Sunday, August 18, 2013

Anything to Declare?

Textbook costs have been a major issue for decades.  I remember being shocked at the cost of books when I was a student, back when they were printed on papyrus and delivered by dinosaurs.  Students then sometimes had the option of trying to find used books, but that was pretty much it.  

In the age of electronic resources, I’ve become a booster of Open Educational Resources.  I think we’re at or near the inflection point where it becomes possible for students to get through a majority of classes without actually buying books, assuming the faculty are on board.  Free options have become markedly better over the last few years, and I know many professors are concerned about book costs for their students, so I’m optimistic that we’ll get there.  From a student perspective, money saved on books is the equivalent of a tuition cut.  

But we’re not entirely there yet, so book rentals have sprung up as a sort of transitional option.  They’re still physical books, in most cases, but students can pay to use them just for a single semester and then return them.  As a student, I might not have done that with the courses I cared about most, but would have been happy to do it for the courses I only took to fulfill distribution requirements.  I suspect I wasn’t unique in that.

The appeal is obvious.  Rather than paying full price and then taking their chances on selling it later -- which doesn’t work if the publisher changes editions in the meantime -- you can take the savings upfront.  When students are living week to week, an upfront savings is a very real thing.  

Some college bookstores, including my own, have textbook rental programs.  But they aren’t the only places that do.  Amazon does, too, but with a catch.

I did not see this one coming.

Apparently, depending on the original source from which Amazon sends the book to the student, some rentals are invalidated if the book is moved from the original state to which it was rented.  

Here in New England, where most of the states are small and people cross state lines every day, this could be a real problem.  Even for students who live in-state, which most do, it’s not unusual to have family or other obligations in neighboring states.  Can you imagine getting a bill from Amazon for a few hundred bucks because some tracker in your Bio book alerted Amazon that you had left it in your car when you visited your friend in Connecticut?  

Very weird.  

Apparently, the issue for Amazon is dodging state sales taxes.  I won’t pretend to understand the ins and outs of that as it applies to rentals, but I’ve never heard of travel restrictions on physical books.  The surveillance aspect alone is creepy enough, without even getting into the victimization of low-income students.  (Though it does offer opportunities for enterprising sorts in trenchcoats: “hey...could I interest you in some hot Intro to Econ?”)

It reminds me of the old DRM debates in the oughts.  DRM, or digital rights management, was a set of self-destruct mechanisms built into various software in an effort to prevent people from using it in unauthorized ways.  In the early days of iTunes, for example, you didn’t get raw mp3’s.  You got digital music in a more specific and trackable form, for which you had to get permission for each new device on which you played it.  The goal was to prevent piracy, which digital copying made easy.

But DRM was clunky, intrusive, and insulting, and the market rejected it.  Instead, the market moved away from “ownership” of music altogether.  The companies that clamped down on piracy succeeded mostly in destroying their own business model.  Now even Apple has had to move in the direction of a streaming service.

My guess is that the “no books across state lines” rule will have a similar effect on rentals.  It’s clunky, intrusive, and insulting, and it will simply hasten the move to OER.  Would you rather pay a hundred bucks to rent an Intro to Bio textbook that threatens to nail you for a three-figure fine if you leave it in your car when you go visit your aunt, or pay nothing at all for something that you can access anytime, from anywhere?

It’s a bit of a no-brainer.

I’m disappointed in Amazon for doing this, but I suspect it won’t last long.  Instead, it will merely hasten the transition to something we really should prefer anyway.  How Amazon will make money off OER isn’t clear to me, but it’s really not my problem.