Textbooks and the fight to “fix the broken textbook industry”.

There is a bit of a struggle for attention in the fight to fix the broken textbook industry. I watched a Shark Tank episode where Mark Cuban was pitched a lower valuation offer to which Cuban readily said “deal” and stretched out his hand. When I watched that episode, the sharks looked stunned so when I visited Reddit recently, I was surprised to see PackBack riding the marketing wave of derpitude, and granted, I’d probably derp as well if Mark Cuban decided my company was valuable enough to invest $200,000 in and at a $1M valuation.

So, like I said, that company was on Reddit and did an AMA, Packback Books, allows people to rent books at somewhere around $5/use, and to me, that’s just a horrible model since it encourages students to rank the economics of opening a book for studying. Their argument seems to be that students don’t open their books. The only way that happens is if the professor hands out everything, there is no studying being done outside of those handouts, and the student isn’t interested in anything other than the minimum performance to get through the years leading to a degree. For a book that costs $150, it means the student would need to open the book less than 30 days or less in a semester to make fiscal sense. You see, Packback rents the book by the day. I have a better solution, one that exists now, but simply and inexplicably hasn’t been done with any real force. It is shocking, unless you account for something wacky like the information is invalid, or conspiracy to keep the status quo in the 21st century. OH, I went off the track. We’ll come back to this.

So, Packback says that 78% of students open their textbooks once a week and 50% don’t open a book. Astonishing, so how much knowledge is truly being transferred? Their claim that textbooks increase in value because authors don’t get a part of the resale market is one that I’ll have to look into, but at first blush, I find dubious. I think the real reason is that publishers have a captured market, students, and curricula, are locked into which book is allowed based on the system. The whole value chain spins around selling hundreds to thousands of books each semester and B&N have contracts to sell those books and resell those books through buy-back programs.

During my MBA program, I purchased a book for $5 MORE than its sale to the previous owner. Why do I know that? Because the receipt from the previous semester was still in the book. I spoke to people who sold their book back to the bookstore and they got less than 10%. Which means, my book for $150 was exchanged for $15 or so, and then sold to me for a 90% profit. But this is the Masters level courses. For the most part, a student goes in knowing a lot of the information from their Undergrad pursuits. So, if I hardly opened my books, it can be explained by real world application of information gleaned from actually opening my books in undergrad classes. During the undergrad process, you are supposed to be filled with information that preps you for either professional life, or going on to higher academic levels… BS/BA leads to Masters, Masters leads to PhD/MD/DMA/etc. Ever increasing levels of research or theorycraft. So, what preps you for ever increasing levels?

Opening a book. So, I’m curious what the result will be of crowds of people paying $5 a day for a book-on-demand and how many of the successes in professional or future academic life are realized.

Then, another startup that I knew about popped into Reddit to announce that it too is trying to “fix the broken textbook industry” and to that I say the same thing as to Packback… why is keeping the status quo a fix to the broken textbook industry? What needs to take place is to open source textbooks and knowledge. The cost for knowledge exchange is borne by previous generations and research is borne by public and private money. The private money is either given to conduct research that is intended for public consumption or private money is consumed for the sole purpose of private research in academia.

The point of that last couple of sentences is to imply that if there is co-mingling of funds, the research should be public. The research result could be applied for private use, but then competitors of equal skill can bring a competing product to market. Again, the bigger picture is that research conducted at a university/college is done by the students in partnership with the professors, both of which have already borne the cost of their academic development by way of tuition. So, as with everything that has already been paid for, its a sunk cost. It can’t be recovered, and you can’t even begin to account for knowledge value unless you create something tangible… like a patent, which extends beyond the ephemeral bounds of knowledge and memory.

So, if students aren’t opening their books [lets assume they know everything], then why go to college other than to get the piece of paper and network? Networking is a huge part of undergrad schooling, and when you get into grad school, connections make a difference if you plan to stay in academia. You also have to be willing to chase grants, but that’s a whole other topic.

If you are going to challenge the broken textbook industry, why stay within its framework of mega-publishers owning knowledge exchange at $65-$300 (or more) per book? In my opinion, you can’t challenge the paradigm by fitting within the allowances of renting knowledge that is arguably owned by another entity. Which means you have to go outside of it.

The world is full of knowledge and it is shared perpetually in myriad ways. See Wikipedia for proof of that. Some will argue that its curation is something lacking. I argue that in popular topics, there are entrenched people who are experts in their field, passionate about the topic and willing to defend any points of contention with facts and research that backs their position. Regardless of the topic, because when I say “popular” you have to understand that popularity scales. There are people who are very well versed in every segment of life and with the world being as flat as it is, there is no lacking in people to police the material.

Like GitHub, we need a book publishing platform that is populated by people who push data into the hub, but administrators who publish the work. Site admins can police the book admins and we introduce the only thing that changes from book version to version… real world application of the knowledge in the form of examples.

So, lets open source books like we do with software. That said, I’ve registered the domain txtbk.co, a domain that I’ve registered in the past and one that I wanted to do exactly this, but now I have the means to bring it to the table for development. I’ll launch a server and take baby steps to getting it going. If you are interested in assisting, get in touch with me.

James Hatch

I talk about business, technology, and society. I create new products and services. That's the elevator pitch. Deeper than that, I research myriad topics for my consultancy. Academically speaking; I have received a Masters in Digital Forensics and Cyber Investigation, Masters in Information Technology with a focus on Information Security, a Masters in Business Administration with a focus on Marketing, a Bachelors in Entrepreneurism and Strategic Management, Associates in Business Administration, and Associates in Sociology. I'm also a Professor and Program Manager of Computer Science and Cybersecurity at the local Community College. Oh... I'm a gamer and streamer when I get a chance.

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