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Textbooks and the bookstore

Topics/tags: Miscellaneous, intellectual property, long, rambly [1]

A little while ago, I learned that the bookstore was selling international editions of a textbook [2]. A bit before that, I noticed that the only available copies of one required work of fiction for a course were remainders [3]. Both choices make me uncomfortable, but I’m not sure that they should. This musing represents my attempt to consider the issue in some more depth [4].

Ideally, intellectual property law, or at least copyright law, balances the interests of four or so parties. The authors of a work should be able to receive compensation for their work [5]. Consumers who purchase the work should be able to use the work as they would anything else they own. Publishers [6] who spend effort refining a work for sale and take financial risks in bringing the work to market also deserve compensation. And the nation benefits from a rich set of created and creative works [7].

One key issue in copyright is, of course, the right to make copies. In societies without strong copyright, authors and their publishers necessarily worry about bootleg copies of their work. If I write a novel that garners acclaim, it should not be possible for someone else to print and sell copies of it. If a publisher supported me in developing that novel, I should not be able to suddenly switch to another publisher.

But we also have traditional consumers’ rights. If I buy a table from someone, I am then free to do what I wish with that table. I can resell it. I can carve designs on it and sell it as an artwork. I can cut it down into kindling and start a fire. In the case of books, the first sale doctrine ensures that consumers have the right to resell the books that they purchase.

What about the nation’s broader interests? Ensuring that authors receive compensation helps encourage them to develop new works, which enhances the standing and intellectual capital of a nation. Ensuring that publishers cannot be undercut by competitors helps encourage them to publish new works, which benefits the financial state of the nation. But there are limits. For example, the US fair use doctrine suggests that the nation also benefits when excerpts of works are used in education, news, and criticism. Fair use is a delicate balancing act, but an important one.

Copyright law as a whole is also a balancing act. I’m not sure if it’s ever been quite right. But a number of factors are tilting the balance in problematic ways. Some tilting is intentional. Some is a byproduct of other changes. Intentional tilting often happens through legislation; for example, the span of copyright keeps increasing every time Disney is at risk. My reading is that the Music Modernization Act will do severe damage to songwriters in an attempt to benefit record labels and services like Spotify [8,9].

But the Internet has also had a huge impact, particularly in the textbook market. The biggest impact is on the role of used texts. I think we’ve always had textbook resellers. But the rise of the Internet has made it that much easier for them to connect with bookstores and manage inventories. And individuals now find it much easier to resell their textbooks, not just to friends at the same institution, but to almost anyone. A seller’s account on Amazon is easy to obtain. And smart students shop for used texts in various places [10].

In reaction, textbook publishers appear to have significantly increased their pricing. While I appreciate the work that publishers put into their work, I find a lot of that pricing immoral. $100 for a disposable workbook is insane. But for textbooks that you know are going to be used again and again and again and for which you only receive compensation once? I can understand some of the reasons that prices have gone up; if a textbook gets resold four times on average rather than once [11], you have to make much more on the initial sale.

Textbook publishers really do a lot of important work, from making sure that textbooks are reviewed broadly to supporting the development of ancillary materials to publicizing the work to faculty. They and their authors deserve compensation.

Still, the hundreds of dollars that textbooks command seems excessive. And some of the development of ancillary resources that drive up costs is of things that don’t seem necessary. As a professor, I encounter many ancillaries that I have no plan to use, such as most electronic resources [12].

As a professor, I’ve reacted to textbook prices in a number of ways. For some classes, I’ve written my own materials or adapted those of colleagues in the department. CSC 151 has always had locally written materials through at least three versions of the course. I also wrote large amounts of material for CSC 152 (now 207). For some classes, I’ve looked for cheaper textbooks or open-source textbooks. In CSC 321 and CSC 322, I use one text that is available for free online, one that is available for $10 in electronic format [14], and one that is part of the ACM Safari Collection, and so available as part of the students’ $19 ACM membership [15]. And for some, I’ve used professional texts, ones that I expect to see on their bookshelves in a decade. Kernighan and Ritchie fits in that category, as does the original Design Patterns, as does CLRS [16]. But there have also been times that I’ve chosen a commercial textbook because I couldn’t find anything as good. In the end, I want the text that best serves my students.

Where were we? Oh, yeah. This musing was supposed to be about the bookstore selling international editions and remainders. I wanted to get some background in place to help myself consider the various issues at play.

