“I ♥ Amazon.com” and the challenge to publishers

This year, my school has about thirty Xth graders. We have textbooks as part of the school inventory, but we’re up about ten kids over last year’s grade that used this particular history book. And because of the ongoing financial mess in the country, we don’t really have the budget to buy new books, even ten, at a cost of around $30 a book… certainly not this early in the year.

Enter me.

I’m hardly the biggest fan of textbooks, but it’s infuriating to have a class resource and no ability to use it. So I enquired how much money I could spend on books, and then I enquired on Amazon.com about what they would cost used.

$85.46, including shipping and handling, from six different used bookstore vendors. Now we have the right number of books for the right number of kids, for less than a third what the books would have cost new.

A huge school district couldn’t have done this: they wouldn’t have had the budgetary authority to buy the books this way. There wouldn’t have been enough used copies, all of them under $5 apiece, to acquire enough. And the books themselves, filled with highlighting and marginal notes, might not be acceptable to some school districts, some parents, or some students.

But it was nimble, it was web-based, and it was cheap. And given that the sixth graders are going to be doing a lot of writing around the textbook, using primary sources, I imagine that by the time these books get worn out… I’m not going to need to buy textbooks any more.

It does point up a problem for textbook companies, though. I can totally run circles around their business model by accessing the market directly. Their physical, paper-and-ink books are resalable. In an internet-based world, they’re a highly fungible commodity but not particularly valuable. On more than half of the books I bought, the shipping & handling was more than the book itself.

Which means that new paper textbooks aren’t worth as much as we’re told they are. And the digital ones are worth even less: how do you build a business model around providing digital resources at less than $3 a copy? Because that’s what these paper textbooks cost used through amazon.com… and there’s no reason to pay $40 apiece for new ones with “access to digital materials!” when I can get those self-same digital materials for free from the web.

The textbook industry is going to start getting pwned by its own used book market. And that suggests that we, as teachers, have to be thinking about our content delivery tools a lot more carefully.

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