Oh, how I detest textbook publishers

I was not going to go into the university today. It is miserable outside — bitter cold, stiff winds, piles of drifting snow — and I had resolved to stay warm indoors and focus on getting prepped for spring term classes. And I did! I was about to post the first homework assignment for my class, and I was double-checking all the details, when I noticed that the list of textbook problems was from the 10th edition of Concepts of Genetics, while the syllabus specifies the 11th edition. Oh no, crap. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that this publisher loves to fuck around with problem numbers. They may not have changed a thing in the content between editions, but they will still juggle around the order of the problems and call it a new “edition”.

I did not have a copy of the textbook at home. Therefore, I had to put my pants on — and boots and scarf and hat and gloves and heavy coat — and wade out into the wilderness to my office. Yikes, but it was cold. There were knee-high drifts of snow on the sidewalks at the university, which has not been cleared at all since we’re still officially on break. I nearly lost my hat to the wind twice. I stumbled in one drift and twisted my ankle…I think it’s OK, but it was also numbed by the cold, and I’ve been discovering that all I have to do is roll over in bed nowadays and something will ache, so I’ll probably be feeling that tomorrow. But I got my copy of the textbook! I staggered home, sat down, and started to pull out the changes when…sudden terrifying thought, what is the latest publishers edition?

It’s 12. Not 11, not 10, 12. I don’t have a copy of that. Goddammit.

Oh well, I’ll do the extra work I’ve often had to do: I post the problem numbers of the edition I’ve got, with the beginning phrase of the problem, and tell the students to figure it out. You know what we’re doing this first week? A review of basic probability and statistics, and an overview of simple Mendelian genetics, stuff that hasn’t changed in 50 to a hundred years, but we’re going to gouge $174.25 out of the students to get the latest arrangement of textbook problems.

(I do tell the students they should feel free to order older, much cheaper editions because of this absurdity.)

On the bright side of things, I had a chance to duck into the lab and check on Mrs Yara and Mr Chad. No eggs yet, but I’ll put some photos below the fold.

The gentleman in the relationship:

The lady:

I very much like the patterning and relatively light coloration of her abdomen. I would love to see if that is heritable.


  1. says

    One acronym for you, PZ. OER. Open Educational Resources. If you can’t find what you need, start making them yourself. You, your students, and your colleagues will be glad you did. Circa 1990 I wrote a textbook “Operational Amplifiers and Linear Integrated Circuits”. It went through a traditional publisher. In spite of the errata I sent them, they never updated it. Around 10 years later we put out a second edition. Somewhere around 2005 the price had risen to around $220. Of course, as the author, I have no control over any of this. It is nothing but a source of frustration to lose control over your own work (the fine print of my contract even stipulated that I could not be a contributing author to any text in that area).

    Shortly thereafter, I came across the concept of OER and Creative Commons. I started writing. I am now at 12 titles and working on 2 more. To make things even better, my publisher decided to get out of engineering texts and I was able to get the rights to my op amp text back. I released the 3rd edition as OER a couple of years ago. We also use OERs in other courses, some created on campus, some not. My college has been very supportive of this concept and authors receive sabbaticals, load reductions or stipends for their work, depending on the details.

    As I like to say, there aren’t royalties, but there are dividends. For starters, you have full control over your work and the students pay zero for their texts. Always remember that textbook publishers are not your friends. They see you and your students as a captive audience to exploit. Last year, I started offering print version for cheap via Amazon’s KDP (no fan of Amazon but the quality of the books is good, they have global reach, and the costs are minimal). That book that was going for $220 can be had in the 3rd edition for about $15 (of course, it remains free if a pdf is fine for your purposes).

    For our students, I have created a page filled with OER, both electrical engineering texts and applicable software tools. Here is a link for anyone interested (this is from my college site which hangs off of the main college site):

  2. jack16 says

    @1 jimf
    Firefox says there’s something wrong with your link and won’t let me go there.


  3. Zeppelin says

    I’m about a week away from handing in my Master’s thesis and I’ve never been outright required to buy a particular book for my studies here in Germany. In the few classes I’ve taken that stuck to one specific textbook, we got them from the institute library. For homework problems we usually got printouts/photocopies, when the lecturer didn’t just post them to the course’s online thingy.

  4. Zeppelin says

    I guess my question is: If every student must have some particular textbook available at all times in order to take some class, can’t the university buy a stack of them to hand out in the first lecture and collect after the exams? Presumably they’ll be used more than once.