International editions are an interesting case. Publishers and authors accept less for international editions because they serve the greater good [17]. The assumption is that they are produced for a non-US market and that the textbook development is, in effect, subsidized by domestic sales. Since a legal case a few years back determined that these textbooks are covered under first-sale doctrine, it is legal to buy and sell them in the US, even though they generally say something like not produced for sale in the US.

Although that case clarified the legality of domestic sales of international editions, my impression was that the sales generally happened online and through non-institutional channels. Having a bookstore sell international editions somehow feels different. I know that I would not feel comfortable asking a publisher for a desk copy or an examination copy of a textbook if my institution were only selling international copies of that textbook.

I don’t feel the same way about texts for which we sell only used copies. That is, I’d certainly feel comfortable asking for a desk copy if we only sold used copies. After all, publishers do seem to set prices under the assumption that texts get resold. I also don’t feel the same way about texts that have a legal free online version. In that case, the online version is part of the publishing model; for whatever reason, they feel that enough physical copies [18] are sold that the free online version is appropriate. And I know that even when the text is available for free online, some students buy copies.

But the international copies? I don’t think that’s part of the publisher’s calculus. I would venture to guess that publishers assume that domestic bookstores don’t regularly stock international editions. I certainly wouldn’t want that publisher to know that we were selling international copies.

What about the other side? There are some fairly significant benefits to students being able to pick up an affordable printed copy on campus. Students are more likely to be able to afford $25 for the international edition than the $176 list price for a hardcover [19]. It’s not much different than the $35 the publisher charges for a legal digital subscription copy, but I don’t really like the digital subscription model, which undermines first sale and provide an assumption that students won’t have long-term benefit from the text. I also prefer that students work from printed texts if they can; I think the evidence is that students read printed texts better [20]. And I’d rather that students have direct access to the text rather than relying on a friend or the library. So there are a lot of benefits to a $25 copy. And I suppose that students could buy it online for $25 in any case [21]; we’re just making things easier for them.

While I’m pondering those issues, let’s turn to the issue of the remainders. As far as I know, authors get nothing for remainders. From my perspective, that makes them different than used copies, particularly for class use. For used copies, the author has received some compensation and, if some authors I know are to be believed, accept that used resale is part of the bargain. I expect that some authors even accept that there will be remainders of their books. But when the only copies available for a class are remainders? That seems wrong. The class is relying on the authors’ creative work and, in the case of a book-length work of fiction, it’s an amount that’s clearly beyond the rubrics of fair use. The author deserves compensation.

Even though I consider it wrong to only stock remainders, I don’t blame the bookstore [22]. They order copies of books from suppliers. If the supplier says We have twenty used copies and sends along twenty remaindered copies, the bookstore doesn’t really have an option. In this case, I think the problem is more the publisher’s willingness to remainder large numbers of the book and the used textbook markets’ ability to take advantage of that. And popular works are not like textbooks; the initial price and the compensation to the author are not nearly as high. I don’t know what you do about that. The whole process of using used works of fiction in class is problematic [23].

Part of me wants to ask the professor to gather money from the class and send it to the author. But how would an author feel about that? Our bookstore stocked remainders of your work. We think you deserve compensation. Each student chipped in $2. We’re sending you $40.

Hmmm … I seem to have ve gone about as far as I can on this topic. What have I figured out? It strikes me that the academic book market is broken. While things seem like they are getting better for students in some ways, it looks like it’s getting worse for students in other ways (e.g., those who end up having to purchase a new text spend much more). And, as far as I can tell, the system makes things worse for authors, particularly for authors of trade books.

I don’t have a good solution. Now that I think about it, I may even be part of the problem. For certain classes, I just buy enough used copies of the text and loan them to my students each semester. I’ve done that for TEC 154 and I’ve done that for Tutorial. I also buy used copies of the book for Intro Studio and donate them to the art department so that they can loan them to students. I’m keeping the used texts out of the market, but I’m also setting up a system in which the authors and publishers don’t get compensated. For the textbooks I use, I’m not concerned; the pricing model deals with that. But for the trade books that start out reasonably priced, such as Joe Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, I’m a bit more concerned that I’m affecting compensation, even in a relatively minor way. Of course, in the particular case of Style, that book is now out of print. In addition, I bought some portion of the copies new, so Williams got some compensation [24]. I’ll have to consider whether I want to try the Gather money from students and send a check to the author model the next time I pass out used copies of trade books in class [25].

Maybe that’s my personal solution to both problems [26]. If students and faculty think about the value the books bring to their learning and contribute a few bucks for each used book they get, authors get better compensated. That model doesn’t help with publishers. However, I’m pretty sure that most publishers have designed a model that ensures they make sufficient profit. It also doesn’t help with high textbook prices; that’s a more complex issue that I deal with in multiple other ways (including handing out used copies in class). And, as I said, my primary focus in this musing was to consider the implications of these two particular cases.

