Friday, August 19, 2005

Schoolin' Y'All

At work, we have a coffee pot in my department. Monied folks chip in to buy fair-trade coffee from the Harvest Co-Op and brew it to avoid the free coffee the company provides, along with the runs. Above this coffee pot we hang amusing tidbits. My contribution is a picture of a post-office driveway with the word "Entrance" misspelled in yellow paint. People hang articles of note there, and this week several articles about the rising costs of college textbooks have been posted.
I have mixed feelings on this. On one hand, it wasn't that long ago that I was in college and met the beginning of every semester with dread. Since I was a liberal arts student, my costs weren't nearly as high as kids who were in the sciences. The text of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" hasn't changed very much since Eliot wrote it. I mostly had to shell out money for a stack of novels, which are easy to find used. The few times I had to buy anthologies made my semester tab a little higher, but I enjoy them. Except for my African-American Literature class (the professor soured me on my Norton Anthology brick of writing) I kept them all, including the ones I bought that the publisher I work for now prints.
I admit, I did feel a little traitorous working for the industry that takes so much money from my cash-strapped peers and their debt-riddled parents when I started. I felt especially bad since I see very little of the money that the textbook industry allegedly swims in, a la Scrooge McDuck in his vault of money. Let me tell you-- my coworkers and I don't see this money. A few people around here make a large salary, but it's because they work their asses off and run the place. In these articles about textbook costs, people are interviewed saying that the companies are just out to make money. Yes, the rich executives of textbook publishing are hob-knobbing with the oil executives in Bermuda.
Books are expensive to make. Paper is expensive. Ink is expensive. The stages that a book goes through are long, arduous, and involve many people, some of them freelancers that get paid to design, copyedit, proofread, index, and set our books. My company used to work primarily in black and white titles, now we do many four-color books that are art-heavy to appeal to visual learners and the TV generation, which take more time and money to make. Our company tries to make the books less expensive by outsourcing the typesetting (an ugly issue I won't get into here) and by riding us hard to make the book as inexpensively as possible.
With my very limited knowledge of education (having friends who are teachers and administrators), the bundling of software and Web sites with titles may be wasteful. I guess somebody must be using these things, but no educator I talk to does. My high school teacher friend doesn't even use the questions at the end of selections in the student text, much less pull up a Web site to drill her students on the metaphors in The Scarlet Letter. I'm sure if the Whatever read this, he'd argue that special needs kids could use some of this technology to make their lives easier, but our technology is geared mostly toward supplementing the text, not adapting it to other formats.
I don't know much about the marketing of our books (if I may use the cliche "not my department"), but I think that we bundle things with our books because professors like to see all the options when they're considering adapting one of our titles. Whether or not they use them is one thing, but they like to know they have options, which cost money to produce. So, until professors say, "Hey, I just need a book with readings and text to match my curriculum without the bells and whistles," then textbooks are going to remain expensive.
I can't comment on the fields that change rapidly, such as math or science, because our publisher doesn't print those (thank God). I'm sure that our marketing people would argue that grammar is changing quickly, and does require frequent updates to keep student citing online sources correctly. All I can do is assure you that we're trying to keep the costs low while meeting the demands of the professors who ultimately decide whether or not to buy our textbooks.

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