  5. leerudolph says

    Presumably they’ll be used more than once.

    If it’s a course that is taught every semester (or quarter), then they will be. But if it’s only taught once a year, the publishers may well have a new edition every year. PZ is not kidding or exagerating, at all, about the horribleness of the big text publishers (in mathematics and science, anyway).

  6. says

    I was able to find PDFs of the 8th, 9th,10th, 11th and 12th edition of the textbook with minimal effort. Hopefully your students are just as resourceful.

  7. marcoli says

    I don’t know about this text, but it is common for publishers to offer an e-book version, and that is cheaper than paper. I still think paper is better, but with their costs the e-book will becomes more attractive.
    As an instructor, I have generally been able to get access to the e-book version of whatever text I use from a publisher.

  8. dorght says

    Free should be the only price for ego and income driven textbooks written by the class instructor.
    Way back when I had to buy a introduction to electrical engineering book written by an instructor way past retirement age and he wrote the book back in his prime. I took the class in the early 1980’s, in this textbook transistors were briefly mentioned as a recent development being actively researched. To be fair the majority of the course concepts hadn’t changed from the 1800s, but the problem was the lectures came straight from the book so you had only the one presentation to try and understand the concepts.

  9. lakitha tolbert says

    PZ: Well, this should brighten your day…or not!
    I don’t know if you like giant spider movies, but the latest addition is an indie horror movie titled Itsy Bitsy, where a giant spider invades a woman’s home, and terrorizes her kids.
    I mean, it is a horror movie though, so I don’t know how you feel about spiders constantly getting a bad rap like that, but I thought you might at least find it interesting.

  10. Zeppelin says

    leerudolph @7: As I understand it, the only reason to buy the “new” edition every year is that publishers shuffle the problems around to make it inconvenient to mix editions in a class. That isn’t a problem if everyone in class has the same technically-outdated edition because the university bought 100 copies five years ago.

  11. says

    And here I thought the blog entry was going to be about this, in which it is shown that a California edition of a textbook is always longer than a Texas edition of the same book, because the Texas one will have elided some ‘inconvenient facts.’

    When I took ear training as part of music theory, I found an older edition of the book online. When we had homework, I always checked to be sure I had the same pieces. If I didn’t, I’d photograph the needed pages on my phone or tablet.

  12. rockwhisperer says

    My geology MS thesis adviser always put extra effort into course syllabi when the textbook edition changed, so that the page numbers for the readings and for important illustrations were listed for both the new and old editions. On the rare occasions when he felt a textbook would be helpful in a graduate class, where there were seldom more than half a dozen students, he checked Amazon to make sure there were enough vendors selling used copies of old versions, and told us to go buy used copies. (Not that he insisted we buy through Amazon, he simply wanted to make sure the books were still around.) Other professors in the same department jumped through different self-imposed hoops to make sure that students had access to necessary written material without needing to buy a new book, often spending huge chunks of time creating their own content and making it available for free via the course digital portal.

  13. Kevin Karplus says

    You should also be aware that there are usually international editions which can be legally sold in the US (unlike the pirated PDFs). The problems are often different, and they are usually printed just black&white on low-quality paper, but for many textbooks, that is good enough.

    In the Physics class I sat in on this fall, the problems were the same until the last homework assignment (at which point everyone had stopped checking). The professor posted just the homework exercises from the book on the class learning-management system (Canvas), so that students could do the homework even if they had the wrong edition of the book.

  14. says

    Back in the 80s some of us figured out that certain faculty were lining their pockets by assigning their own books as texts. So I figured out that if you made one xerox copy manually flipping the pages, you could automate more copies with a document feeder. Then it was a matter of finding an unlocked office with a xerox machine. It was a small way of fucking the system but it was very satisfying to imagine the teacher realizing their book sales had dropped to zero.

  15. lochaber says

    While I greatly appreciate the concern of P.Z. Myers, and other current and prior college profs speaking up in the thread, I feel the need to point out that a great deal of college courses are being taught by adjunct professors, who are criminally underpaid and overworked.

    I heartily applaud any professor that tries to ease the financial impact of textbooks for their students, but I don’t feel the responsibility and blame should lie on the professor. There is no justifiable reason a textbook should cost ~$2-300 dollars.

