The Textbook Racket

“On bokës for to rede I me delyte.” Ah yes, that’s good old Jeffy C again, The Legende Of Good Women. It’s a vicious little irony that, as much as I truly love books, I don’t use textbooks in my classes. I haven’t for, I suppose, about twenty years.

There’s one exception. In my mythology class, I use Joseph Campbell’s The Power Of Myth. It retails brand new for under fifteen bucks at the time of this writing. And that’s not much of an exception since it’s not a textbook issued by a textbook publisher.

If you think the computer industry runs a long grift in education (and you should), you have to stand in awe, in awe of the textbook publishers. These criminal masterminds have a racket going that makes the computer goons look like knuckle-dragging bullies pushing nerds around for their lunch money.

Freshman comp texts are particularly egregious. For one thing, they needlessly mystify the writing process. I’ve mentioned previously that the whole “two semesters of freshman comp” concept should be eliminated. Nobody needs a textbook for this. Need an example of a comparison/contrast essay? Google is your friend. Far too many textbooks are built on “making what is easy to do seem hard,” something John Taylor Gatto pointed out back in 1991.

In terms of my literature classes, most of what we read is old enough to be public domain and is available online for free. When we get to poetry, we hit up Poetry Foundation or Back when I did use a book, it was The Bedford Introduction to Literature, a daunting three-inch thick compendium of poetry, fiction, and drama, of which we’d read maybe a third. You can pick this up right now, new, starting at about $90.

Once the college bookstore tacks on their sleazy markup, this hits about $120 or so. On top of this, every year or two, Bedford/St. Martins (now owned by Macmillan which is owned by Pearson) released a “new edition.” This meant they’d change the cover, add a handful of stories, poems, a play or two that had not been included previously, drop a handful of others, and, most importantly, jack up the price.

The benefits to the publisher are countless. Students have to buy the new, more expensive edition, and the college bookstore doesn’t have to buy back the old edition which is now obsolete. Only it isn’t. Each and every time, the overall change in the anthology was negligible. The overwhelming majority of authors were still American or British, white, and male.

The old stand-bys were largely the same: Hawthorne, Poe, Faulkner, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Wordsworth, Coleridge. You get the picture. Don’t think for a second that this is an isolated case. Pick up any anthology from any publisher, and you’ll find most of the same authors and titles.

But put that checkbook away! There’s more! Scores of textbooks now come bundled with some kind of online component and/or stupid code that the student usually can’t opt out of buying. The code can’t be reused or transferred, so you can’t sell your book to someone in the same class next semester. It’s sinister but brilliant.

Partly for the benefit of my students, mainly as a personal “fuck you” to the textbook publishers, I found ways around the system. Well before the rise of the information super parking lot, I’d only use the literature that had not changed from the one edition to the next. Students could use any edition of the book and pick up old ones from students who’d had the class any number of semesters before. I’d also put a few of my own anthologies on reserve in the library.

It wasn’t long before I was able to abandon literature anthologies altogether. As I said, every poem and short story I use is available online for free. As for the plays, they’re just as easy to find online as PDFs, but a bit of trial to read onscreen.  However, I can run out right now and pick up a used copy of Hamlet for two bucks, tops. Beats the hell out of the $100 or so that students would be plunking down for relatively useless anthology.

Right now, textbook publishing is more or less locked up by The Big Five: Pearson, Scholastic, McGraw-Hill, Cengage, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. There used to be more. Harcourt Brace was its own thing. So were Simon & Schuster, St. Martin’s, Macmillan, Gale, all of which have been scooped up by one of The Big Five. According to Statista, 2020 textbook publishing revenue came in at 7.85 billion. That’s down from last year’s 8.39 billion.

The fact is, revenue has been falling steadily since 11.97 billion in 2015. I would imagine they’re getting what Hunter Thompson called The Fear. But it won’t change anything. As is so often the case, it’s a numbers game with a simple solution. As faculty, we have untapped power we never use.

If we want to force textbook publishing’s hand, all we have to do is refuse to use books until prices come down. Barnes & Noble, who has a goodly chunk of the college bookstore market fairly well cornered, would shit themselves. So would any of the universities that still run and profit from bookstores of their own. All these thugs would be clamoring for the textbook publishers to fall in line. There would be great weeping and gnashing of teeth.

It won’t happen, but hey I can dream.