I guess I’m going to have to find a new genetics textbook

I’ve been using Klug’s Concepts of Genetics for over 20 years, despite my annoyance at the cheap-ass behavior of the publisher. I’ve mentioned before that the primary differences between editions (which come out every year or two) is that they rearrange the order of the problems at the end, to justify making students buy the latest edition. It doesn’t work, because I scan or retype the problems that I hand out, so I can tell students that they can buy any used edition from the last decade, no problem.

I don’t think I can make workarounds for the publisher, Pearson, any more, though. They’re diving deep into the greed pit.

Textbook publisher Pearson plans to profit from secondhand sales by turning its titles into non-fungible tokens (NFTs), its chief executive has said.

Educational books are often sold more than once, since students sell study resources they no longer require. Publishers have not previously been able to make any money from secondhand sales, but the rise of digital textbooks has created an opportunity for companies to benefit.

NFTs confer ownership of a unique digital item by recording it on a decentralised digital register known as a blockchain. Typically these items are images or videos, but the technology allows for just about anything to be sold and owned in this way.

After the release of Pearson’s interim results, CEO Andy Bird explained his plan to sell digital textbooks as NFTs, allowing the publisher to track the ownership of a book even when it changes hands, Bloomberg reported. “In the analogue world, a Pearson textbook was resold up to seven times, and we would only participate in the first sale,” he said, explaining that “technology like blockchain and NFTs allows us to participate in every sale of that particular item as it goes through its life”.

Nope. Nope nope nope. Textbook publishers already gouge the students — the latest edition of Concepts of Genetics costs $197.00 — and that’s not enough for them, they want to get coin for every resell. That also hurts the students, because if nothing else, they can recover some of the expense buy reselling them (at an extreme markdown, by the way), and now Pearson wants to snatch some of that resell value away from them.

I think I can find some online texts that will do the job at no cost to the students. When the bookstore puts out its annual call for textbook purchases, I wonder what they’ll think if I tell them not to order any? That’s going to hurt their business a bit.

You know who else is hurt by Pearson’s greed? William Klug, Michael Cummings, Charlotte Spencer, Michael Palladino, and Darrell Killian, the scientists who are authors of the textbook. It’s already a low-paying job to write textbooks, and they’ve done a good job, but now the grasping selfishness of Pearson will cost them royalties.


  1. says

    I remember that racket–the huge outlay every fall for a few books, and a couple more each term–and, since a couple of my professors had written the books without appearing to become wealthy, I knew some people “up the chain” must be making out like bandits.
    I would have preferred to have kept my textbooks–I mean, they’re books, after all–but invariably I needed the money desperately. One year I had to sell a book in order to eat over spring break. I still needed it for the next term. No copies were available when that next term started, however; fortunately, the prof was kind and understanding and loaned me a copy.
    And now the publishers want a piece of the resale? I guess getting your lunch money stolen by bullies can continue all the way through college now.

  2. lochaber says

    As someone who spent too many years as a financially struggling student, thank you.

    I always appreciated those professors that went out of their way to make sure we didn’t need to purchase the latest edition of whatever text book, whether it was putting multiple copies available on the library’s reserve lists, creating their own homework/quize questions, or just straight up scanning/photocopying specific chunks of the textbook.

    textbook publishers are the worst

  3. Bruce says

    In chemistry, I always made my own power point shows and exams. But it was much more efficient to START from common material made by the publisher. I only used stuff made by the publisher of the text I was assigning, as they intended, so it was fair. But now with many free or open sources for texts, the side effect is finding ethical and efficient ways to start putting together the shows and texts. I like them to use a common order and language, to help the students. But I think we’d have to make it all from scratch if we stick with the ethics of only using sources from paid texts. But that’s better than forcing poor students to pay what they can’t afford for things. It’s not as if Pearson or the other publishers were the first to invent chemistry or biology so they don’t own those concepts, despite the sadness that gives their accountants. 😢

  4. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    Would someone who understands the nitty details of NFT transactions please explain? Because I do not comprehend how registering the initial sale on the (or “a”) blockchain in any way creates an enforceable restriction on subsequent sale.

