One in the eye for Big Textbook?

Well, back to teaching issues. Textbooks. I know the following is illegal, but I will admit to being hopeful that this will supply a much needed kick in the rear end for the “textbook industry”. (The very term makes me a bit ill sometimes.) In teaching the big courses at freshman or sophomore level to classes that have a couple of hundred students (broken into sections – we don’t like super huge classes here at USC) enrolled, it is hard not to notice that there’s something slightly insidious about aspects of the textbook game. Despite the fact that we are teaching subjects (Newtonian physics, thermodynamics and a brief bit of “modern physics” that is mostly from no later than 1905) at levels that have not significantly changed for over a century (in some parts, several centuries), the Industry (shall we call it “Big Textbook”?) keeps finding new excuses to come up with new editions. These editions get more and more expensive, and heavier and heavier to carry around. I don’t know why this is necessary, except to force new students to buy the books all over again.

Additionally, the new hook is to combine the book with an access code for further online resources (such as animations, homework sites, and so on) that you cannot get to if you buy a used copy of the book. (You can buy the online ID for a princely sum if you already have a used copy… but it is last year’s edition – all acceleration vectors in diagrams are now in gold, not red!) It does not seem entirely right to me, this business. Should we really be burdening our students in this way? I have several of the textbooks I used as an undergraduate. I bought at least half of them from used bookstores in London at the time I was an undergraduate, and they are still useful now. That basic science has just not changed. Regular changes to textbooks will not improve how much our students learn science.

This is all a bit like the complaints about certain practices of the music industry in its packaging and marketing of music. The solution (not one I completely agree with since it hurts the artists so much) that the typical individual arrives at is to go for bootleg copies. Enter the file-swapping sites. Discuss. Anyway, the upshot of all this babble is that there’s a big file-swapping site for textbooks now, apparently. I heard this on NPR last week. You can get downloads of entire textbooks, saving yourself $100s. Is this is a good or bad thing? I don’t know. What is the analogue of “the artists” here. The textbook writers? Newton and others who are (to continue the analogy) the artists being “sampled” by the textbook writers? How happy about this would I be if my own book, D-branes, (lots of “sampling” in there, to be sure) was being bandied about the web like this, denying me the annual haul of millions of dollars to which I’ve become accustomed? (Oh, wait…decimal place way too far over to the right…) My feeling is that something about the textbook industry is broken, and maybe something like this is needed to kick them into rethinking exactly where is located the tradeoff point between education and making an easy buck. It isn’t really about popular level books or highly technical books like mine (although I argued a lot with my publisher to lower the price of mine for graduate students to have access), but rather the mass-market textbooks the undergraduates are forced to buy by the system (a system that we professors at the institutions essentially endorse by going along with adopting unnecessary new editions and so forth). What are your thoughts?

Strangely, when I went to NPR’s website to get the story and the link to the file-swapping site that they’d usually put…. no link to a story. It is as though it never existed. Did I just make it up, miss it, or did Big Textbook get to NPR? Put the link in the comments if you know about it. I’m curious to have a look.


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31 Responses to One in the eye for Big Textbook?

  1. Michael says:

    Whoo, textbooks. Don’t get me started. With that in mind, you might be interested in this.

    If you go to The Pirate Bay and search for “textbook” you come up with 154 hits, many of which are rather impressive archives of technical books. Lots of them are medical ones, which probably isn’t surprising when you consider the price of most medical textbooks.

    I don’t even need to torrent most textbooks. My university library has a subsciption to several ebook sites where I can download copies of several hundred technical books. I’m sure most major university libraries would have similar things.

  2. Yvette says:

    Ha… so I’m hosting David Griffiths as the colloquium speaker here at CWRU this week (was supposed to be last semester, but didn’t work it out until now) and one thing we’ve been arguing about is asking the beloved textbook author to sign our books. Not as much because we think he’d mind but because most students purchase the international editions, and we’re thinking that might be a little awkward.

    Really though, all I know is the intro class I’m helping out with this semester is using Purcell, a pretty standard intro text that’s been around for years, and it’s $240 in the bookstore. I think the worse of it is so few students even read the textbooks in the first place- they’re beautiful, but if it weren’t for the homework problems inside I doubt most intro texts would be cracked open. It’s a bit disturbing to be honest.

