One of the many banes of my existence

I hate textbook churn. Gotta sell a new and slightly different edition every year.

In my upper level courses, yeah, I can appreciate it: when I’m teaching brand new stuff and assigning papers from the scientific literature to keep students up to date, then it’s reasonable to update the text every year…or every few years. But I teach introductory courses in cell biology and genetics, and nothing changes at that level — I have textbooks from the mid-1990s that would be perfectly acceptable now for first and second year students.

My genetics text is very annoying that way. The first half of the semester is basic Mendelian transmission genetics, and in principle I could use texts from the 1960s (later when we get into the fancy stuff, I might need one from the 1990s), but no. The publisher changes the order of the problems at the end of each chapter every once in a while. Same problems. Just scrambled around so I have to look every year to find where they are, and if I want to allow students to use old editions, I have to give them a list of 11th edition problems, 10th edition, 9th edition…it’s a pointless pain in the ass.


  1. jasonnishiyama says

    Think Bio is bad? Most of first year physics hasn’t changed in 400 years… new textbooks abound.

  2. mykroft says

    In some cases the older textbooks are better. More rigorous, with more challenging problems. And in my experience they’re often the resources the professors draw from for the exam problems.

  3. says

    Perhaps you could delegate question cross-referencing to a minion or crowdsource it.

    There’s certainly value for students (not so much for publishers) in reusing older editions of texts, and presumably updating question ordering needs to happen only once per year.

  4. numerobis says

    Can’t you just assign your own problems? It’s a pain the first couple times you teach the class, but after that you only need to change the given values in your own questions.

  5. imaginggeek says

    numerobis beat me to it – that’s how I get around the biennial replacement of our immunology & microbiology texts; I’ve built up my own library of exam and practice questions and use those.

  6. says

    Oh, of course. I give them problems I’ve made up (which is often a better way to see what kind of problems I’d put on an exam anyway). But this is a field in which working through problems is extremely useful, so it’s useful to have even more problems for practice. The textbook provides a whole bunch more, should I refuse to use them?

  7. carlie says

    Even if you do go with the newest edition, you can get screwed. My bookstore managed to get all used copies of a particular textbook we had adopted, so the publisher refused to send us an instructor’s copy since the bookstore hadn’t ordered any new copies directly from the publisher.

  8. Rik van says

    It’s not pointless to the publisher. With minimal effort they’ve produced another cash cow.

  9. says

    There’s gotta be some perks to being on the Arts side of the campus. Sure, our ceilings are falling down and the computers run on Windows 3.11, but at least “textbook” usually means a folder where you can copy the relevant chapters from several different books.

  10. says

    We had this problem in my language courses back in my undergraduate days (centred on 1990). Which is absurd, and far more so in the age of free dictionaries kept up to date and in everyone’s pocket or purse. Grammar changes relatively slowly in writing. And because it also came with lit courses, there were bags of other books needed too. At a time when tuition in Canada was ~CAD2000, my books per semester for my two languages plus linguistics were ~CAD1200/yr. And I’d bet that would be a low ball guess for the same area today, even though most of them would be more useful as e-texts.
    Capitalism sucks. #Pitchforktime

  11. numerobis says

    PZ: ah, ok. Then I’d agree with making the students cross-reference on their own.

    Giliell: oddly, my humanities courses were the expensive ones when I was in college. I had to buy a stack of books for each course, about $100 at the time. At the time, textbooks were $60-80 and most my classes didn’t use one. No regrets though; those books are still worth reading, while my textbooks never were.

  12. Mark Baker says

    I never had to buy a textbook when I was a student. Most of my courses had an extensive reading list, but there was no one book that we had to have for any of them. I chose to buy two – a maths textbook and Horowitz and Hill – which I felt would be useful to me long term.

  13. peterh says

    ” I teach introductory courses in cell biology and genetics, and nothing changes at that level…”

    Please don’t let the fundies hear you say that. They’re always going on about science is changing (they’re right but for the wrong reasons) where, of course, their own magical stuff is eternal and unchanging.