    If the item is still a physical book, the fact that there is a blockchain record relating its serial number to the name (or actually, the public key) of the buyer, is interesting at best. Who is going to actually check, next year, that the person in possession of the book has the same name (or public key) as in the blockchain record?

    If the item is now a complete e-text in a standard format, e.g. a PDF, the situation is the same. There’s no such thing as an un-copyable bit, just ask the DVD industry.

    The only way I can imagine this working is to release the e-text in a proprietary format that can only be read using the publisher’s own app, Piddle (for Pearson Kindle). You would have to register your copy of Piddle when you install it so it has some idea of who is running it. Then it could check the blockchain each time you open the e-text. That would require wi-fi access and introduce a significant delay (the blockchain is not a high-performance database) but it could ensure that this copy is owned by this instance of the app.

    Which lasts exactly as long as it takes a couple of CS undergrads to reverse-engineer the e-text format, make one clean PDF, and upload it to Sci-Hub.

    There’s probably other kinds of evil techno-shenanigans I haven’t thought of. Suggestions?

  5. lotharloo says

    @5: I don’t think NFTs can help here. Trying to prevent re-sale or transfer of digital goods or creating copies of digital items is not even a new problem and none of the existing solutions are good. E.g., the video game industry moved from the very very early days when users had physical booklets where they had to look up to enter various codes to online games where you had to be online to play. NFTs is not solving this problem.

  6. says

    IIRC, PDFs do have some kind of DRM capability, and since it’s something Adobe developed for business users it probably uses fairly decent encryption. It’s just not used by most people. (Like the ability to embed video in PDFs, which is also a late part of the spec.) It might even be something that’s not part of the public part of the spec, so you have to use actual Adobe Acrobat to access it (or another PDF reader that has Adobe licensing — pretty sure both Apple and Amazon will have done that if it’s necessary, to be able to deal with corporate markets). As I recall, Adobe even makes it so that the image of the PDF page is blacked out if you try to do a screen capture using built-in OS features, and of course copying the text is disabled as well. So they could probably force you to re-download it with every resale via PDF formatting.

    But the blockchain part does nothing by itself. The amount of data you can actually add to the blockchain itself is vanishingly small — I think the upper limit is like 64 KB, which is why NFTs are usually actually URLs — so they can’t possibly make the book itself an NFT. If they’re going to use standard PDFs or any actual e-book format (which PDFs definitely are not) and just say “you must sell this NFT with the book or else” they’re probably just going to be laughed at and ignored.

  7. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    @The Vicar is right, it looks as if Adobe has already worked out everything Pearson would need to limit access to PDF texts to registered buyers. (https://helpx.adobe.com/acrobat/using/setting-security-policies-pdfs.html) “Blockchain” and “NFT” are irrelevant to this. It would be required to read using Acrobat and to have internet access at the time of opening the document, which would be annoying restrictions on use.

    Also my faith in the energy and cleverness of comp. sci. undergrads remains unshaken. I give it a week before any new edition is on Sci-Hub.

  8. macallan says

    Huh, when I went to university some time before the previous ice age ( and obviously not in the US ), nobody asked us to buy textbooks – we were sent straight to the university’s library.

  9. Samuel Vimes says

    And I am definitely not saying that you can absolutely find Concepts of Genetics at all those sites.

  10. Matt G says

    I teach science and have basically stopped using textbooks. I mostly find material online (HHMI biointeractive among my favorites). Several years ago I created a cladogram puzzle: my students choose 5 (more advanced: 6) species and find their divergence times using TimeTree.org. They then use those times to construct an infographic, and then use that to create a cladogram. My spouse suggested I put it online, and then I thought of teachers pay teachers.

  11. says

    $197 for a biology textbook?! Are you fookin’ kidding me?! The most I ever paid was $50 for an international law textbook. I know there’s been some inflation since then, but 400%?

    And if they’re acting like they still own books after someone has paid such a huge amount for them, doesn’t that imply they’re actually RENTING textbooks? How else could they still have any control or stake in something after it’s been delivered to someone else?

    I see a huge legal issue here. Are they selling textbooks, or renting them? They should not be allowed to toggle between those two things whenever they want.

