Saturday, March 9, 2013

SIGCSE: The Perils of Textbook Publishing

Today was a split day - SIGCSE in the morning and the beginning of the ACM Education Council meeting in the afternoon. Oh...and snow in between. A small romp on the sidewalk in the lovely snow, which unfortunately had all melted by evening when we popped out of meetings. It was great while it lasted.

Snow was a good mental cleansing agent after a fairly serious morning session about the high price of textbooks. There were four people on the panel - two publisher representatives and two authors. One of the publisher representatives was my editor from CRC Press, who I have nothing but good things to say about. I wanted to be in the audience as a friendly supporting face if needed.

No one disagrees that textbooks are very highly priced. Whenever I have to tell someone what my book costs I am prepared for sticker shock if that person is not from the academic world. And my book is definitely on the low end of textbook costs, in part because my publisher tries very hard to keep the cost of its books down.

What I learned, both from having been through the process of being an author, from specifically asking my editor about the subject, and then even more from listening to all points of view during this panel today, is that it is a complicated issue.

So here are some of the interesting things to consider. No one, including textbook representatives, will try and tell you that they are ok with the high price of textbooks - at least not anyone I heard from today. I was impressed to hear just how aware they are of how unhappy a lot of people are about textbook prices, and how much they are looking at different models to reduce prices. Depending upon who you are talking to, publishers are exploring a whole host of alternative business models from ebooks to custom publishing, to interactive online one point the representative from Wiley put up a list of options that was mind boggling. I had no idea. My brain hurt looking at it. So did at least one member of the audience who said it was all too complicated and could they please just make it simple?

Which leads me to another set of issues. It is flat out complicated and expensive to bring a textbook to market as compared to a trade book. A good publisher (and I count mine as one of those) works closely with an author, providing support, guidance, answers, and a whole host of services such as editorial development, professional design, layout, copyediting, typesetting (which is more labor intensive for textbooks than for a novel) iterative feedback, solicitation of professional peer reviews and other things - all before the book ever becomes a physical object. Then there is marketing and promotion. A myth is that printing costs are one of the major expenses for publishers and thus with the influx of ebooks prices should come way down. Not so I learned - printing costs are a very small percentage. And creation of quality ebooks is complex and expensive for a whole host of reasons I won't belabor here. And then there is volume - textbooks will never sell anywhere near what tradebooks can sell. So there are few economies of scale available to textbook publishers that are available to trade publishers.

I belong to a writers and publishers professional organization in which the majority of the members are independent writers and publishers - i.e. they publish themselves. This allows them to price their books as they choose and keep all the proceeds. The organization (Publishers and Writers of San Diego) provides incredibly invaluable professional-quality information on all aspects of the business side of writing. One of the side benefits of belonging to this organization is that I see just how much work my publisher has done for me and how incredibly expensive it can be to develop your own professional quality book. It can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars and suck up untold numbers of hours on activities most writers have zero interest in (page layout and design for example? ee-yuck).

At times the invective in professional circles against academic textbook publishers has been quite nasty. Sad to say, the situation just isn't as simple as some people think (wish) it was. The situation with regard to traditional publishing is in many ways similar to the situation the recording industry went through recently. Changes in technology led to inevitable eating away at traditional music purchases and huge problems with piracy. The recording industry fought tooth and nail to force people to stick with a traditional model of music purchase.  It was a lost cause from the beginning.

Similar societal and technological pressures face the publishing industry. Until recently I just assumed that the publishing industry was as much a stick-in-the-mud as the music industry. However, it is now clear that publishers, academic publishers in particular (all I can really speak to), are running around like mad trying to adjust and figure out what business model will balance a need for financial viability with responsiveness to demands for greater availability, flexibility and lower cost.

It just isn't easy. New business models have to come into existence that acknowledge the (justified) demand for lower priced textbook while maintaining financial viability of good publishers providing the valuable infrastructure that brings a book from idea to reality.

Finally, I want to point out something brought up today by someone. Higher education is becoming more and more expensive and the financial pressures on students are only getting worse. Many complicated factors contribute to this situation, which those of you in education circles are all to familiar with. It's messy, it's political, it's entrenched in decades of attitudes and policy. We have to do something about our educational crisis and the growing equity gap with regards to access to higher education. However, it was pointed out that textbook publishers are a convenient scapegoat.

It is easy to direct a lot of anger about the overall state of higher education at publishers and textbook pricing. Publishers are not blameless, but should not be treated with such disdain nor blamed for so much more of the problem than is really deserved.

I rarely hear a balanced conversation of the challenges facing the textbook industry. It is hard to see their side of things if you haven't either been in their shoes or have worked with them as an author. As with many things in life, there is a middle way - in perspective and in actions taken. We need to work in a mutually respectful fashion to find that way.

I don't know about you, but my brain hurts again; I'm hoping for some more snow.

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