    To the point of this thread: My grandson recently completed a Master’s in accounting; any one of his texts could fund all of least one and possibly two semesters’ worth of my textbooks 50 years ago.

  14. Artor says

    I wish I could find my old textbook from when I studied the Complete Works of Chaucer. It had everything that had been identified as his work, in modern English on one page, and Middle English opposite. I paid $150 for that thing, and it vanished during a move! #%^^&*!!!

  15. says

    PZ: From the publisher’s and author’s point of view (and I’ve authored two college textbooks in addition to our HS textbooks), the economics are very simple. Here’s what happens when you bring out a successful college textbook for a subject like Genetics or General Biology. You might sell 40,000 copies the first year, and if the book is a hit, you might sell 80,000 the next year. Then, due to the incredible efficiency of the used book market, you will sell no more than 20,000 copies the third year – and after that, you will not sell a single copy. Not one. Nada. Zilch! That’s why new editions appear on a cycle of roughly 3 years. Yes, it’s a system designed to keep the money flowing, but it also allows authors (like those of the popular Campbell Biology series) to earn an income that justifies their continued work on a project that produces up to date copy. Like you, PZ, I always tell my own students that “old” copies of the text are just fine, and then try to highlight what’s genuinely new in the current text.

  16. says

    @Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk- #9: Ouch. When I was in college, the Arts department was using Amigas while everyone else was using MS-DOS PCs or Unix dumb terminals.

    (I suppose it’s possible, some 20 years later, that the Arts department is still using those Amigas, though.)

  17. David Marjanović says

    the computers run on Windows 3.11

    I’m floored. Even the “infoscreens” in the Berlin subway run on Neandertal Technology.

  18. Dunc says

    Is this a relatively new phenomenon? Or US-specific? When I studied physics (20 years ago) I used my Dad’s copy of “Calculus and Analytical Geometry”. It was still the same edition as was on the book list…

  19. tuibguy says

    What boggles me is the continued reliance on paper for textbooks. For the price of a single semester’s textbooks, a student could buy a tablet and the digital downloads of all the textbooks. The publishers then are able to update to their hearts content and make updates available. How much waste is involved in this churning process? What becomes of the books after the publishers repurchase them for pennies on the dollar at the end of the semester? Either the paper is recycled or the books are re-sold in other countries with new pricing on them, I imagine.

  20. chrislawson says

    mykroft, I tried to teach myself relativity from undergrad. textbooks and found it very heavy going. What broke the cycle for me was finding some of the old popular science books on relativity from the 30s-through-50s written by some of the giants in the field: Bohm, Born, Einstein himself. I was lucky to find Taylor and Wheeler’s Scouting Black Holes, which was fairly modern and taught me all I needed for my own purposes about GR, but almost all of the other books were written 2 generations earlier — and had equations and maths in them for the popular audience. Frankly, I found them better than the physics texts I tried to read in the uni library.

    It also helps that the core principles of relativity have not changed since the 1930s. There’s been a lot of research and advances, of course, especially in regards to cosmology, but the fundamentals are the same now as they were 80 years ago. I wouldn’t want to try it with genetics or particle physics or astronomy, though.

  21. Grewgills says

    As others have suggested let the students by the older text, but make it clear that if they do they are responsible for having the questions in the proper order and accounting for any minor changes in the questions.

  22. NitricAcid says

    My students have a “course manual”, with all the page references and questions cited for the semester. If they’re using an old textbook, I send them a pdf of the older version of the course manual.

  23. says

    I went back to school recently, and the textbooks were chosen at the department level. The strategy was to choose a slightly out of date edition and use it for a few years until that edition was no longer freely available on resellers sites. Then they’d upgrade to a newer slightly out of date edition. Some books were used across multiple courses and the 300 level courses might be using an older edition than the 200 level courses.

    There were downsides though. Sometimes a book would sell out and everyone would be scrambling to get the few remaining copies off of ABE and Amazon. A student who took a little longer than expected to complete the program would end up with two editions of the same book. And the books had no resale value, except to other students in the semester following yours.

