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The university printing business


An experiment at Rice University to make scholarly research available to anyone with an Internet connection is trying to change the world of academic publishing.


“The costs of publishing are reduced by digital dissemination, but they are hardly eliminated,” said Charles Backus, director of the Texas A&M University Press, which produces as many as 70 books a year, including some available electronically.

Rice goes further: Every book may be read online for free; none are printed until an order is placed, with the payment covering the cost of printing and delivering the book. There is no sales staff, nor warehouses to hold unsold books.

“It’s unbelievable how expensive it is to produce and distribute these academic titles (in traditional press operations),” said Fred Moody, the sole employee at the Rice press and an evangelist for the digital future. “It’s a model for hemorrhaging cash.”

There is little disagreement about that.

Doesn’t seem like a propitious time for Rice to be investing in such a thing, but at least they’re doing it in a relatively low-cost way. My own alma mater revived their press a few years ago, via the more traditional means of a foundation grant. I wish Rice luck in its venture.

The future of textbooks

I figure the traditional textbook is eventually going to go away, but how and when it will be replaced is not yet clear.

The average college student spent $702 on books in 2006-07, according to the National Association of College Stores — a figure that has continued to grow and is speeding the transition to electronic textbooks and other digital class materials.

“At some point, we’re going to price ourselves out of the marketplace,” said Anthony Martin, director of the campus bookstore at Houston Baptist University. “Kids are going to figure out a way of getting through school without books at all.”

Relief has been sporadic, at best. Plans to exempt textbooks from the state sales tax fizzled in the Legislature this spring. But an increasing number of faculty members are paying attention to the price of the books they assign, and a few are using electronic textbooks — about half the price of a print book — or materials that can be downloaded free.

Rice University is one of the leading players in the latter movement, which has the potential to reshape the textbook industry.

“This is the generation that grew up with the Internet and TV,” said R.H. Richardson, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who will use an electronic textbook for the first time this fall. “I think the e-book will evolve far beyond its present state. You can stick in a video if you want to. I’m sure there will be video games built into a textbook some day.”

Thinking back to my experience in college, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I’d say that you could replace the bulk of the dead-tree books for the problem solving classes – calculus, linear algebra, differential equations – with computer-based training and texts pretty easily. Classes that are about doing proofs, maybe not. But taking derivatives, solving integrals, that sort of thing, I don’t see why it couldn’t be done on the computer. If a company like Reasoning Mind, which is delivering math curricula at the grade school level here in Houston among other places, can do it for grade schoolers, surely someone can do it for college kids.

Beyond that, it seems to me that a lot of the books I bought in college were plain old ordinary books, not textbooks. I see no reason why you couldn’t just get them on your Kindle or whatever digital-book device you have. At least that would create competition for the campus bookstore, and would make it easier to find and buy used copies, which would push prices down. Maybe you could rent them this way, instead of buying them – how many books from college do you still own after graduation? I have some math books, including a few from graduate school, and a couple of other random books, but it’s maybe ten percent of the total I bought over four years. I suspect some texts will still be delivered as plain old bound paper for years to come, but I see no reason why most of what is being bought now can’t be transformed into electronic format in the near future, if not already.

Electronic textbooks

This is interesting.

[State Rep. Dan] Branch won unanimous approval for HB 4294, which would require the Texas education commissioner to adopt a list of electronic textbooks and instructional materials from which schools could select electronic textbooks or instructional materials to purchase.

It’s time that school districts allow students to use computers to access more information electronically, Branch said. It also will save money.

According to the House Research Organization bill analysis, the bill would “give school districts the ability to purchase electronic books or other instructional materials that were vetted and less expensive, rather than being forced to buy textbooks that sit in a warehouse. Around the state, warehouses are filled with unused printed textbooks due to reluctance to issue textbooks to each student for fear they might lose or damage them. When each textbook costs on average between $50 and $75, it becomes clear that the state must be smarter about the use of state dollars.”

How often do schools really not give out textbooks because of fear they may get lost? I wouldn’t have thought that would be permissible – aren’t all students supposed to receive whatever materials they’re entitled to? Be that as it may, I think this bill is reasonable. If electronic textbooks make sense in certain situations and can save money, then they should be allowed. Who knows, maybe some day we’ll issue kids a Kindle or something like it and deliver all textbooks that way.

I had not heard of this bill before Saturday, and if it passed unanimously without me coming across any alarms from the education community and its supporters, I figure it must be okay, or at least innocuous. But not everyone feels that way.

Although no lawmakers protested, there is some opposition. Texas Insider Publisher Jim Cardle has asked his subscribers to call legislators. Cardle calls the bill, which has not yet cleared the Senate, “a blatant vendor bill that will allows computer companies, not textbook providers, to sell Texas low-end equipment that will become dated in two to four years.”

As you know, I don’t consider Cardle or Texas Insider to be a particularly credible source. I did receive the email Cardle sent out about this, which I’ve reproduced beneath the fold. I think he’s being overwrought, but you can judge for yourself.