, and sometimes food, I'm generally pretty open to ways to lighten their financial load. Cheaper textbooks would help.

Yes, the reduction in price comes from delivering their textbooks with advertisers' messages. But at least among college students, please note that they seem to be remarkably good at tuning things out. (Really, you should watch some of them in class!) Also, while copying services and coffee are the kind of things college students may well consume more of than your average consumer, to my eye they don't have a great deal of brand loyalty here -- they'll go for the best balance of what's cheap and conveniently located (i.e., there's time to access it between classes). But, they like coupons.

And, there seems to be an obvious benefit to free downloadable textbooks beyond the price: it's possible to get them when you need them, rather than falling victim to a publisher's backorder (yes, Oxford University Press, I am looking at you) or a bookstore ordering SNAFU.

The model faces big obstacles. Freeload doesn't yet have a stable of well-known textbook authors across a range of subjects, and it lacks the editorial and marketing muscle of the "Big 3" textbook publishers (Thomson, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill). Its textbooks don't come with bells and whistles such as online study guides that bigger publishers have spent millions developing in order to lure professors -- who assign textbooks and are the industry's real customers.

Maybe things are different in business classes, but I have no use at all for those "bells and whistles"; as such, I wouldn't order a textbook with such add-ons. The main thing they add, in my field, is expense. (I say this as someone who developed an online course, start to finish. None of the "online resources" bundled with philosophy textbooks address any pedagogical issues that I can't address better with my own stuff.)

... What Freeload has going for it is its arrival on the scene at a time when textbook publishers are under immense pressure to moderate prices. A recent government study found prices have risen at twice the rate of inflation since 1986.

A new Connecticut law requires that textbook sellers tell professors what their books will cost students, and other states are considering similar measures. Cost complaints come not just from students and parents but also teachers. A 2005 study by the National Association of College Stores Foundation found 65 percent of students don't buy all the required course materials -- which means many probably aren't learning the material, either.

Students "are saying, 'to heck with it, we'll try to wing it,'" said Jack Ivancevich, a longtime University of Houston professor who helped found Freeload.

Excuse me, do you mean to tell me that there are professors adopting textbooks without knowing what the required texts will cost students? What's with that? I'm not saying one should never teach from a text that happens to be pricey -- if it's the best text for the course, it's the best text for the course -- but shouldn't you at least try to have a sense of what that's going to cost your students, and acknowledge that they will be paying a lot for what you see as quality? And, in cases where there is a choice -- where all the available anthologies have the six main papers on a given subject and only differ in the other papers they include -- for goodness sake, see if it's not possible to get the pedagogical job done with the cheaper anthology.

News flash: there are already students who don't buy the texts because of the expense. At least for some students, the price tipping point on the buy/don't buy decision is lower than the professor's estimate even when the professor is striving to minimize the prices of the books adopted. And it's so much less fun to teach a course when a significant portion of the class will never do the reading for want of books.

Publishers answer criticism by saying textbooks are expensive to produce, and note they are clobbered by the rapidly expanding secondary market for re-sales in bookstores and on the Internet. Publishers get nothing from those sales, so they essentially have to recoup their investment in one year's worth of sales.

There's a chicken-egg issue here: would resale be such a popular option if new textbooks (or even used textbooks purchased through campus bookstores) weren't so darned expensive? When you factor in the shipping time (and cost) of getting books from online vendors, this is only a reasonable way to get your books for class if the price is way less than the campus bookstore price. And, students can't help but feeling gamed here.

The industry also is exploring ways to use technology to cut distribution costs and prices. Thomson, for instance, is making "ichapters" of textbooks available, similar to the iTunes model for music. But so far, publishers have resisted selling ads.

A Canadian subsidiary of McGraw-Hill briefly rolled out an ad-based model, but dropped the plan last year. Susan Badger, CEO of Thomson Higher Education, said her company tested the idea with focus groups, in biology, but the professors were adamantly opposed.

Tom Doran, Freeload's CEO, says McGraw-Hill's experiment failed because it didn't use the ad revenue to reduce prices enough to get students' attention. As for faculty, Doran says he realizes not everyone will go for it.