  24. madknitter says

    When I was in grad school, I worked at the book store of another university. The Calculus text underwent four editions in the six years I was there, each succeeding edition more expensive than the one before. Calculus was a required course for every undergraduate. Oh, and did I mention that the text was written by that uni’s Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences? When I left, the cost for a new Calc book was almost $200. Has Calculus changed so much in the last 20 years?

  25. moarscienceplz says

    I teach introductory courses in cell biology and genetics, and nothing changes at that level

    Just you wait ’til the Discovery Institute gets around to publishing all its exciting new research! It’ll blow current dogma out of the water, I tell ya!
    Yep, any day now…

  26. Rob Grigjanis says

    jasonnishiyama @1: It might be better in higher year physics courses. Two of the standards of my era (70s and 80s) haven’t had many newer editions; Jackson’s Classical Electrodynamics and Messiah’s Quantum Mechanics volumes. I used the second edition of Jackson, and the third (and latest) came out in 1998. No idea whether those are still standards, though…

    And I don’t think there have been any new editions of Weinberg’s The Quantum Theory of Fields volumes since they started coming out in the mid 90s, unless you count the paperbacks.

  27. frog says


    Two problems. First, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that things read in ebook form aren’t retained as easily as things read in paper.
    another link
    three links should be enough

    For an educational environment, retention of knowledge is essential. I realize we’ve all done the “just remember it long enough for the exam” thing, but most students probably want to actually learn the information. If nothing else, it makes you look like a total boss when watching Jeopardy with your family years later.

    (Hell, even in fiction reading it’s annoying. I like to check the maps in Fantasy novels when places are mentioned in the story; I’m very spacially/kinesthetically oriented. But ebooks make that complicated. Similarly, when I see a character reappear after several chapters, I’m like, “Wait, is that the guy from before?” and flip back. Which in ebook format is fucking annoying. Some authors do a lot of signposting (statements in the text that yes, that is the guy from before), but that can be annoying if reading in print, where the reader might feel the author is treating them like an idiot. No-win scenario for the author.)

    The second problem is layout. I am a book production specialist by trade, and typesetting complex equations is difficult enough just for print applications. Ebooks have the problem where you have no idea what system the reader will be using. Even if you set all the equations as graphics in the file, you don’t know how big it will be at the final destination.

    You don’t know what the reader will choose for font (style or size), and how this might cause tables to break up or reflow. A ten-column-wide table across a print spread (or set sideturn) becomes an unworkable hash on a small tablet. It’s not so great even on a full-size iPad or one of those tablet/laptop hybrid things.

    Minor 3rd problem: marking up/highlighting. The bookmark/highlight functions in my ereaders are okay, but not nearly as quick or useful as actual highlighters and sticky tags. I can flip to a tag in a paper book a fuckload faster than in an ebook, where I have to scan the list of bookmarks/highlights and judge which one is the one I’m looking for.

    Do I think students should have the opportunity to purchase their textbooks in ebook format? Absolutely. Do I suspect most of them don’t because they find them unworkable? Hell yes.

  28. caseyrock says


    Thanks for the links. They were very informative. It seems the problems with eReaders could be addressed with a few simple changes like established page numbers, careful contextual links for addressing information and making pages stand out one from the other, and repeated presentation of book covers and so forth when opening the text on the device for the first time. Simply put, tuibguy’s idea will work if eReaders are designed a bit better for information retention rather than just entertainment. Nothing the research presented would preclude eReaders from being great learning tools with a few tweaks. I agree that eReaders need some work, but if it became important (and a money-maker), then they would probably quickly outpace texts to become better learning tools.

  29. lorn says

    I’ve seen a professor ignore the problems in the book and publish all the problems on their web page.

    Some courses publish online pretty much all the materials used in the course. Reading assignments and problems are packaged in daily or weekly blocks.

    Yes, it is still a PITA but once done the materials can be quickly updated.

  30. says

    Some of my courses offered e-book rental options. These were always cheaper than the newest edition and only provided the newest edition. The problem we ran into was that these were not e-book downloads but rather were online options with password protection. The wireless in the building was dreadful, and phones didn’t work all that well either. So the e-book buyers couldn’t carry their books to class.