    I’ve been a broke-ass student several times over, and spent countless hours in the library reading the sole book set aside in the library reserves, and photocopying it when I could. And otherwise trying to manage with previous editions, or just up and failing some homework assignments every now and then…

    The college textbook industry needs to die

  16. chigau (違う) says

    Marcus Ranum

    Then it was a matter of finding an unlocked office with a xerox machine.

    I hope I live long enough to see your life made into a (lightheartedsitcom) TV series.

  17. says

    I’ve had my book assigned as a text from time to time, and I always tell the instructor “whisper to them, ‘LibGen’.”

    I wouldn’t say every author should put their book on libgen, but I would say they should consider it.

  18. Dunc says

    When I was studying physics back in the early 90s, one of our texts was “Calculus and Analytical Geometry”, third edition… I used my Dad’s copy from 30 years earlier. Same edition.

  19. says

    @18 bujesus
    “Create your own questions.”

    Yes. This is a good way around the edition roller coaster but it will not work forever. I got tired of seeing new editions of our electrical circuits text every 2 to 3 years with no real content change, but just enough to screw up problem and reading assignments. I wrote my own workbooks and stopped assigning problems out of the text. That way, students could use any edition. The problem is, the publishers are moving away from print books. One of the VPs at Pearson said they are going to a “digital first” platform to “recoup profits from the secondary market”. That’s market weasel speak for “we are going to dry up the used book market”. Eventually, publishers will only offer the ability for students to rent online access to books for a semester or two (no pdfs). They will market this as making books cheaper for students. They will conveniently ignore the difference between renting and buying, and not having access on your own terms.

    Currently, I am expanding those workbooks into full fledged texts. When that’s done, we say goodbye to Pearson and good riddance. At one time print publishers were a valuable resource, but they got greedy, and with the ‘net, there’s no reason they still need to exist. And this movement is growing. Professors and students alike are getting on the OER bandwagon. Here are some good places to start:

  20. alanuk says

    “Oh, how I detest textbook publishers.” I can add “Oh, how I detest textbook authors.” But I repeat myself; I do not mean the names on the covers (must not speak ill of the dead) but the teams of anonymous hacks employed by the publishers to produce new and revised editions. I can also add, “Oh, how I detest examination boards.” But I am still repeating myself as they are arms of the publishers or are in cahoots with them.

    I am speaking of the situation for school pupils studying physics in England. They have to sit examinations based on the erroneous material in textbooks, so this is what is taught. Publishers copy the errors from one textbook to another adding more errors along the way. My chemistry teacher complained about experiments that did not work being copied from textbook to textbook; that was 60 years ago, we now have the technology to speed the process many-fold.

    I was an electrical and electronics engineer before becoming a school physics technician. I can assure people that my apparatus always obeys the laws of physics. I express my frustration in:


    There, I point out errors and try to give better explanations. (See, in particular, my explanation of, “Electrical Machinery”.)

    Textbook writers seem to think that if they understand physics then they understand engineering. Unfortunately their understanding of physics is lamentable.

    The whole system seems impenetrable. Everyone seems content with the cosy set-up as long as it gives the required distribution of results in the examination.

  21. secmilchap says

    As a former bookseller, there’s another discriminatory practice that benefits publishers but not authors or buyers: “Trade” editions come with progressively greater discounts, depending on number ordered. But textbooks come @ 20% off, regardless of one copy or a boxcar full in terms of quantity. As one of the proprietors of Second Story Books, once a huge source of texts/trades/ PBs, &c, in MetroDC, commented, the discounting practices for trades resulted in the demise of most of the USA’s bookstores. Popular trades would be unavailable to small booksellers, but skidloads of them went through CostCo/WalMart/&c and ended up remaindered at Daedalus while small bookstore dealers withered, unable to respond to customer demand.

  22. kome says

    You know, it’s the darnedest thing. On the first day of all my classes, somehow instructions for how to find and use LibGen and related sites (SciHub, for instance) end up on the projector. It can sometimes take me 5 whole minutes to figure out how to take it down, all the while grumbling that if students found copies of their textbooks on there they could probably return any bought textbooks to the bookstore while they are still eligible for a full refund (at my campus, the 3rd day after classes have started).

  23. says

    As bad as it is in the sciences, it’s arguably worse elsewhere.

