Burden of 'buy the book'

The Baltimore Sun

Need a last-minute book as a Christmas present for a thoughtful friend? Have a teenager who might be inspired by the imaginations and insights found in good writing? If so, you can forget about gift-wrapping a college textbook.

Textbooks are unwieldy. They are often uninspiring, regardless of the initial enthusiasm that sparked their publication. And they are expensive - easily outpacing the lavish coffee-table productions featured in most bookstores.

Every year, the outcry over the rising cost of textbooks is heard anew. Though tuitions and faculty salaries are also increasing, more controversy is stirred over the cost of books that hold little appeal to the average reader. Worse, for the students required to buy them, a textbook often seems less a treasured memento of a sound education than a burden to unload once the final exam is over.

Now Maryland officials are promising to address this problem. Recently, university chancellors as well as faculty representatives have been issuing orders and conducting meetings aimed at alleviating the high costs of textbooks. Curiously, part of the problem, according to an assistant dean at Morgan State, is that most faculty are either unaware or indifferent to the prices of their required readings.

Numerous proposals are bandied about, often hinging on more and better use of the Internet (as if students are not already more techno-savvy than administrators and faculty) and the voluntary vigilance of faculty (a recalcitrant lot). Neither option will do the trick.

Textbooks are a formidable industry. When all goes well, the consumers are satisfied and the text's producers gain steady and occasionally sizable profits. But a textbook is expensive to produce, taking considerable time and energy from a variety of specialists. Professors are paid for their comments on the prospectus or early draft. Copy editors are hired to scrutinize the material. Designers are employed to enhance the format of the cover and chapters. And permissions run a high tab.

Used textbooks, another formidable industry, present a special problem. They offer college stores relief from the headache of finding storage for returns. Although the industry's practice of buying nearly any book seems commendable, the prices paid are ridiculously low. So effective is this market that if a new textbook does not make a profit within two years, it is virtually dead.

Several fixes might be considered.

One is to drastically lower the original price, adding a small but fair transfer fee each time the textbook is resold. This fee could reimburse the authors and publishers.

Second, instead of entire new editions, publishers could provide updated, inexpensive manuals. For example: The basic principles of introductory logic - deductive and inductive reasoning - have not changed much in the last century. Yet the logic text I use is in its ninth edition. To incorporate recent foibles of illogic committed by politicians, advertisers and commentators, a modest 30- to 40-page paperback would suffice.

A third idea is to turn hefty and cumbersome textbooks into shorter, multivolume sets. This could allow professors flexibility in selecting one feature of a text without expecting students to buy the entire product. The introductory ethics anthology I published contained 88 selections. To fit them within 500 pages, the print was small and the margins crowded. To assign all the readings in a single semester would be impossible, if not cruel. Were the readings separated into three smaller volumes, faculty and students could have greater say in whether they wanted to focus on the historical thinkers, current disputes or literary figures with philosophical insights. And the price would be lower.

In any event, publishers and professors should rethink the role of textbooks. With some effort and imagination, lucid and thoughtful textbooks could be available to audiences outside the classroom. They could even make good presents, some future Christmas.

Alexander E. Hooke is a professor of philosophy/interdisciplinary studies at Stevenson University. His e-mail is ahooke@stevenson.edu.

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