Open Textbook Legislation Responses, Part 2

Stephen says, “My argument is that if you require a letter of suipport from publishers, then publishers will immediately turn this into a cartel, which would mean that prices would not drop at all. You do not address this line of reasoning at all.”

I’ll happily address it here, but Stephen’s comment also ignores my main point.

First, let me deal with the suggestion that price will not drop at all. A content-complete openly licensed version of the book online is all the price control that is needed. The existence of this version controls price by providing an alternate mechanism for accessing the content. If you really want a printed version, and you can purchase one for $25, you’ll purchase one. If you really want a printed version, but you can only buy one for $75, you’ll just print out all the pages at Kinko’s and put them in a three-ring binder. More than one person will create and distribute (legally) a PDF that makes printing for your three ring binder really easy, and no one will purchase the $75 version from the publisher. The same is true for an audio version, etc. So the existence of the free version provides price control all by itself. If the publisher wants to sell books, those books have to satisfy Wiley’s magic formula of open book sales:

(Purchase price) must be lower than (price to print your own + the hassle of preparing to print your own)

I’ve edited or written chapters for a number of books that were available in commercial print editions as well as in an openly licensed, content-complete online format. As a concrete example, print copies of my learning objects book sold like hotcakes because the price to purchase a printed copy satisfied the magic formula. If the publisher had priced the book higher, it simply wouldn’t have sold.

Now, I must ask Stephen to comment on my main point with regard to the necessity of publisher participation in open textbooks. I would estimate that – speaking of existing open textbooks that do not have the marketing support of a commercial publisher – there are more open textbooks in the world today than there are classes in which open textbooks have been adopted. Simply funding the creation of more textbooks will not lead to an increase in classroom adoptions; rather, it would perpetuate the current unsatisfactory state of affairs. So I would ask a question and pose a challenge.

Question: In the case of open textbooks, is there a more important metric for success than course adoptions?

Challenge: Propose a more effective method for achieving adoptions than involving organizations with adoption-specific expertise and providing them a market incentive.

Stephen asks, “You mean [you can work around these problems using legislative and RFP language] the way it has been in other legislation and RFP processes? Seriously, there is enough room for scepticism here to drive a truck through.”

Yes, I think you can – if you only release the grant money in portions as people meet milestones. Especially if you only fund authors in the first phase, and publishers don’t receive any funds until they meet their first milestone, which is posting a content-complete version of the textbook with all source files on a public server under an open license. There are probably other ways to accomplish this, but yes, I think we can.

Finally, Stephen says (and I’m snipping for space) “There is a whole line of my reasoning that you simply don’t get… it’s a perceptual issue, not an issue of reason or rationale… Go to a grocery store in the inner city and then go directly to the same brand grocery store in the suburbs. The inner city store is not only smaller and dirtier, it has fewer choices and they are more expensive. The suburban store is larger, nicer, and cheaper… If you haven’t _seen_ this, you can work yourself into a state of denial that this sort of structure can exist in an economy. Much less understand that it is absolutely _fundamental_ to the economy… Markets are based on *denying* *access*. It is easier to deny access to poor people, because they have no rights. If you are not even willing to SEE this, then you cannot engage in a discussion of how it is happening in the current case.”

I agree completely that this happens. I grew up in one of the poorest parts of the US, lived in the most rural parts of Japan, etc. Who can deny that this problem exists? Even worse than grocery stores is access to lines of credit. “Poor” people pay interest rates many times over again what “wealthy” people pay, for these same reasons you outline above.

My response to your comment was a question, which went unanswered – how are open textbooks supposed to deal with this very real problem that we agree exists? Should we ~not~ distribute the online versions for free, because only wealthy people can get online (supposedly)? Should we ~not~ distribute printed copies, because we will have to charge for them? Should we scrap the idea of open textbooks and the university courses that require them altogether? There must be an implied action behind your criticism. What are you suggesting we DO?

There have been a variety of creative proposals for solving the “access to credit for poor people” problem, like microlending. Rather than criticizing open textbooks because of larger systemic inequities, can we invent the “microlending” solution of the textbook world? And most importantly, does the kind of progress on open textbooks I’m suggesting need to wait for this other solution to be discovered? In other words, is it all or nothing?

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