    Another thing the textbook sellers are doing is putting a substantial amount of content online, such as quizzes, discussion rooms, customized problems (the numbers are completely different for each course), electronic homework, etc. Obviously this only matches the current editions, but it does result in cheaper books all around as the editions can be profitable for longer.

  31. garnetstar says

    General chemistry textbooks are now more than $250.

    I posted a link on my class’ web page to a 1979 text that has been made available as free pdfs by the authors/publishers for educational use. The material is the same, actually a bit better written, but the 1979 graphics are barely above hand-drawn sketches, in three colors.

    There must be a way to combine getting the students’ the non-changing material cheaply, while still providing them with updates and modern-quality fomats, which they would pay for.

  32. Rich Woods says

    @David Marjanović #17:

    I’m floored. Even the “infoscreens” in the Berlin subway run on Neandertal Technology.

    Some bank ATMs in the UK also run on NT. Just a couple of weeks ago I found myself standing in front of one such ATM on a Sunday morning, with a surprisingly familiar 18-year-old error dialogue box requesting me to press OK or Cancel. It being a Sunday morning, I gormlessly attempted to treat the terminal as a touchscreen and tried to hit Cancel, to no effect. Eventually I just hit the actual physical buttons on the ATM and got my money out.

    I’m so glad it was early on a quiet morning, so the public weren’t around to laugh and point at how stupidly I responded to the erro… oh, crap!

  33. Rich Woods says

    @Mark Baker #12:

    I chose to buy two – a maths textbook and Horowitz and Hill – which I felt would be useful to me long term.

    My experience was much the same. In three years I bought just five textbooks, some secondhand. Mostly* this economy came about by arranging with friends to each buy different textbooks and to share them as needed. I still have my ‘68000 Assembler’ and my ‘Something-something-something Statistics’ textbooks, along with the other three which were applicable throughout the course (and occasionally thereafter).

    *The secondary, 49%, reason was to preserve grant money for its true purpose of being spent in the SU bar.

  34. frog says


    Unfortunately, those sort of options at this time still require fixed (not-reflowable) pages. Most ebooks number the pages to correspond with some print edition. When I open an ebook, three or four consecutive pages have the same page number, corresponding to the print edition page. If I change the text size, it causes reflow and now two pages (or five pages) of e-text correspond to a given print page.

    It all comes back to we don’t know what device someone will be reading the book on.

    We can publish fixed-page PDFs (those really are the best for solving layout problems), but they’re way too large for anything other than maybe a full-size iPad or tablet/laptop hybrid. On a smaller screen, the reader would have to enlarge the page and scroll around in it.

    There are lots of people working on better, more flexible solutions for complex ebooks (as contrasted with novels or other straight-prose books), but nothing yet overcomes the “we don’t know what they’ll be reading it on” problem except multiple formats.

    People already think ebooks should be free (“they don’t cost anything to make!”–excuse me while I laugh myself sick). If we have to make multiple versions and thoroughly QA them all before release, the ebook editions aren’t going to be much cheaper than the print editions. Then any updates for subsequent editions have to be put into all versions, and QA’ed again.

    These problems are not insurmountable. But they cost money, require specialist personnel (the armies of cheap labor doing ebook conversions in Asia aren’t bad, but they don’t do “complicated” very well), and are flummoxed by there being no standard delivery system.

    (And of course, all this depends on the files you’re starting with. Very few people have the anal-retentiveness to make clean CSS for book-length projects at all, much less when deadlines are looming. This is a fundamental problem with humans.)

  35. tcmc says

    Over the years I’ve sympathized with my students about the cost of their textbooks. Calculus textbooks are approaching $300, with new editions coming out every two to three years. The topics in calculus don’t change at a rate that justifies such a frequency of new editions. I’ve gotten into the habit of just giving my students a list of acceptable textbooks and encouraging them to get the cheapest one possible. They are responsible for completing the exercises that I give them. Since I make up the exercises, I don’t have to worry about solutions manuals that are floating around. I also encourage students to complete enough exercises in the book that they can gain confidence by checking their answers.