  12. chrislawson says


    For that exact reason, in teaching medicine I tend to refer to clinical guidelines instead of textbooks. This works well because clinical guidelines are almost always freely available, comprehensive, practical, and reasonably up-to-date (certainly compared to textbooks!). Having said that, this is not an option for most fields of study, including those within medicine such as anatomy and physiology which do not lend themselves to guidelines as they are fields of knowledge that inform practice rather than fields of practice.

  13. rorschach says

    in medicine there is also considerable online teaching content available these days via blogs and Twitter, eg #medtwitter. I would read 100 dollar textbooks in the first 4 or 6 semesters because I thought I had to, but then figured out you can 1) buy them used and 2) get them copied from your wiser and older collegues. These days, if I buy the 300 bucks Physiology bible, it’s to display it on the shelf, like an antique Chinese ornamental vase, not to read it.
    As to clinical guidelines, they are nice to have, so even the janitor can read up on what antibiotic to prescribe for granny Mabel’sx bladder infection, it theoretically creates a certain standard of care, but I was always a bit suspicious of people who seemed to have to consult them all the time for the most minor of things.

  14. lotharloo says

    @7 Vicar:

    You can always run your OS in a virtual machine and use the host OS it to capture the screen which makes it literally impossible for Adobe to detect whether the screen is being captured or not.

  15. lochaber says

    Raging Bee@13> I guess it’s been a while since you were in school? :)

    Even when I started school in the 90s, we frequently bought textbooks in the $100-$200 range.
    I remember feeling especially clever about a short 1/2 semester hydrogeology class, where the textbook was around ~$300, but I was able to get the reserve library copy, and in an hour or two, photocopy all of the reading listed in the syllabus for about $20 in photocopier fees…

    The classics classes were also nice, since although we needed a specific translation of the Iliad or whatever, it was still common enough that they were rarely more than $20, less if we could get them used.

    I also remember textbook theft being a big thing, especially during finals, people would roam the dorms, libraries, etc., and grab unattended textbooks to sell back to the bookstore. Never happened to me personally (probably because I didn’t study/cram as much as I could have…), but that would really suck for those it happened to.

  16. says

    In the late 1990’s I helped run an off-campus college textbook store. We could order hundreds of used textbooks from wholesalers like MBS, Tichenor, etc. Professors could (and often did) specify which edition for students to use. Some professors, sympathetic to students budgets, specified a book other than the latest to help students keep costs down. Greedy Big publishers and some author/professors want to mandate new versions every semester by changing a little and calling it a new edition.

    PZ, maybe you should just cut and paste some of your work and self-publish so you control the textbooks required for your classes! You could help yourself and your students. You could even short-circuit the whole process by publishing your book as an ‘open’ pdf (of course, that could be copied by students without limit, you would lose the income but would be a hero with the students)

  17. says

    Also, If you run Linux, most versions have ‘take-a-shot’ or a similar screen capture program that can capture anything displayed on a screen. Students should be able to create their own ‘legal personal backup copy’ (fair use in copyright jargon) using such a tool.

  18. says

    I may be wrong, but Pearson’s CEO sounds like someone who heard about NFTs, doesn’t understand a thing about them, but has totally bought into the hype. Other comments here suggest that’s correct.

    That said, I support efforts by profs to reduce the cost to students. Textbooks cost too much when I went to school in the seventies, and their cost has outpaced inflation by a factor of “ridiculous” though it’s probably on par with the rising cost of tuition.

  19. says

    This hits home for me in so many ways. There is a solution, but it is difficult, and many people will not be able to manage the time. But it does work, as I know from first hand experience. AFAIK, it’s the only way to fight effectively against vampires like Pearson (more personal experience).

