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The Pirates are Coming for Your Textbooks

Not too long ago I’m pretty sure I skimmed an article arguing that college libraries should start buying more textbooks, which isn’t something they normally do much of. I wish I could remember the details, because it was probably well meaning and had the needs of students foremost.

It was also probably deluded, because the college textbook market is a desperate racket, with inflated prices and frequent minor changes of edition to offset the fact that the information in them rarely changes and students are happy to rely on used books.

The only people happy with the market for textbooks are textbook publishers and the small number of professors who sometimes profit handsomely from a textbook that sells well.

Only it turns out that the textbook publishers might not be that happy either. Obviously they’re displeased that the demand for their wares is static and low, hence the frequent “updated” editions.

And now, according to this article, they’re worried about piracy, because apparently boatloads of scurvy scofflaws have sailed up to them and stolen their booty with the force of arms. That’s what one gets for trawling slowly off the Somali coast.

No, wait. It’s not piracy, but only counterfeiting.

According to one publishing CEO, “The more we started to dig in and do test purchases, the more we came across, in some cases, a staggering number of counterfeits in certain marketplaces.”

Counterfeit goods are often the result of inherently cheap goods that are expensively priced because of an attached brand combined with pretentious fools who want to impress other fools with their discerning choice to pay, for example, $2000 for a bag that costs $10 to make, only they can afford to pay only $50.

On the other hand, if you eliminated foolish economic choices the global economy would soon collapse, and we can’t have that. Otherwise I might eventually have to write this blog using a laptop that costs ⅙ of the price of this one but isn’t nearly as pretty.

So how are publishers going to fight this counterfeiting? After all, a counterfeit textbook is just like a regular textbook if the content is identical.

They’re going to certify their copies, that’s how. Here’s my nominee for the most unintentionally hilarious statement about textbooks I’ve read today, or perhaps any day:

Cengage’s certification seal (see thumbnail) will appear on the cover of all of Cengage’s print books. Scanning the seal’s QR code sends readers to an authentication website where, by matching the design of the book in their hands to Cengage’s catalog, they can confirm that the book is legitimate. If the design doesn’t match, readers can report the counterfeit.

The addition of a QR code itself is slightly humorous, since this isn’t 2012, but the really funny part is believing that any readers will 1) care whether the book is counterfeit, 2) bother to go to a website to match the design to a catalog, and, finally, 3) report the counterfeit.

I’ve tried to imagine such a world, but I’ve never been much for science fiction. The only scenario in which any of that makes sense is if all the readers are also employees of textbook publishers.

However, the target audience for college textbooks is, unsurprisingly, college students, and if there’s one thing that college students will avoid whenever possible is paying more money for anything than they have to. They’re already paying for their likely overpriced higher education experience, and that’s enough for them.

These are students who want libraries to purchase all their textbooks so they don’t have to, who avoid buying textbooks they don’t absolutely need, and who try to rent or buy used books because of the high cost. 

This is about economics, and economics is about incentives. Textbooks publishers act like monopolies, and monopolies can price items higher than an otherwise competitive market would allow.

That’s where the counterfeits come in. They eliminate the monopoly power of the textbook publishers, in this case quite illegally.

But that illegality doesn’t matter to the students. The high prices create incentives to bypass the legal market, and it’s only going to get worse if publishers go “all digital” the way they plan to. There’s probably already a Napster for etextbooks.

What incentives do the students have to certify their books? Since they’re already happy to buy counterfeit textbooks, why would they care if they’re “certified”?

The same CEO “said that in addition to hurting the company, which is unable to invest the revenue into the development of digital course materials, piracy also hurts authors, who don’t earn royalties from sales of counterfeit books, and students, who are unable to access digital supplementary materials that are normally bundled with print books and accessed using a unique code.”

He left out one of the parties harmed by counterfeits: governments who don’t get the tax revenue from the higher priced books, but who cares about them, right?

But how does this incentivize students to respect the intellectual property of textbook publishers?

If they publishers can’t invest in digital course materials, that just means they can’t have another revenue stream that legally prevents students from purchasing used books.