    Modern mathematics textbooks are overly complicated. Even in upper division courses and graduate courses there are 6th to 9th edition versions of textbooks that I had as a student. In some cases the original author has died and a new author is added. The quality of the exposition decreases. On more than one occasion I have referred students to the original edition for a clearer explanation for a topic. Prices for textbooks have increased and the quality decreased to such an extent that I try to give my students the widest possible choice in the textbook that they by for the course.

  36. twas brillig (stevem) says

    PZ, don’t you got a ZEROX machine? Each problem set (homework assignment), just photocopy the problems you want addressed, then pass them out to each student. My college (MIT) had very few published textbooks in the curricula, most professors made us buy the photocopied manuscript of his (soon to be published) textbook. Problem sets were passed out on Monday, results due the following Friday (so he could have his grad students grade them over the weekend), to be returned to the students Monday.
    Seriously though, that was triggered by your statement that all the problems in the various editions are all the same, just shuffled around with new i.d. numbers. Just photocopy the problems you want them to work on and hand those out. “Fair Use”, just so.

  37. magistramarla says

    My grandson is currently in his second year of high school at a Texas high school (one that is ironically rated as one of the top high schools in the country). My husband and I were shocked when he told us that the only class for which he had a textbook was Spanish. I asked him if the school was using online textbooks, but he told us that was not the case. Instead, the teachers are handing out packets of information and/or having the students to rely upon their own written notes from lectures.
    Now we know what has been cut when Gov. Perry cut the education budget in Texas!
    My hubby answered the grandson’s chemistry questions and sent him home with a chemistry textbook that he had in his study so that the boy would have a reference book at home. We bought a used geometry text for him this weekend. My husband is livid that he has no textbooks, especially in math and science courses.

  38. magistramarla says

    I used to teach Latin, and our district would update to a new edition about every ten years, which worked great for Latin.
    I kept a shelf full of the old edition books as a class set. The AP in charge of textbooks refused to issue books until after the first six weeks, saying that too many students changed their schedules during that time.
    The department head – a Spanish teacher – simply couldn’t understand why I was so angry, She told me to do what the Spanish teachers did – spend that time having the students learn to introduce themselves and name the people in “mi familia”. She couldn’t understand why I wanted to get those books into the students’ hands as soon as possible, yet she expected me to get through the class syllabus by the end of the year.
    At the end of the year, that same AP would pick up the books six weeks before the end of the year, saying that he needed time to account for all books. I was still trying to cram in some new material at that time, and I wanted my students to have their books for reference while studying for end-of-year exams. My only solution was to use those old edition class sets.

  39. numerobis says

    Going for electronic editions is barking up the wrong tree. The cost of printing and shipping the book is a few bucks; the remaining $80-$150 is profit.

    As kenmiller points out, you need some profit in order to pay the fixed costs (the authors, editors, publishers, etc etc). But those fixed costs have been growing faster than inflation over my lifetime.

  40. davidw says

    PZ et al.: Even though I’m someone who’s got a few textbooks out there (including a general chemistry text that goes for about $300 new), I’m sympathetic. Here’s what I do. I tell the students that earlier (cheaper) editions of the text are fine, but they must get the homework from the current edition. Then, it turns out that someone I know rather well copies the end-of-chapter exercises for each relevant chapter and posts it to the Blackboard shell for my class. That way, all students are fairly well-assured that they have access to the exact homework problems I assign, and they can get the content from any reasonable edition. Easier than making up your own problems (although with my method, you can still do that, and I do indeed post my own practice material), and it largely ensures that students can access what I want them to practice. A perfect solution? No, but the best I’ve found so far. And frankly, I’m not worried about it impacting my royalties – my department doesn’t use my text anyway (it’s selected by committee, and I’m not involved because of conflict of interest), and it’s better for the students. My two cents’ worth.

