DIY Enlightenment

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Even among book lovers, it's hard to find anyone who loves textbooks. There are plenty of reasons why not – they're dry, they remind us of school, they have no soul. I would guess, though, that one of the biggest complaints against textbooks is the kind of control that they exercise over us. Textbooks are coercive gauntlets of information that we're forced to pass through to get what we want (a passing grade, a job, the hell out of high school, etc), and this makes us resent them. So what happens, then, when technology makes it possible to build your own textbook? Can the new digital information regime, which promises to democratize information, make textbooks more responsive and less coercive – and will that be a good thing?

A little background: publishers like Pearson, W.W. Norton, and others have taken advantage of on-demand printing and e-readers to allow instructors and students to create their own textbooks. It's like a coursepack, only without the questionable copyright issues. It promises to eliminate waste, save students money, and most of all, help teachers give their students more of what they believe is relevant. There are even organizations like CK-12 and that use open content, which can save students on the order of 80% of their textbook costs. In short, DIY textbooks promise to let readers decide what information they need, rather than some textbook editor or author.

I see a number of problems with this model:

  • First, textbook content itself is still created by a limited set of authors. This is far less revolutionary than promoters of DIY textbooks would have us believe, since students are still forced to accept a given set of facts created by outside authorities. They're not creating their own knowledge, just getting a gauntlet remix. (Sounds like the name of a cocktail, doesn't it?)

  • Second, the people most likely to be compiling these supposedly more democratic textbooks are overworked teachers and college instructors, not students. It's a bit like extending the right to vote only to white, male property owners – it's democratic-ish, but not really.

  • Third, DIY textbooks make it easier to simply leave out inconvenient material like evolution. As long as textbooks are subject to political interference, any suggestion that teachers have control is chimerical.

  • Fourth, the benefits for authors are questionable. Granted, open content may help new writers break into the textbook market, since they can do so one chapter at a time rather than having to write a whole book. But even publishers' publicity doesn't convincingly guarantee authors' royalties. For example, Flat World Knowledge, an open content publisher, gives authors 20% royalties (over the 12-15% standard). But their textbooks run from free to $30, so how much does that total royalty check really amount to? And it's unclear what the royalty structure for study guides and other cross-sold merchandise is. 

Still the biggest issue, as I see it, is that more choice doesn't necessarily mean better choice. Amazon already shows nearly 12,000 results for Biology textbooks, and the numbers for History and other subjects are even higher. While it may look like DIY textbooks are a qualitatively new product, I suspect that adding yet another choice to the market will only make you that much more likely to blame yourself (and not the knowledge producers) for your buyer's remorse. Vive le consommateur.