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“Netflix for Books"

Concerns on a new model for sale of textbooks.


August 19, 2018

A major textbook publisher has announced an all-you-can-eat subscription version of textbook purchasing. A student pays a set rate per semester, and has unlimited access to new copies of the latest books provided by that publisher. It’s being touted as a major money-saver for students, and in some cases, it probably is.

That said, I have major misgivings.

The most basic is that the “Netflix” analogy is misleading. Netflix carries movies and shows from many different studios.  But this publisher only carries what it publishes. It would be as if Netflix only carried content provided by Fox Studios. Fox produces a lot of stuff, some of it (probably) quite good, but it’s only one producer. If something you wanted was produced by somebody else, well, too bad. For that, you’d have to go outside of the subscription and pay extra, without any sort of deduction from the subscription price.

If the subscription covered everything in print, I’d be more open to it. But if it applies only to one publisher, no matter who that publisher is, I have a problem with it. 

To carry the television comparison farther, we’ve seen what happens when a single cable provider has a local monopoly. Its prices rise, and rise, and rise. The providers are very good at offering low introductory rates, but then jacking them up dramatically after the initial contract ends. When I moved a few years ago from a place with one cable-internet-phone provider to a place that had two, my monthly bill dropped by a hundred dollars, even as the service improved. A little competition goes a long way. Give a single publisher carte blanche, and after a brief period of good behavior, I’d expect to see a similar cost curve kick in.

And then there’s the implied pressure on faculty to maximize the value of the subscription by favoring one publisher. If my class uses books in the agreement, then the marginal cost to students for books for my class is zero; if I use other books, then my students have to pay the full cost of the subscription plus the a la carte cost of my books.  That creates a strong incentive to stick with the subscription.

“But wait!” I hear you thinking. (Hearing people thinking is a rare skill.)  “Aren’t you a proponent of OER? Isn’t that basically the same thing?”

It isn’t.  OER comes from a host of providers, and in a bunch of forms. It isn’t limited to what one publisher wants to offer. Faculty can mix and match OER to get exactly what they want, drawing on as many sources as they like. With the subscription, they’re held to whatever the publisher sees fit to provide. Also, with OER, we aren’t asking part-time students to pay a full subscription fee.

None of this is meant to cast aspersions on the quality of what that publisher offers.  It’s a major one, and some of its stuff stands on its own. In some tightly-prescribed cohort programs, like nursing, the “Netflix” model may even make sense.  But on a collegewide level, I’m deeply skeptical. I’ve been burned by cable companies enough times to be wary.

Wise and worldly readers, is my assessment fair? Or is there an upside to the “Netflix for books” model that I haven’t noticed?


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