When did textbooks become disposable?

There are of course many divergences of current college students from GG’s time, but some continue to surprise a little.  One such is that it seems nearly all college students don’t keep their textbooks.

We aren’t talking about the texts from breadth requirement courses (though GG kept his texts from those too), we are talking about the textbooks used in upper division major courses. One might think that these could prove helpful references in professional life, but  many students sell their texts back to the bookstore.  The odd thing is that many students want a textbook when taking a class (GG had dropped requiring a text in a 1000-level class years ago and students kept asking for a text, so he listed readings to go with the web materials provided). Publishers have noticed and now offer “rental” versions of e-book versions of texts that self-destruct after the course is over; similarly, campus bookstores are now aggressively seeking and marketing used books (and harassing faculty to let them know of future text requirements so they can try to only repurchase the texts that they might need).

This has to be more than simple economics–yes, books can be expensive, but they are still a fraction of the cost of the course and can still provide education long after the course is completed. Is this a case of penny-wise and pound-foolish?  Or is it some feeling among modern students that the internet will always have what they need? Or that a textbook will go out of date in short order?

As a textbook coauthor (well, GG wrote software), GG is curious.  Declining sales of texts will mean there will be fewer texts going forward and they will cost more, which presumably will result in fewer sales (the textbook death spiral).

Students often wonder about the cost of textbooks (well, so do authors and professors, to be honest). In some ways this parallels the arguments over the value of academic journal publishers. Texts usually are reviewed (first as a proposal, again when nearly completed); they have copy editors and graphic designers to try and make the book pleasant to read.  And the potential financial reward for some flavors of text (mainly the intro texts–upper division geology texts are not huge money makers) encourages authors to work to make material more accessible and better illustrated than their own course notes. So there is real value added, though there is a question of that value versus the cost.

Maybe it is just that modern students are wiser.  Of the texts GG has saved, probably half have never been reopened and most of the rest just a couple more times. But there are a few that are now falling apart from repeated use.  Maybe modern students aren’t simply cheap, maybe they are better about divining which are those go-to books.


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