    Exhibit A: The Norton Anthology of ____ Literature. These monstrous tomes are staples of “general education” classes at every four-year school, and many community colleges. (It’s not that all literature general education classes use them — it’s that I’ve never come across an institution in which at least one did not use them.) They are expensive, they go through a new edition every three to five years (there’s an actual schedule) in which pagination gets changed, the introduction gets “updated,” and perhaps as much as 3% of the text is changed.

    Meanwhile, especially for material from prior to the 20th Century, Project Gutenberg and other alternatives. Particularly for translations, this can be less than optimal... but there aren't a whole helluva lot of instructors out there who could/would tell the difference for more than one or two of the items they would assign during a term, and paperback editions are frequently available and frequently cheap. For example, if an instructor prefers the still-in-copyright Richards translation of Plato's <i>Republic</i>, and it's an essential part of the course, it's easy (and, because this is a trade book now, cheaper and with better return terms for the bookstore!) to use it instead for that particular piece, while perhaps retaining the older translations of Homer and Virgil.

    Exhibit B: Law. Here, the problem isn’t with changing the questions nearly as often as it is the answers. And it really does matter; for example, in 199x two state supreme courts changed their interpretations of a particular ethics requirement, meaning that any annual supplement (routine for law casebooks) that didn’t highlight the difference could lead to students being disbarred a couple of years down the road — especially if they had ever seen an episode of LA Law. Interestingly, the two state supreme courts in question were those hosting the institutions at which the textbook authors were endowed-chair professors. The irony that law-school casebooks consist of more than 90% material that is public domain (and has been public domain since it was written down) has escaped almost everyone in the industry.

    That doesn't stop casebooks from being quite a bit more expensive (and more cheaply produced) than undergraduate science textbooks. And the edition-to-edition changes can be much smaller than one might think; that example in the preceding paragraph did <b>not</b> make it into the also-in-preparation revised edition of the textbook, thanks to the vagaries of the production cycle, so there was an annual supplement the day the new edition was released!

  24. says

    I don’t know about casebooks, but anthologies like the Norton ones can be found (past years, no doubt) at archive.org in the open library section. They mostly can be checked out for two weeks, though rumor has it importing the file into a version of Calibre that has had the de-DRM tool installed will leave the user with an unlocked file. Details are left up to individual initiative. No dead authors were harmed by this comment.

  25. says

    Kip, that would require visiting and patronizing the Internet Archive, and this instance is an exception/ Maybe downloading a Norton Anthology won’t hurt living authors (although the Norton Anthology of American Literature includes works by a number of living and recently deceased authors). The vast majority of its “collection” in the open library section harms living authors (or the estates of relatively recently deceased ones). Therefore: Not a viable option.

  26. says

    My worst experience ever wasn’t with a publisher. It was with the couldn’t give a damn about students morons that set the text book for the course. I had always struggled with maths but through hard work and a lot of sleepless nights I always managed to get through. Never brilliantly but I survived until second semester of my first year at uni. There were over 2000 students doing a compulsory maths unit and the co-op bookshop had sold their last three copies of the text. I tried the publisher’s agent who said “sorry its permanently out of print”. The uni library had six copies available but they didn’t go far among 2000 students. All the lectures and all the assignments and exams were based on the textbook so there was no real chance of studying hard before lectures and using the worked examples as guides to solving problems. All of my study techniques were closed off to me. Now you think at this point the university would open its eyes and set a different textbook. That requires some flexibility though. Instead about two thirds of the way through the semester they realised that most students were headed for failure. You can gauge how essential they thought this mathematical knowledge was when they said not to worry that they understood our problems and would let 50% of us pass.
    Naturally I wasn’t in the favoured 50%. Bye-bye cadetship. Bye-bye vacation employment giving me practical training in my hoped for profession and funding to continue studies.
    After a couple of years hunting for work and getting some financial stability I went to college, completing a 4 year part-time chemistry certificate in 3 years of hard work. By then i could re-enter Uni as a mature-age student. I chose a different uni with a more progressive outlook which encouraged and facilitated mature age students who had to study part-time. The maths requirements weren’t as rigorous and I could specialise in my area of interest. After 5 years of part-time study I had a BSc, a position managing a laboratory and eventually after a few more years a Masters degree. By then I had a mortgage and a young family and going on to do the PhD many encouraged me to do was out of the question financially. That had to wait till I retired. It was an interesting time playing catch-up on a new field and going through three attempts to steer a thesis proposal through the thesis committee but I made it. On the way the research institution I was at was shut down and I found myself in limbo being manged by the Postgrad studies centre. It was later re-opened and I was back on the student register. Sadly my supervisor died just after I submitted and I had no advice preparing for the viva. Even sadder he didn’t get to see my eventual success. He and I had locked horns on my second day at the institution but over time we found a lot of shared interests and ideas and mutual respect. The final obstacle was breaking my hip 2 weeks after the viva and a 6 month delay in final submission while I recovered and argued with my new supervisor over changes which I thought were unnecessary and would vandalise the logical flow of my dissertation which I had deliberately written so a non-expert could understand it. We finally compromised and I got to walk the stage without using my walking stick which was a bonus.