  41. says

    I just created a cross-reference table for the exercises in the new edition of our calculus text, enabling students to find where the problems came from in the old edition. Of course, some new ones were introduced, too, but now students with the old book can do most of the assigned homework problems without having to shell out $200+ for the new, slightly changed edition. If they buddy-up with a classmate, they can fairly readily fill in the handful of new exercises.

  42. says

    I found a copy of the text book for my first year physical chemistry course in a garbage bin. The teeth marks on it should have alerted me to trouble ahead. I was managing to keep my head above water really well until about half-way in when the lecturer set the weekly assignment questions from the text. There was one problem that I simply could not solve. My teacher wife took the problem to school and asked the two senior science teachers for help. They couldn’t solve it either. Two days before it was due I cornered the lecturer in his office and asked for help. He couldn’t do it either. A quick check of his new edition of the text showed a different question which was solved with minimal difficulty. From then on we cross-checked questions in the old and new editions. There were no other mismatches and he suspected this one was deleted from the new edition because essential information was missing from the question.

  43. guthriestewart says

    I suspect, based on little evidence, (Although when I am in town later today I should pop into a shop and have a look) that the issue is the much the march of capitalism. Publishers are small parts of major multinational corporations these days, so they are under pressure to make lot of money, every year.
    In the UK I’ve been struck how many books are produced which are basically re-treads of old topics, not in the textbook field but in non-fiction. Publishers basically pay someone a few months wages to research and write a book on a fashionable topic, or using more up to date prose and approach than 10 years earlier, publish it and sell it. Enough people go “Oh that’s new and looks interesting” that they make some money out of it, even although there’s 15 other books out there on the same topic from the last 7 years.
    It’s a matter of churn I think.

  44. uri4 says

    I teach a couple different one-term physical science courses (physics for life sciences, physics for decision makers, physics for the intractably innumerate, that sort of thing.) The available books are all, always, terrible. The latest edition of Hewitt’s Conceptual Physics is just crazy-crazy-crazy. It is like a Hewitt family photo-album, with biographical sketches of people-Hewitt-knows alternating with biographies of famous physicists, lots of handwaving almost-true physics factoids, and some just plain wrong pseudo-problems at the end.

    I told the publisher’s rep that I am not going to order it again, that I am going with an open source eText. Now she keeps trying to meet with me (“we can grab a cup of coffee”), so that she can talk me out of this decision.

    She wants to explain to me about the “learning objectives” and “concept checks” and “visual connections” and “applying your knowledge” and “doing science” and “guideposts” insets and sidebars and two-page summaries and color-coded typography and all the other noisy, distracting, and ugly crap that they lard onto the pages that is supposed to make me think that the textbook can plan my lessons for me AND study for my students.

    For my majors physics students I’ve already gone to an “any edition of any of the texts on this list I am giving you” model, where the HW problems come from a bank I’ve compiled from lots of different sources (often from the solutions manuals that came with text books not on the list I gave them). It works pretty well, except for students who decide not to get ANY text. Those students tend not to study at all, and fail the course.

  45. says

    @45, uri4

    Physicist turned engineering programmer turned accountant here.

    It’s called “adding value” and I learned all about it in my accounting classes. It means making everything worse. Someday I may overcome my natural reticence and shyness and write a blog about it. It extends to everything from textbooks to why Land’s End t-shirts are so chintzy now.

  46. freemage says

    In addition to format and platform issues, publishers in general are distrustful of the e-format. There’s a great deal of paranoia about copyright violations; I’ve seen it repeated in discussions of almost every form of specialist publishing–textbooks, RPG rulebooks, etc. The smaller your niche, the more devastating widespread copyright violation can be–it’s not hard at all to push a company’s accounts into the red.

    One thought that might help–get a group of textbook publishers together to agree on a single e-format that works well on one or two different devices (perhaps even contracting with a tablet manufacturer to meet their specifications). The device could be sold in the university bookstores, along with access codes for required texts. If a student knows that all of his books are going to use the same device, he’ll be far more willing to drop $200 on the e-reader in order to get potentially several hundred dollars in savings over the course of the year. At the same time, the locked platform selection would help weed out potential issues with copyright, because it gets a bit easier to protect against violations.