  3. Darek says:

    There’s which offers a pretty large number of physics texts (among many other fields) if you feel like sticking it to the man.

    Alternatively, why not tell your students to get a cheap, used copy of any textbook that covers the required material (you could recomend some good ones I’m sure), and make up your own homework sets to hand out.

  4. I was under the impression that professors are required to use the latest edition of the textbook (I don’t know who makes this supposed requirement… the university?) Of course, the content will be the same, but you usually can’t get away with the old edition from amazon or whatever because the exercises at the end of each chapter will be different.

    From my observations as a recent graduate, I think that most (lower division) physics students would be just as well served by getting one of those laminated sheets of physics equations that you can get in the bookstore for $5. Then the professor could distribute his own problem sets and even provide worked examples online. (Worked examples in the text are about the only other thing that most students look at other than the equations.)

    I know that creating these problem sets and worked examples would create a much larger workload for the professor, but maybe he could “sample” them from textbooks, or, if this is copyright infringement, then maybe from out-of-print textbooks? I had a few math courses in undergrad that worked this way, without the worked examples available online. I certainly think it’s doable.

    And students who really feel that they need a book could get an outdated edition from an online store for a much reduced price.

  5. Daniel de França MTd2 says:

    “If you go to The Pirate Bay and search for “textbook” you come up with 154 hits, many of which are rather impressive archives of technical books. Lots of them are medical ones, which probably isn’t surprising when you consider the price of most medical textbooks.”

    Pirate Bay is nice, but there is a better site for any kind of illegal download.


    just type

    “name of the book” “torrent” “download”

    better than pirate bay.

    If you have emule, you must turn on kadmilla network, so that your surch is more complete.

    If you find a torrent file with lots of books that you do not need, besides the one you want, just get this torrent client program:

    It is extremely light and fast. I guess it is the best of them all for me. When it opens, it will ask you which files inside the torrent pack you want to download. Check or uncheck the little boxes beside the file names.

    Given the decentralized nature of the torrent, if you scan a book, you can upload it without fear of being caught. You can mask your presence. It’s very effective. People that is caught usualy uses really old programs.

  6. I think textbooks are doomed. They just do not provide adequate value for the money any more.

    I just finished an MSc in Computer Science. Wikipedia’s treatment of algorithms were far, FAR better than my two algorithms books. There were more algorithms than in my texts (e.g. skip lists), and the explanations were usually easier to understand and had links to further information.

    Now, I presume that the algorithms treatments are probably better than what the average class might want: CS geeks are *probably* overrepresented among Wikipedia authors, and algorithms lends itself particularly well to bite-sized chunks of knowledge. However, it seems obvious to me that the rest of the academic canon will catch up.

    In addition to the fine resource that is Wikipedia, there are a number of other projects that aim to bring various cheap instructional materials to the masses: MIT’s Open Courseware project, Wikiversity, MyMCAT, OER Commons, etc.

    I believe that we will move to a model where faculty won’t give reading assignments from textbooks, but rather will say e.g., “You need to understand minimum spanning trees. At a minimum, you need to understand Prim’s algorithm and Kruskal’s algorithm for the exam.” (I also think that coming up with novel homework problems is going to be more difficult in the future, so I expect that graded homework will become less common.)

    I have more thoughts on the disintermediation of university-level education:

    NB: I am highly law-abiding, and pay for my intellectual property. I pay for my software, my textbooks, and even for my music. So I’m not just wishful thinking, hoping to get something for nothing.

  7. Jonathan says:

    I spent some time with a very large number of physics texts on my computer. I seemed to spend more time skimming them than actually sitting down to get through a single one in detail. It’s certainly very good for reference, but I think in the end I found (perhaps through lack of self-discipline) that it was more time consuming than it should have been.

    There is a large collection of physics books in a single bundle here:

    Similar collections of mathematics books are also rather easy to find.

    What would be very very useful for me would be to have a physics textbook put directly into wiki-like form, so that people could add their own comments and explanations where the author has been vague, or confusing, adding extra examples and ideas were necessary.