  27. cvoinescu says

    alanuk @ #25:
    Your blog is very interesting and informative.

    I bumped into the Five Problems To Solve, and I object to the fifth problem. Specifically: once Pru says “I do not know what the numbers are”, both, looking at their identical tables, rule out all numbers that do not have multiple pairs of factors that satisfy the rules. As you correctly point out, this leaves only 36, 100, and 324. As far as Sue knows, all possibilities are now 1 x 36, 3 x 12, 9 x 4, 5 x 20, 25 x 4, 9 x 36, and 27 x 12 (not sure why you excluded 1 x 36: it’s perfectly valid so far; you are also missing 1 x 4 and 1 x 16 from the table). All seven possibilities remaining after Pru’s statement have different sums, so Sue must know exactly which one it is. The only other sum of 25 in your table is 9 and 16, but that’s the only way to factor 144, so Pru would have known it was that. So, with the information given, Sue must know the solution at this point, so she can’t say “Nor do I”. The problem, as stated, is impossible. The only way it works is if Pru and Sue make their second statements at the same time, without hearing each other; or maybe if the numbers can go up to 50, which leaves in a couple more possibilities with a factor of 48, making 25 an ambiguous sum.

  28. prfesser says

    I’ve worked on several textbooks as pay-for-work, and co-authored a general chemistry text in 2002-2003. I would like to point out a couple of things that may not be common knowledge — it wasn’t for me, back before. Keep in mind that this described the situation with my publisher and may be different for other publishers and for non-science textbooks.

    Yes, part of my work was making 25-30% new/revised problems in the editions I worked on. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If that wasn’t done, there would be (quite a few!) complaints after the book had been out for a year or so. Some professors collect homework for part of the grade. Accordingly, some student groups collect and collate the worked-out problems from year to year. Students in that organization could copy the problems (or get them from the web, today) and turn them in for credit. So a fair number of instructors wanted some new problems.

    The biggest issue that has caused textbook costs IMHO is resales vs. initial sales. Old farts like me kept their textbooks, at least for the major and minor, as useful references (I got tons of useful teaching from a 1968 textbook, used it through 2000). Resale of textbooks back then involved individuals selling to other individuals, if they occurred at all. Today it’s a large business, and a majority of textbooks, especially expensive ones, are sold back to the bookstore.

    In 2003 my textbook (double the numbers for today) was $135 suggested retail, $80 wholesale. That $80 was the only money that the publisher (and authors) got. Author royalties for the first print run were around 10-15% or $8-12, split among four authors in this case. After royalties the publisher grosses about $72. That has to cover publishing costs, which are more than you might expect.

    The bookstore grossed $65 on the new sale. At my university the bookstore would buy the book back for about 25% of retail, then sell it back for about 75%. That’s $67.50 gross, for selling a used book. They now have made more than the publisher. And most books sold back two, three, or more times. That seems to me to be a situation where the middlemen — the bookstore and/or book buyers/sellers — are making the greatest profit (not uncommon in the U.S.), and I suspect it’s one of the reasons that textbooks undergo regular edition changes. (In chemistry it seems to be 3-4 years at lower levels, longer for junior/senior texts).

    Keep in mind that a large publisher usually will have more than one text for a given subject. Different adopters look for different things in a text. They’re putting out a lot of money for each one. Some don’t sell enough copies to make expenses. Mine did okay for a while, but it didn’t make the cut when the publisher was looking at which books to keep.

    Are the publishers guiltless in the textbook market? Absolutely not. But from some years of experience, it doesn’t really appear that they’re the main culprit.

    (FWIW I never required students to buy my textbook. Another prof at my university did, so I gave the department a check equal to the royalties I got from those sales.)