It would be interesting to see just how much of a savings the per-chapter electronic delivery would be for students. Sure, it would make sense if a class were only using three out of ten chapters in an assigned text ... but the big publishers may not be making huge cuts in the price to students simply because big publishers have have big expenses in the form of promotions. Glossy catalogs in faculty mailboxes at least a few times a year, reps coming through faculty offices at least once a term -- it all adds up. And, at least for me, none of that gets me to adopt a book I wasn't already going to adopt.

Hey, that says something about the limited power of advertising, doesn't it?

... As to objections that textbooks shouldn't have ads, Doran notes ads already appear in academic journals. He says Freeload's ads won't be distracting; they will be placed only at natural breaks in the material, and won't push products like alcohol or tobacco. Schools with other concerns could customize their standards; for instance Brigham Young University, founded by Mormons, could nix ads for caffeine products.

There are some kinds of advertisers you just wouldn't want in textbooks. Online papers and online diploma mills are two that leap immediately to mind, and I'd be just as happy if there weren't tobacco or pornography ads, either. But college students can tell when they're being sold to. Besides, some of them won't make it to the end of the chapter, one of the "natural breaks" where one assumes ads would be located.

... "I was pretty disgusted with the basic textbook model," [Fordham University professor Frank] Werner said. Textbook authors, he says, often waste time making pointless revisions just so publishers can justify putting out new editions.

"That didn't seem like an ethical thing to do and it seemed like a hell of a waste of time," he said, adding there's no need to do that with Freeload.

This is the "students being gamed" I was talking about earlier. I'm pretty clingy with my books, but there were a few courses in college for which I bought super-expensive textbooks, deciding in advance to sell them back to the bookstore at the end of the term to recoup some of the loss. In every case, the bookstore wouldn't buy them back, because a new edition was about to come out. I was steamed. (And, the next term, when I paged through the table of contents of the new edition at the bookstore, there would be very little discernable difference from the previous edition.)

In some fields, obviously, things move quickly and new editions are essential. In others, it would seem the new editions are just about protecting the publisher's profits.

Shannon Langston, a rising sophomore at Georgia Tech taking classes this summer while also juggling two jobs, said she often won't buy textbooks unless she hears from other students that it's absolutely essential.

But when her accounting professor assigned a Freeload book, she was glad not to have to make that call -- and worry that she wouldn't be able to sell back a new book because the publisher had already rushed out a new edition.

"I definitely don't mind ads," she said, "if it helps with the price."

College students -- the people buying college textbooks -- are old enough to buy TVs and magazine that expose them to huge amounts of advertising relative to the content. Requiring them to buy a textbook that has ads is not subjecting them to some Clockwork Orange-style forced exposure to ad content. (If we had that kind of power, more required reading would actually be done for college classes.) And, here's a college student saying she can handle the ads if it makes the books affordable. I'm not going to recommend that we get all paternalistic and say, "No, sweetie, the ads are bad for you, so you'll just have to pay more for your books."

Exposing younger students to lots of ads this way might well be inappropriate, but it's already happening. My kids bring home school lunch menus that are packed with advertising for movies, video games, and junk food. Luckily, it turns out even little kids can be taught to recognize when they're being targeted by advertisers and to start tuning that out.

So, in the evolutionary arms race between advertisers and consumers, the advertisers start looking for ways that they can't be tuned out. I've heard tell of embedded advertising, or something very close to it, in the word problems in kids' math books. If the ad is all mixed up with the stuff the students are required to read, it is harder to tune it out.

My inclination, at that point, would be to opt for in-class ruthless mockery of the products advertised in the embeds. Call it a teachable moment.


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It's a question I'm not sure, anyway, about the answer to: would you wear an advertising shirt, or jumpsuit, while teaching, if it meant a substantial payraise, and possibly also income for the University?

The idea of ads in textbooks grates against my sense of "the way things should be" like steel-tipped fingernails against a chalk board, but like Dr. Free-Ride, I can't point to anything in particular about which we should cry foul.

On the other hand, selling electronic versions of textbooks (either downloadable or on CD) could help lower costs to students. Ads aside, why not sell students a data file instead of a book?

Illegal copies are probably the main consideration. But there are a couple of business models that could minimize that.

First, as is frequently done with software, site licenses could be sold for textbooks. Costs could either be absorbed by the college and built in to tuition or added as a fee that would vary with each course.

Alternatively, they could be sold using the electronic book model, whereby some personal information (like a credit card number) is incorporated into the password necessary to open the document. (I'm not sure how secure this one is--I suspect someone figured out that geeks like me who pay for e-books must be a reasonably trustworthy lot.)