  8. HV says:

    Forget torrents or any other file-sharing software! Go to Google and type: “name of the book” AND rapidshare. You’ll find anything, even though it’s scattered around the web.

    Or if you want everything in one website, the place to go is ‘’. You’ll find a world there, bigger than you can imagine! You need to register to be able to see any downloadable links, though. But once you do, you can even find whole sets of some of the most relevant Elsevier journals for high energy physics! Or your book… And this is just in the ‘small’ Physics section. You have Math books, music books, cooking books, anything! You can find literally anything there, any subject! It’s great if you want to browse a book that Google Books doesn’t have, before buying it in Amazon. Or if you want to have a precious out-of-print book that would cost you one eyeball if you’d order it. Or if you’re simply just too lazy (or unable) to visit a library. 😉

    Another thing to know is that .PDF is not the dominant file extension in this underground world. .DJVU is the way to go!

  9. HV says:

    Forget torrents or any other file-sharing software! Go to Google and type: “name of the book” AND rapidshare. You’ll find anything, even though it’s scattered around the web.

    Or if you want everything in one website, the place to go is ‘’. You’ll find a world there, bigger than you can imagine! You need to register to be able to see any downloadable links, though. But once you do, you can even find whole sets of some of the most relevant Elsevier journals for high energy physics! Or your book… And this is just in the ‘small’ Physics section. You have Math books, music books, cooking books, anything! You can find literally anything there, any subject! It’s great if you want to browse a book that Google Books doesn’t have, before buying it in Amazon. Or if you want to have a precious out-of-print book that would cost you one eyeball if you’d order it. Or if you’re simply just too lazy (or unable) to visit a library. 😉

    Another thing to know is that .PDF is not the dominant file extension in this underground world. .DJVU is the way to go!

  10. David says:

    The textbook problem is partly related to point (3) of your previous article about lecture notes. If students have access to lecture notes that give all the important material for a course, then a textbook is unnecessary (for example, at my own university, there’s no requirement to buy a textbook for a course). Then textbooks would have more of a supplementary reading role, so that if a particular student doesn’t like one book, they can try another. Used in this manner, it matters little which edition of the book one has.

    Perhaps professors teaching courses should take the lead themselves, so that purchasing a particular textbook isn’t compulsory.

  11. Robert says:

    I don’t think providing links where copyrighted material can be downloaded illegally solves this problem. Rather the authors should in the first place refuse to give away their copyright to publishers which do not do not provide very much additional value in the editorial process. And returns to the author of a physics text book are not significant anyway if I am informed correctly (Clifford may want to share his experience here).

    Besides publishing a printed version (available for money) the authors should at least be allowed to share online copies. Warren Siegel has pioneered this direction (I for example had my printout of “Fields” bound into a proper book for very little money when it came out).

    On a different point, although I agree that the largest part of the undergrad curriculum is physics that is known for more then a century, people have learned a lot since in how to think about this material and how to present it. I think “modern” (that is without historical clutter) presentations especially of quantum mechanics and thermodynamics are still badly needed while some mechanics text books (for example the one by Scheck, probably only existent in a German version) have shown the way.

    I know many lecturers who prefer to use the textbooks in their classes that they used when they were students themselves but I think you should at least get an idea of more recent developments in the didactics of physics before you blindly recommend Landau/Lifshitz, Goldstein, Jackson, Davidov, Bjorken/Drell, Becker (a horrible German thermodynamics textbook from the fifties much more oldfashioned than the book by Sommerfeld which is even five years older).

  12. Jerry says:

    I’m a CS instructor teaching all class levels. My biggest gripe is over the textbooks for 100-level (non-major) classes. Over the years I’ve watched the publishing companies push their very glossy, lavishly illuminated texts aimed at getting this population to fork over $85 for a text that really doesn’t help them. These courses BTW are well-attended since they are a handy way to fill in some holes in their schedule, and they aren’t as difficult as 200 and up classes.

