← Return to Help Science

Textbooks, Movies, and the New Economy

A front page article in Friday's Boston Globe warned about the growing rise of textbook piracy. It has a distinct lack of facts, ethical analysis, or vision. Congratulations, you were able to convey that students don't like textbook prices and can get them for free! And they give this moron a weekly technology column!

Most people have a block towards thinking about intellectual property (IP) in a new way. They're used to the old model, where as long as you make something you can sell it, where if someone steals your work you can get them beat up, and no one is going to go to China to get around your copyright law.

Well, I have a message for you people:
"You're not thinking fourth-dimensionally!"

The New Economy demands something different. By saying so, I'm not endorsing grabbing a book and copying it onto Book-Napster or whatever kids are using these days. You know how Internet shopping let customers compare all the textbooks available on the market, and publishers had to beef up the textbook quality? That should have been a hint that the New Economy is going to value products for exactly what they're worth to us.

Let me clarify what information is worth in a time where it can be copied online in minutes. It's worth what the source provides to make the content accessible and friendly.
Consider the movie industry. YouTube and other video sites make it easy for people to watch a high-quality movie for free... sometimes before release... and it's near impossible to keep a lid on a movie. But DVDs and movie tickets are selling better than ever.
It's understandable why this is the case:
1) Experience: Movie theaters are designed with ornate decorations and big comfy seats.
2) Quality: We like to sit and watch a movie on a big theater screen or a television, not a halting video stream on a laptop.
3) Immediacy: Local theaters will always have the new releases. Video sites depend on quality uploads, which then take time to be found by search engines.
4) Extras: DVDs give you control over languages and access to extra features, which have very little practical value but add to the perceived value.

Textbooks have a slightly trickier situation. They cost several times as much as movies, aren't entertaining, and are assigned to empty-pocketed college students. But textbooks also have a few advantages. While I've watched more than a few movies on a computer, I usually print out reading material. Many people also highlight or mark up their textbooks. Printing hundreds of textbook pages over a semester won't cost you too much, but it's inconvenient. Therefore, the authentic printed word has a good deal of value to students.
There are also the classic reasons why textbooks can maintain high prices: editions with new page numbers and problems, professors dependent on the material, and people not knowing about alternatives. That won't change.

But the textbook industry has been sounding the alarm about piracy's competitive edge for years. If publishers don't revise their business strategy, they will have to use cheap gimmicks or lower their quality.
The best article I know about how tech companies have already adapted their business is the Wired Magazine article entitled "Free!" (link at end of this note)
Money is not the only scarcity in the world. Chief among the others are your time and respect... The "attention economy" and "reputation economy" are too fuzzy to merit an academic department, but there's something real at the heart of both.

The textbook companies need to embrace students by becoming more flexible. In addition to the giant books we use today, they need to offer a mash-up publishing service, where a professor selects only the chapters and materials needed by the class. Students can order the professor's cut of the book, or follow enticing offers for extra print, digital, and online resources. While all these resources may exist in scattered forms across the internet, only the authentic textbook company is in a position to connect readers and provide full access to materials. Their presentation of the material, by the law of specific versus generic, is guaranteed to be more enriching than pirated copies.
One might suggest that textbook companies would play dirty, charging a bargain price for a calculus book and $5 extra for a needlessly long packet of integration tables. It won't work. Resources like that are easy to come by, and cannot be overpriced.
One could also object on the grounds that less popular chapters and topics would suffer as a result. According to the 'long tail' economics of the Internet, this is not the case. To make a long tail short (haha) the internet marketplace sells a significant amount of rare and specific materials, enough to outweigh the regulars:
"We sold more books today that didn't sell at all yesterday than we sold today of all the books that did sell yesterday." --Amazon.com employee

Since there is a market for courses in all the disciplines, a textbook chapter which is applicable to a comparatively small number of courses every year will still make money. It also makes the class less likely to pirate a textbook with that chapter bundled in.

In conclusion, I really wish the Boston Globe talked about this instead of me. It would let their readers realize that even though piracy is free, it can't compare to a textbook designed for students and the new economy.
It would make people think a little bit about why educational information, which is usually provided as a public service, costs so much in book form.
It would tell businesspeople that there is plenty of investment and innovation left in books, even in a digitalized era.
It would change the world a little.

Boston Globe Article:
Hiawatha Bray (tech ''journalist'' who wrote the article):
(predicted the iMac would fail because it lacked a floppy drive, lol)

Wired on the "Free!" economy

DVD sales up:

The Long Tail