The authors of textbooks are almost all professors, and they’re already being paid, partly by the students who are paying tuition. “Harming” those authors from the students’ perspective just means the students aren’t paying them twice.

And if the students are willing to forgo the “digital supplementary materials” for cheaper prices, then those supplementary materials are, by definition, priced at more than the market can bear.

Unlike a purse or a pair of designer jeans, college students need to purchase textbooks, and if they’re the rational actors that classical economists base their theories on, the students will choose the option that gives them what they need at the lowest cost.

That’s why libraries shouldn’t buy textbooks for students, because if they did that’s all they’d spend their money on given the monopoly prices and inelastic demand.

That’s economics. I learned about it in a textbook. I don’t know if the textbook was counterfeit or not, but the information was the same regardless.



  1. Laura Staley says:

    Our student government has started buying one or two copies of textbooks for our higher-enrollment classes and putting them on Reserve in the library. (They get their money from a small student fee.) This costs them a lot of money. I’m hoping that this is going to encourage them to put some effort into encouraging the development of Open Educational Resources – either through funding or lobbying the legislature. As you point out, the economics behind this are crazy, and not sustainable.

    • Courtney says:

      At the college I used to work for, it was a similar model, but many professors were indeed turning to OER materials – even going so far as to develop some themselves. For the courses that had already adopted OER, the students loved it. It seemed they felt the quality was still good and naturally, the price point was a godsend. So, I am hoping this gains steam as well.

  2. I remember those days. And I’m planning on getting back in to them. Even though I have more money now than I did in college, I am still going to go the cheapest route to get my textbooks. I had to go without in a few courses. And borrow friends’ in others. I think it’s just ridiculous to charge say… $200 for a Spanish textbook just to get the code for an online quiz site. The textbook was well used and worth it, but if I hadn’t had to have that code, I could have gotten a much cheaper one at less than half the price. The only way I got that textbook was because a church member wrote me a check. And I was so grateful for that. But the point is, I think many students are going to go the pirate route. To quote a famous meme: The price on these textbooks, is too darn high!

  3. Usually I have issues with illegal copies of books (I’m a writer), but with a 16 year old heading off to college in two-three years, this is a no-brainer in saving gobs of money that can be better spent elsewhere.

  4. This is why we encourage faculty to put copies of the textbook for their class on Reserve if they have a copy they can spare. We also encourage them to check our ebook collection for suitable books, and we are making a push to promote open-source textbooks. The expense for items that will be used for only one semester is insane. Unfortunately, there are some faculty who insist students purchase the textbooks specifically for the “supplemental” online material — because it often includes tests, powerpoints, and other stuff that means the professor has to do less work. They don’t have to create their own materials if they can make the publisher’s stuff play nicely with our learning management system.

  5. Being the author of a widely used textbook that is not expensive, the biggest problem for me is not counterfeits but those multiple free download sites that can only be taken down with copyright notices from the hapless textbook author (like trying to dry up a river with a spoon). Not all of us who create textbooks are greedy. We write and we get paid something for each book purchased, but the returns are certainly not high. Piracy, for me, is simply theft. The answer is not to make light of piracy but to price textbooks cheaply so that everyone benefits. Even then, pirates will be pirates.

  6. A will comment on one point; “It was also probably deluded, because the college textbook market is a desperate racket, with inflated prices and frequent minor changes of edition to offset the fact that the information in them rarely changes and students are happy to rely on used books.”. I hate this with passion.

  7. M Reade says:

    I worked at the textbook publisher mentioned in this post for 13 years. Pretty much everything in this post is spot on. The only thing I’ll add is that the only thing keeping the Big 3 publishers from bankruptcy court (which would be a second trip for Cengage) is lazy professors who would rather have their Pearson/McGraw Hill/Cengage sales rep select their course content for them. Quality OER content is out there and professors just need to start looking for what they can pull together to replace their overpriced and underused textbooks.

    I can tell you that from inside that it is sheer panic inside these publishing companies, and the sudden trend to fight piracy is a knee-jerk reaction to plummeting revenues. Digital solutions didn’t take like they thought it would, and now they are all scrambling. They’ve had it coming for years.

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