    A few years ago, I dropped using any of these texts. My course has a mix of helpful skills (how to use a spreadsheet), some conceptual (how is it that a computer do all this just by doing arithmetic), and some research on some fun topic and present their findings. None of these books properly (for this level) deal with these topics. But, every semester, I get bombarded with the next great text, calls and emails from the publishers, all pleading to adopt their great thing. I’m happy that I don’t help rip the students off.

    At the other end of the spectrum, I teach the capstone CS course. The course is modeled around building a large product that is so big it will take years to finish. Each semester there’s a new team, and they work on a specific component. Here there simply isn’t a text for what they’re doing. But here I do make them buy some books (not texts) that they should have in the professional library.

    One of the interesting aspects of CS is that it changes and grows every year. Basic programming may be taught for a few years with one language (with a zillion texts – some good but you have to look), and the next great language comes along and we need new texts. Some topics (eg algorithms) are good, and a few are particularly good and worth it. And Wikipedia IS an excellent source of other information.

    I’d have to say that, in my experience, there are some texts worth their money. But it’s up to us professors to find them.

  13. Jude says:

    We were taught in our library science classes that publishers charge a lot for textbooks because they’re required to keep older editions in print. I’ve always thought that was nonsensical. Students have always tried to get around the cost. In my case, I never purchased a textbook until I was certain I needed one. One of my favorite blogs, is published by a prof who also has his self-written geography textbook, The Physical Environment, available as a free ebook. “Does the library have such-and-such textbook?” is one of the most frequent questions at my online reference job. It’s such a common question that some libraries, such as UMUC’s, have added explanations of why libraries don’t ordinarily collect textbooks.

  14. Clifford says:

    Hi Robert,

    I don’t know how much the big textbook authors make. Their deals might be different from the technical book deals. The latter, you are right, don’t help you buy more than the odd extra G+T from time to time. Or maybe by the end of the year, perhaps ironically, a copy of someone else’s book.

    About the physics itself. I’ve seen lots of these textbooks through several editions. I’m talking mostly about the intro physics cycle, not the upper division stuff. I agree that it would be nice if better ways of presenting the 100+ year-old subject matter were incorporated, but if the truth be told, the improvements are marginal. These new editions and changes are largely stupid things like updating the pictures of cars and people, and, as I joked (but only half) above, changing the colour-coding in your diagrams for little reason, and things like that. Meanwhile, the stupid stuff said about entropy remains just as pervasive as ever. In fact, things often get worse since with all of the erosion done to the rest of the curriculum, they are finding ways to say things even more simply to poorly prepared students, resulting often in reduced clarity rather than improvements…


    As others have said, it would be really a good thing if professors and other instructors took the lead, perhaps with the backing of their institutions, and perhaps in concert with the authors. I find myself embarrassed at times about how much in bed we are with Big Textbook.



  15. DJ Strouse says:

    It’s a bit ironic that at the same time the internet is making information free and widely available, the textbook industry is trying harder than ever to raise prices for and restrict access to information. Frankly, I think they’re fighting an uphill battle and they cannot win. The 20-something of today, steeped in the culture of “open source”, will be the educators of tomorrow and will push for change.

    Already students have many, many options. Used books and international versions can be purchased on Amazon, eBay, Abes, and plenty of other sites. As others have also said here, there’s a wealth of free ebooks as well, including, which pushes professors to adopt online texts, and, a comprehensive list of free math texts. There are just two sources I’ve been using but plenty more can be found if you just Google around a bit.

  16. The ridiculous cost of textbooks is a serious problem in mathematics too. The solution in our field is just to use something from the Schaum’s Outlines series. These are amazingly good, and you just can’t beat the price! In spite of the high quality of these texts, I fear that few of my colleagues anywhere take advantage of their existence. I’m retired, so I no longer have any influence…

  17. theoreticalminimum says:

    Clifford, let me inform you that “D-Branes” is already freely available as a pdf file on the net.

  18. Clifford says:

    Does this mean I won’t be able to make the payments on the Tesla any more? Drat!


  19. Clifford says:

    Alternative responses:

    (1) Shhhhhhhh!!!
    (2) Time for a new must-have edition!!!


