Saturday, October 10, 2015

If The Textbooks Are Free, Who Pays The Writers?

College costs continue to climb year after year, and politicians continue to offer legislative solutions to the problem. Either those bills are never passed, or the new laws don't help, because there is no end in sight to the rise in tuition and associated expenses.

Senator Dick Durbin has come up with a plan that he must think is a genuine solution. On its face, it is brilliant. Why not cut one aspect of the out-of-control issue and make the textbooks free?

Those evil, greedy publishers are charging hundreds of dollars per book, and why should they get away with it? Why not give the various colleges and universities a grant that they can then use to create educational materials that can be distributed at no cost to the students whose families struggle to meet the fees?

So, does the grant money go to the freelancers who will write that material?

Or will it be spent on office staff and IT people with a chunk going to the professor who has to put the thing together?
Freelance writer after passage of The Affordable College Textbook Act

It costs a lot to create a textbook. There isn't enough money to go around because Congress is not going to write a blank check, so who is going to end up with the short straw when it's time to compensate those who put time and effort into making that textbook.

Publishers will, of course, get as much as they can out of educational materials. Then it's up to the sales force to promote those books and make college professors believe that their product is the best and you'd be a fool to consider a competitor's tome on English Literature or Calculus. It's competition that keeps prices in check, not an act of Congress, but competition depends on those who do the selecting. Often the person teaching the course had a hand in writing the text, so they have an added incentive to pick Publisher A over Publisher B. The student then has to pay because they can't pass a class without reading the textbook that has all that material that is going to be on the final that counts towards 75% of your final grade.

A professor might find some particular book meets all criteria for material to be covered. They won't think about how much the book will cost because they are concerned with teaching and learning. Let some other publisher come up with something just as good at a lower price, and then push that lower price as a benefit for the students, and the course material would come down a notch.

But not all that much. It's a very limited market and there are few publishers printing textbooks. So what can be done?

Bring textbook creation in-house and the professors will have to make their own books, which they won't take kindly to. They could hire the freelancers, but a teacher of philosophy isn't going to know who to hire, or what qualities are important, or anything else about a foreign industry. Isn't that why God created publishers?

So who picks the freelancers? The universities?

Instead of literary journals, the MFAs could learn how to write and edit textbooks, which would go a long way to tackling two thorny issues. Literary journals are expensive to produce and don't sell, so forget that literary nonsense and turn the graduate students into freelance writers whose course credits would require them to write all the chemistry and biology texts.

Now the university is looking at some real cost savings.

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