Tyro Tracts

Pushy Textbook Publishers

Nate Kreuter writes about the frustration of receiving unsolicited review copies -- and the impact of marketing efforts on the curriculum.

May 14, 2012

I recently reached a breaking point with pushy textbook publishers -- one that I’m afraid may resonate for many readers.

Like instructors in many disciplines, I have plenty of textbooks to choose from when I am redesigning a course. Two-thirds of my teaching is usually at the first- or second-year level, and textbooks for introductory courses, such as the writing sections I so frequently teach, abound. Also like many other instructors, I have a general idea of what I want in an instructional text, and so the whole panoply of available textbooks isn’t really relevant to me (or my students); only a relatively small sliver of it is. Nonetheless, I constantly receive unsolicited examination copies of textbooks from publishers. They arrive in tightly packaged padded envelopes. They arrive in vastly oversized boxes, a lone volume staring up through some inflated plastic packaging. Sometimes so many arrive that the boxes are piled at my office door when I arrive at work — too much bulk for the mail room.

The textbooks I regularly receive, 100 percent unsolicited, carry retail prices between 20 and 80 dollars each. We all know how publishers cover the costs of distributing so many unsolicited texts. When the price of a text is calculated, the costs of sending out so many unsolicited copies, in hopes of selling many more texts to students if the book is adopted, are embedded into the book’s cost. The long and short of it is that students across the country are paying for the dead tomes that arrive in my (and your) mailbox each week. Students, who are a captive market once a text has been adopted by an instructor, cover the costs.

Recently, upon learning that my department’s writing program was considering adopting a new textbook for our first-year rhetoric and composition course, a sales representative from one publisher took up a self-motivated campaign to flood the writing faculty with unrequested textbooks. Time and again I passed by my usually empty mailbox to find it crammed with yet another boring, overpriced book, the sorts of textbooks that I would only assign in a course if my pedagogical goal were to have students eschew writing for the rest of their lives. And this time the shipments of unsolicited books were even accompanied by urgently worded e-mail messages from the publisher’s sales rep. The sales rep, as she communicated, had found just the text for our course, but shipped us four different ones.

When I arrived at my office door one morning, arms full of books and lunch and workout clothes, and found my path blocked by an unsolicited box of books, the sales rep found my breaking point. I replied with a sharply but politely worded cease-and-desist message, making as clear as possible that I would disqualify unsolicited texts from consideration for adoption in our program because of my concern.

There are probably 50 pounds of never-requested and never-to-be-used textbooks in my office. I’d prefer 50 pounds of just about anything else. Fifty pounds of in-the-shell roasted peanuts to eat in my office; 50 pounds of water balloons to rain down on the heads of students who smoke under my frequently open office window.

Perhaps one day I will give an ambitious writing student majoring in the sciences, or at least with a serious statistics background, a writing assignment related to all of the, literally, deadwood textbooks in my office. The prompt, which will require much research, will read: “Calculate the weight of unwanted textbooks in my office. Then, based on your knowledge of the paper production process and the energy costs of manufacturing and distributing books, calculate the annual environmental impact of the books in terms of carbon-dioxide emissions. Then, using current market prices and generating accurate statistics for how many pounds of unsolicited textbooks are distributed to higher education faculty annually, calculate the annual economic costs of unsolicited exam textbooks that are passed on to students. Explain how you arrived at your findings and write them up in a comprehensive report.” A writing instructor can dream, right?

The irony of my recent run-in with overzealous textbook publishing reps is that the faculty in my program didn’t even really want to adopt a new text. But, because the publisher of our current choice has released a new, entirely unnecessary "revision" of the text we were using, students would no longer be able to order the text that had been required for our writing courses. So, our program, because of the publisher’s fiat, must examine new textbooks. Then we must adopt one. After which instructors across our department will have to reinvent their syllabuses. Publishers of textbooks are leading instruction by the nose. Rather than curriculums dictating what is available in textbooks, publishers — in order to sell new texts — revise texts with unnecessary frequency, and at least indirectly drive curriculums.

The textbook publishing game is crooked at nearly every angle. In recent years there has been political pressure to investigate the exorbitant costs of textbooks, but not much came of several state legislatures’ inquiries.

In my own discipline, even though overpriced for what students get, textbooks are relatively inexpensive. I can only imagine how inundated instructors teaching, say, an introductory science course become when publishers learn that their programs are considering the adoption of new texts. Science textbooks frequently run over a hundred dollars. And these are introductory texts, not advanced, highly specialized law or medical texts.

Maybe receiving unsolicited textbooks sounds like a petty complaint.  But it’s not petty when we begin to consider the scale. My experience is not exceptional. How many unsolicited textbooks have you received this semester? How many did you even open? Isn’t there a more efficient, less economically and environmentally wasteful means of informing instructors about their textbook options?

One friend of mine has found the most eloquently subversive method imaginable for working around the unsolicited textbook problem. First, he simply saved all of the unsolicited writing textbooks sent to him by publishers, a motley assortment of a year’s worth of bulky, repetitive, overpriced texts (maybe a solution for the 50 pounds of books in my office?). When his writing class convened, he distributed one of each textbook to his students. Students were not required to buy another textbook (student cost problem solved). Then, rather than assigning readings in a common text, as instructors would in most courses, he assigned reading topics. Students dove into their own individual texts to read about the assigned topic. In subsequent class discussions, students “crowdsourced” the topics, comparing the different ways that their different texts had handled (or excluded) each assigned topic. Unfortunately, my friend’s solution, clever and effective as it was, isn’t practical on a large scale, and isn’t as pedagogically sound in other disciplines. But his work-around hints at the problem: the marketing strategies of textbook publishers contain unsustainable costs, costs that are passed on to our students.

I realize that textbook publishers need to share information about new texts with instructors, but there must be a less wasteful way. I know also that many of us would like to review texts for adoption, but texts that we select, rather than the random assortments that we don’t solicit but that are shipped to us nonetheless. Surely publishers can figure out a more efficient  system for instructors to examine texts, by providing access to password protected digital copies, or digital catalogs from which instructors can choose texts to examine. There must be a system less wasteful of instructors’ time, the world’s resources, and students’ money.



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