  20. Blake Stacey says:

    I think that in order to achieve actual institutional change, we have to be able to operate above the board. Suppose that you’re teaching AP Physics at a high school somewhere in the U.S. and A., and you go to the school board with a proposal: “We don’t need to spend money on physics books, because the students can download them all from a place called the Pirate Bay!” I doubt that would go over spectacularly well. We have wonderful distribution technology, but as long as the content flowing through those channels is illicit PDF and DJVU files, the people who decide which books will be required won’t embrace that technology. In the K-12 regime, the state will keep on buying books the old-fashioned way, and at the university level, we’ll see the same “required reading”.

    We need open textbooks, in the Open Access sense of the word: “free as in speech”, and as close as possible to “free as in beer”. Yes, sticking it to Big Textbook is fun — an extremely scholarly form of activism — but it should only be part of a total strategy.

  21. spyder says:

    Beginning last Spring i was tutoring a university junior who was in a Pre-Nursing program and struggling with the year-long class of Anatomy and Physiology. She was required to purchase the latest and hippest new textbook (all 1612 pages) which came with the above Clifford mentioned bells and whistles. I discovered two very interesting things.
    One, the book’s layout was identical to my own copy of a 1969 textbook for that course; literally down to the chapter headings and so forth, though filled with voluminously more information given all the recent advances in medical and biological sciences).
    Two, none of the student’s three professors knew how to use any of the incredibly vast online resources. It took me a month just to begin to decipher the usefulness of the links and supplementary materials and worksheets.

    Since i am retired, i can say it: the textbook industry is an enormous, environmentally-destructive, greedy scam.

  22. anonymous snowboarder says:

    I would suggest making your own HW assignments and then giving a list of recommended texts, regardless of edition. Point out the topics which any book they get must cover. Then let them buy whatever edition they want.

    Might I also point out that a number of professors are self-publishing on It seems mostly for early level courses, but they are able to put down the content they feel relevant and price it so that it is affordable (and maybe clear a buck or two too!).

  23. helvio says:

    I have an idea for the must-have edition of your ‘D-Branes’ book, which will make it virtually untouchable. Make a pop-up version of it! It will visually more attractive, very pedagogical (kindergarten kids could finally learn the nonperturbative aspects string theory, much earlier than usual) and uncopyable due to its three-dimensionality. But then again, pirates always have a way to go around these kind of problems, and I bet that in no time you could see a 3D CGI version of your book floating around in the web! 😉

  24. Rene Meyer says:

    I think providing own material for lectures and self-made problem sheets is a good idea. Actually most professors (or rather their assistants or TAs) at the universities i studied in germany were writing their own homework sheets. It was kind of a “question of honour” for them, maybe they took problems from textbooks, but I think they wanted to keep things consistent with the contents of the lecture. So – its doable!

  25. Clifford says:

    I think that’s all very nice and good – the business of lecture notes and problems – but there’s more to textbooks than that. I like that there’s a longer and broader narrative surrounding the material, in a good textbook. I loved being able to begin the process of reading *around* the subject matter, starting with the book. Later on you learn to go to other books, and now of course there is the web and so forth. But the book can and should still be a core source of such things, from which the student can then broaden out. It is nice to have a portable source of all the material, together with surrounding padding, in a good book, especially when you’re starting out as a student. I don’t think we should abolish such sources altogether and rely on notes and random wandering around the web. What I don’t like is the prices and and the unnecessary reprinting in new editions to trap students into buying them, etc. etc.



  26. Flat World Knowledge: an open-source textbook revolution?

    They are not going operational until January 2009 but they do have a website up with more details:

  27. Correction – Flat World Knowledge are not planning to be fully operational until Fall 2009:

    “Flat World is going through two rounds of private beta testing at the moment with 20 universities, using four of the company’s books. The platform that allows professors to edit the books goes live in mid-December, and Flat World will then double the beta pool to 40 universities in January.

    The system will come out of beta next summer and be ready for use during the Fall 2009 semester.”

  28. Blake Stacey says:

    The Creative Commons blog has a recent post entitled, “Back to School: Open Textbooks Gaining in Popularity“.

  29. Clifford says:

    Thanks, Tristram, Blake, and others… the links are useful to many, I’m sure.