NPF: NO, YOU NEED THE 7th EDITION

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 16th, 2009 by Ed

I am not exactly an old salt in the world of college teaching, but a scant half-decade has been more than enough to convince me that the textbook industry is in mortal combat with Three Card Monte dealers for the coveted title of the America's Biggest Scam. One often develops misconceptions about things when viewing them from afar but finds them quite different with first hand experience. Such is not the case here. It really is as much of a ripoff as you think it is.

My adviser co-authors a highly regarded textbook on political parties and she likes to tell me how when the project began a new edition was demanded every four years. By the late 1990s the updates became biannual. Now, as you might imagine, annual updates are on the agenda. What can one meaningfully update about a political parties textbook annually? Lots, as long as the term "meaningfully" can be disregarded. Otherwise not so much. Believe it or not, questions like "What is the role of political parties in our system?" and "Why is the American system dominated by two parties?" do not have new answers. So what does an annual or biannual update look like? Well, you change the anecdotes used as examples. Do a ctrl-f search to replace "Kerry" with "Obama." Add new pictures. Shoehorn in some dumbass sidebar about Jon Stewart (you know, really connect with the young'ns!) And of course, if nothing else, design a new cover.

You already knew this, of course, but the robustness of the second-hand textbook market (thanks, internet!) has increased pressure from publishers to obsolete each book as quickly as possible. But wait! There's more.

I have a valuable resource even though I am a nobody in this profession. We low men on the totem pole are the ones who teach the 350-student Intro to American Government courses, often required of all undergraduates. Intro textbooks are 80% of the textbook market in any field, and political science is no different. And at $95 a pop for new hardcovers the competition is intense. So are the textbook reps (salespeople, in essence). Publishers offer kickbacks – uh, "royalties" – to departments in exchange for adopting Intro texts, sometimes as much as $10 per copy. This never really affects the students, given that every one of the dozens of Intro books are exactly the same; how many ways can an interest group be explained? How many variations of the theme "Politics matters!" can they concoct? Fortunately my department(s) have not required me to adopt specific books. Which simply leaves the door open for the authors to lobby me.

Yes, the royalties on hardcover textbooks can be significant. $5/copy is not unheard of. That means that my 280 student Intro class is worth close to $1500 to an author. And in my graduate program, two of the five American politics professors wrote Intro textbooks. Thankfully their suggestions about adopting their books were gentle and non-binding. Nonetheless academia is full of people who are comfortable putting pressure on their graduate students and colleagues to adopt texts. More importantly, from my perspective it is nice to have one small piece of power, one decision I can make that constitutes a favor to people who are much higher up the ladder than me. "Hey, I adopted your book for my Intro class" is just about the only thing we who are the bottom of the barrel can say that translates to "This is a favor. Please return it at some point in the future."

Don't even get me started on "online portals." The less I say about that the better.

I understand that publishers need to make a buck and from my perspective I should be excited about potentially getting on this gravy train at some point in the future. I don't know why I can't shift my mindset from "Hey, this is a fucking crock" to "Woo hoo! Kickbacks!" If it ever happens I'll let you know.