What are those implications? It’s good that students get affordable copies of books. It’s bad that authors don’t get sufficiently compensated. My solution is ad hoc. It doesn’t solve the broader problem of author compensation. It certainly doesn’t solve the broader problem of textbook affordability. Leaving the problem to the market doesn’t really seem to make sense; we increasingly see the market finding ways to make a profit with sufficient benefit to neither producer nor consumer.

I’ve come back to this musing multiple times [27]. I’m still not completely sure what my own perspective is or should be. Selling only remainders or only international editions seems wrong. But I don’t think I should critique my colleagues or my bookstore for the decision; I can see arguments about how these practices are good for our students and accept that it’s reasonable to prioritize those students. And, as I said, some of my own practices that are designed to support students also negatively impact authors.

I wish I could use this topic as an excuse to rant. But it’s not a simple issue. And, if I accept complexity, I find it difficult to rant. Instead, I’ll hope that some of my readers will react in ways that help me think more deeply about the issue. And I’ll continue to reflect on it. We shall see if my opinions evolve [28].

Postscript: I miss Richard Fyffe. He would have had some interesting and informed comments on these topics.

Postscript: David Feldman ’01 passed along a ’blog post by Robert J. Sawyer on what authors get from remainders and some other related topics [29].

[1] Do I have any long musings that aren’t rambly? I hope so!

[2] An international edition of a textbook is an edition designed for students in another country, typically one not as wealthy as the US. International editions generally have the same content but usually have lesser production values and may have different questions.

[3] A remaindered copy is a copy that the publisher decides can no longer be sold as new. It could be a return from a bookstore. It could be that they printed many more copies than they sold and no longer want them in their warehouses. As far as I know, authors receive no royalties from remainders. You can often identify a remainder by a big black marked stripe along the side of the text.

[4] I must admit that my muse leads me in some fairly strange directions.

[5] Assuming, of course, that they wish to receive compensation.

[6] Or equivalent.

[7] I accept that I have a somewhat American perspective on IP law. The parts of the constitution that focus on intellectual property talk about the benefits to the nation.

[8] If you want to hear more from the songwriters’ side, I’d suggest checking out The Trichordist. At some point, I’ll write more about IP and music, including my reaction to the awesomely cheap multi-disc jazz sets available from the UK, which, I expect, provide absolutely no compensation to anyone involved in creating the music.

[9] It makes me sad that the EFF supports the Music Modernization Act, which really does seem to be more about supporting streaming services than supporting songwriters.

[10] Bookfinder is my preferred used book search tool.

[11] Those numbers are fictitious.

[12] Electronic resources are often especially expensive to develop.

[14] I recall hearing one of the authors say that they hoped to open source the whole textbook once they had recouped their costs. (I will admit that not everything I recall is true.)

[15] That assumes that students decide to join ACM. It also assumes that ACM continues to provide student members with access to Safari.

[16] Sorry for using names that only insiders will understand. But the names aren’t all that important.

[17] Okay, I’ll admit that I don’t really know why publishers and authors develop lower-priced international editions. The greater good seems to make sense.

[18] Or licenses for ancillaries.

[19] Hmmm … that’s more than $160 for a textbook that was first published in 2005.

[20] I’m too lazy to look for that evidence right now.

[21] In fact, if you search the title and author of this text on Amazon, the first result is the international edition.

[22] Or at least I don’t think I blame the bookstore.

[23] Used works of fiction can be problematic in many ways. In one of my children’s classes, the work was out of print. We ended up paying $50 for a used copy of a book whose cover price was under $20.

[24] Or his family got some compensation.

[25] I don’t know when that will be. I hope Tutorial is my next non-CS course. But I won’t be teaching Tutorial next year (fellowship) or the next year (sabbatical). Three years in the future is far enough that it’s hard to know what I’ll be doing.

[26] In case you’ve forgotten, both problems refers to (a) international editions of textbooks and (b) remaindered copies of trade books.

[27] Four? Five? Three? Six? I’m not sure.

[28] If they do, I’ll muse about the topic again.

[29] I’m sad to see him write that [M]ost established authors in the SF field, even if they’re published in both hardcover and paperback make a total of something like $20,000 per book for North American sales. That seems like very little. The post is about a decade old but I’m guessing that hasn’t changed too much, unless ebooks are making a difference.

Version 1.0 released 2018-06-02.

Version 1.1 of 2018-06-03.