    The solution is to create and use/reuse OER (Open Educational Resources). I used to teach in an electrical engineering technology program, specifically, courses in DC and AC circuit analysis, computer and microcontroller programming (Python and C), discrete semiconductors and analog ICs. About 30 years ago I wrote my first text on linear ICs. Nice book. Learned a lot about the process and got to work with a great copy editor and graphic artist. I also learned that as an author, you’re just one more hired gun to the publisher and have no real rights over the work you have created. I had no input on subsequent editions, pricing, etc. Hardcover, that text went for around $60 or $70 circa 1992. By the second edition (early 2000s), it was well over $200 in soft cover. Fortunately, the publisher decided to get out of engineering/science texts and reverted the rights back to me. I produced a third edition and released it as OER with a Creative Commons NC-BY-SA license. I put it out in both ODT and PDF formats, and entered it into some of the major OER centers like OERCommons.org and Merlot.org. Free for the download. I wanted nothing. Nothing, that is, other than to help bury companies like Pearson by eating into their profits. At one time publishers served a valuable purpose, but with the rise of cheap computing, they are simply no longer needed and have become little more than the classic middle-man who skims off their profit while providing little, if any, benefit.

    I was fortunate that my college, being keenly aware that textbook costs are a roadblock for many students, supported my work (stipends, load reductions and a sabbatical). I managed to produce five text books and seven laboratory manuals, all OER, all free. I also found a nice OER Python text for our freshman programming class and a nice circuit simulation package that the students could download for free (not trial ware). Meanwhile, colleague of mine wrote an OER lab manual for his digital electronics course. In sum, at least half of the texts and manuals used in that program are free OER. We literally save students thousands of dollars.

    It gets better. LibreTexts.org decided to turn these works into HTML versions for people who want to read them online. A few years ago, I decided to make print versions available via Amazon/KDP. Cheap. As in that 600 page linear ICs text I mentioned that cost over $200 can be purchased now for about $15. No, I don’t make a lot of money on them, and what I do make goes to maintaining my web sites that host these titles. The thing is, many instructors have told me how much they like these books, and how much they appreciate not having to tell their students that they need to spend $200 for the course text.

    And as the author, you have complete control over your work. No more “revision merry-go-round”. The circuit analysis text (from Pearson) we used to use was at 6E in the mid 90s and 20 years later was at 12E. Sorry, but none of the theory has changed. They would do stupid things like split a chapter in half or swap the order of chapters, just so that students couldn’t use old editions without major headaches and confusion. So as I like to say, you give up royalties but you get dividends.

    Like I said, this is not something everyone can do (or would want to do) but I have always felt that it is of great value (interesting as it goes against the ultra capitalist mantra that “you get what you pay for”). I also feel that this has great potential for collaborative work within academia. First, you have the content expert(s), then you have the production people. Wouldn’t it be great to work with people from the English and Graphic Arts/Illustration departments to create a top quality, professional text? I would dearly love to see this become a more organized and focused movement.

    Final thought: OERs are not limited to textbooks. Video lectures and the like are also game, as are lesson plans, laboratory experiments, etc.

    TL;DR: Look for OER titles in your content area. If you can’t find any, consider creating your own or leveraging an existing OER (i.e., to create a fork). Also, look for funding from your institution (or other sources) and consider collaborative work with your peers and with experts in aligned areas, especially if you have never written a book before.

    If everyone does a little, we all gain a lot.

  20. DanDare says

    Reduce the cost by expected resales (197/7).
    Make reselling a price paid to the publisher, with some going to the student as a commission and some to the authors as royalties.
    If they wont do that a competitor might.

  21. DanDare says

    Reduce the cost by expected resales (197/7). Further drop it since there or no material costs for a digital product.
    Make reselling a price paid to the publisher, with some going to the student as a commission and some to the authors as royalties.
    If they wont do that a competitor might.

  22. says

    The horrors of first year chemistry. Lucky for me O found my copy of the textbook in a garbage bin at uni. That and the fact that the previous owner had left their teeth marks on it was a harbinger of what was to come. Lucky for me i had already done 4 years of technical college chemistry so mist of it wasn’t an arcane mystery. However there was one assignment problem I couldn’t solve. My language wife took it to school and asked the chemistry teachers for help. They gave up in frustration. So off to ask the lecturer. It turned out he hadn’t tried the question himself and a crucial bit of information was missing. I survived and lucky for me no more chemistry except in mineralogy and my college training and a brilliant lecturer got me through that.
    Palaeontology lecturers had a different approach. They had multiple copies of a palaeo treatise plus some specialist books available for prac classes. There were almost no lectures. The non prac component centred around key issues in the science. Students signed a photocopy form declaring their copies of key papers were for educational use allowed under the copyright act and paid for photocopy costs of the relevant papers which were bound as a book. Assignments were set based on those papers. after marking the topics were discussed in tutorial sessions with a student designated to lead the discussion. A really effective way of teaching.