The site license model would probably have more appeal for textbook companies since the delivery is easier on their end, and colleges and universities should feel the obligation to negotiate a per-student price that would be significantly cheaper than the cost of a textbook.

One final note...in comparing prices of electronic copies versus actual books, it's important to remember to include the cost of printing (toner and paper) that has been transferred to the student, or, as likely, to campus computer centers.

Just some thoughts before The Republic gets plastered with ads for the The New Republic...

I agree with you on the ads issue, but I'd note that there are other problems with digital downloads. In particular, there are often issues with DRM (not least because DRM software generally only works on one particular brand of operating system), and issues can arise around the rights (or lack thereof) granted to the user. This came up in an old slashdot thread - I can't find the reference, but I remember one guy mentioning that his hard drive died and he had to rebuy all the materials.

Obviously none of this is a show-stopper, but it needs to be evaluated - for example, saving $50 on textbooks is no use if you're effective forcing students to buy a $100 copy of MS Windows.

Incidentally, there is a (somewhat sporadic, but still often useful) alternative to the commercial route.

By Corkscrew (not verified) on 16 Aug 2006 #permalink

would you wear an advertising shirt, or jumpsuit, while teaching, if it meant a substantial payraise, and possibly also income for the University?

Nope. It's much harder to tune out what your professor is wearing at the front of the class than it is to flip past an ad. And, if I was wearing "sponsored" clothing, I'd have to burn through too much classtime on ruthless mockery of said "sponsored" clothing.

SteveD, I'm in agreement that the general idea of ads in textbooks just seems wrong. I suppose it's a testament to how outrageously priced textbooks have become that, to me at least, the advantages of the ads outweight the general gut wrongness of them.

And Corkscrew, you're quite right to point out that there are other costs to students if textbooks shift to downloadable formats. Professors adopting e-textbooks would want to strive for compatibility with as many platforms as possible.

Is there ANYWHERE you can go and not be marketted to? Have we completely resigned ourselves to the fact that we are featherless bipedal consumers? Corporations uber alles! I never liked it before, but I agrre that especially if one has kids, it is obnoxiously unavoidable.

"My inclination, at that point, would be to opt for in-class ruthless mockery of the products advertised in the embeds. Call it a teachable moment."

I like that attitude!

The thing with ads in textbooks is, yeah it's a slippery slope, but as you note that's not enough reason to reject the whole idea. Interestingly, the business of downloading textbooks is itself a slippery slope, but the other way. The big thing the publishers are, or should be afraid of, is that the academics will get together and E-publish their own textbooks! There have already been some attempts at DRM applied to E-textbooks, but as Bruce Schneier has noted, that's a lead balloon for anyone who's accumulating their professional reference shelf.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 16 Aug 2006 #permalink

Frankly, I'd rather pay (although certainly lower prices would be nice) for the real book. A stack of print out isn't as nice a book, for reading or putting on a shelf. And its difficult to bring a digital copy with you. At least today, I don't think that I find all of the drawbacks to offset the cost. Although I can see how this would be useful for some classes, generally I kept most of my books, and have refered back to most of the after the class ended.

My first university used a textbook-rental system, in which the student paid a flat $12 per book per semester, to a maximum of $60 per semester. I'm sure this wouldn't work for some courses (such as upper-level science classes), where the material can and will change dramatically from year to year, but for most it works just fine. Really, how much can change in freshman composition, art history, or trigonometry from one year to the next?

Then I transferred to a school with a more traditional system and ended up paying a lot of money for books I didn't particularly want to keep, and which I could not sell back. I'm sure the campus bookstore's profit margins were much better there though.

By MJ Memphis (not verified) on 16 Aug 2006 #permalink

What would be nice to see is the same textbook available in multiple formats: eg., free with ads as a download, $20 bucks on a CD with no ads in the chapters, or $50 bucks for a softcover print edition (no ads). Then you are really giving the students the choice. Those that value not having ads will pay more and the rest of the class will pay less.

1. So if Nature had no ads, would an institutional susbcription cost a few thousand dollars more? Ads don't stop journals from having 5 digit price tags. Why not just pocket the additional revenue for a negligable price cut?

2. What incentive is there for a textbook author to use a format that would pay smaller royalties (ever heard of a publisher that passed ad revenue on to contributors?)?