  23. S maltophilia says

    If, in 20 years, the only real changes to a genetics text ids the order of problems, then it’s high time to update. Even for undergrads, there is plenty of newly discovered stuff worth learning.

  24. lanir says

    @5: That’s about what I was going to say. If this scaremongering idiot from Pearson is trying to tie physical books up with an ownership ledger, laugh at him. If he’s only referring to digital copies then he can encrypt it in transport easily enough but it’s either going to be in a standard format or it’ll require a special reader (Adobe Acrobat Reader counts as special in this case if you’re using proprietary pdf add-ons that can’t be understood by other software). Whoever writes that reader software can use clever tricks to obfuscate the source text and make it more difficult to understand what’s going on, but it won’t matter in the end. It takes more effort to implement such systems than to unravel them.

    @20: You’re not wrong. The reporter had no idea what they were being told either, and clearly they didn’t care. That whole “claw back” profits from resale wording in the subtitle sets the tone for the whole thing: it’s a fantasy where the publisher gets paid when you do something with your property. The entire article is buzzword compliant and not much else.

  25. notaandomposter says

    back in the day (late 80’s) I had a gig assisting a buyer. She’d go office to office at a university, buying “examination copies” of various textbooks from various college professors (I’d lug the cart full of books). She paid cash, usually (IIRC) something like $40-50 for a textbook that eventually would be sold as “used” at a college bookstore somewhere for about $100. (at $20 for something that’d sell for $40-50). Probably technically illegal (?) but I thought it was fantastic, The publishers sent those copies as junk mail (they were unsolicited) to the profs, and they put them in circulation instead of a landfill, and some student was then able to buy a ‘used copy’ for 1/2 the price of new (and the publisher got zero cut)

    fast forward 30+ years and yes, indeed you can ‘rent’ electronic copies of textbooks (on Amazon and elsewhere) for about half the cost of a physical book (which often is the cheaper than the ‘net’ cost of buying new and selling back to the college bookstore at the end of the semester)

    publishing is a business, and I guess that’s ok- but if they didn’t price gouge no one would go to extreme measures to try and game the system.

    now my eldest child is starting college, and a 100 level bio textbook rental is $80 (good for 6 months) – which is silly- rental should be for an academic year or 12 months if publishers don’t want to keep track of different schools’ calendars we’re cong to end up ‘buying’ ebook version for $100 (where physical is $180) instead.

    won’t be long until publishers(or disruptive alternate publisher) figure out that selling “all you can eat” textbooks as a service is better- Imagine a university makes a deal with a shortlist of publishers, professors and students have unlimited access to an entire catalog of ebooks (and associated resources) for $”X”/semester where “X” is significantly less than being charged now-

    Publishers could win by gaining market share- and they cut costs in updating materials (all electronic)
    professors would win buy having electronic resources and textbooks that (in theory) are kept up to date
    students win by paying less $$

    only losses -students can’t build a reference library of (physical) textbooks for later study
    professors may end up with fewer choices- if thier preferred publisher isn’t participating and the college mandates ‘as a service’ use

  26. PaulBC says

    Just an Organic Regular Expression@5 and replies.

    Yeah, I am also confused about where NFTs are supposed to fit into this scheme. Clearly, there are means of copy-protection, some of which are more easily cracked than others, and you may be in violation of copyright whether or not duplication is easy. It’s still hard to enforce on an individual basis, but a professor can’t tell their students to steal a copy of the textbook (if your name ins’t Abbie Hoffman anyway).

    If we’re talking about an actual physical textbook of the sort I remember buying used in college, then I really don’t see what it has to do with NFTs. The NFT isn’t the book. The person who owns an NFT typically has no power whatsoever to control any use of the token, just its “ownership.” Am I missing something here?