a nearly impossible dilemma.
you might not consider me a “textbook expert” (is there such a thing?), and you might consider me even less an expert because my post has no capital letters (forgive me, i’m a little tired). in my defense, i’ve purchased textbooks, sold textbooks, and assigned textbooks. after reading an uninformed editorial in the stylus, i was reminded of the issue.
here are the three people in the back of my mind when i think about textbooks, because i’ve been all three.
1. the student:
i might stand in line for an hour to pay $40, or $70, or $125 to read this thing. the cashier, who cracks her gum, texts or talks to the person at the register next to her, will ask me, when the third week of class comes, if she can copy my notes or borrow my book. my eyes will glaze over as i read the 3rd line of the 2nd paragraph forty times without an ounce of thought to show for it. or, if my instructor doesn’t require me to read it, i will use it as a coaster or a hotplate–either way, it’s holding my beverage or my meal, two things way more enticing to me than anatomy and physiology. then i’ll be graded. once the end of the semester comes, i will sell the book back for either half of what i (or my parents, or my student loans/grants) paid, or less than that, if my professor isn’t using it next semester.
most importantly, i desperately want to celebrate the end of the semester. i want to get dressed up, wear stilettos in the snow, maybe a coat if it matches, and walk, drinking vodka straight from the clear bottle, until the christmas lights turn into strobe lights and i scream the lyrics to “livin on a prayer” in chorus with people who will disappear in a few days. i want to stumble down to the bar and dance my face off, which i cannot do without the money i should get from selling my books back. i am pissed.
this is me circa 2000-2006. note that some responsible students desperately need that money for other things, like bills. they are even more pissed.
2. the textbook seller:
i work for an independent bookstore or a corporate bookstore. i could work at either, or both, but probably not at the same time. i manage this department. people are never happy to walk in here and buy my merchandise. textbooks are never christmas gifts or birthday presents. could you imagine?
“be careful, it’s heavy and expensive,” #1 says, handing the candy cane-papered theory of modern algebra book to #2.
“ok. ohh is it that painting i wanted?” #2 says.
“no. but it’s enlightening, too. and it’s glossy with a picture.” #1 says.
“a book? please tell me it’s the history of rock from 1970-1990!” #2 says.
“can you just open it? it’s getting worse.”
no one wants to pay $100 for a western civ book, and i don’t blame them. here’s my dilemma: the publisher charges x. i charge roughly x + .25(x), depending on the publisher (the better discount we get from the publisher, the better retail price the student pays). this is not a secret. just ask. i will tell you all about it. here’s what that cost does–pays x to the publisher, pays shipping costs, pays wages to every hand that touches the book from the back door to the shelf, pays for light so i can see to shelve them, and the heat in this store so i’m not out sick once the temperature dips below 30.
it also pays my salary, which is enough to feed my family and pay the mortgage. i am not rich. my job is a tough one. i am a counselor, a shelver, a secretary, and extremely apologetic if i make a mistake. i will give students $$ after they’ve used the book for the semester as long as i know i will be able to sell it again. the more sell-able the book is, the more $$ they will get. supply and demand.
i would address the issue of publishers, but i don’t want to make any enemies. let’s just say that next year the book will be in a new edition because the 50th word on page 422 will be different than the last edition. most of the time, that’s it. once the 4th edition is in print, the 3rd edition is doable, but only for so long. the more time passes, the harder the 3rd is to find. oh, and the new edition comes with a passcode that restricts it to one-time use.
i live by the philosophy that every time a student buys a used book, not only does an angel get its wings, but the student has more money in their pocket, which is good. especially if my store offers some item (like a hoodie or cute journal) they might actually enjoy spending that money on.
lastly, if you can find it cheaper somewhere else, go for it. i believe in the health of competition, how it forces me to do what i can to get used books in the store, how it urges me to fire the cashier who is texting her friend at the front counter. just don’t ask me to copy the isbn numbers of all your textbooks so you can buy them from an online seller. i’m busy. email your instructor.
3. the instructor:
you don’t want to read a textbook, and i don’t want to teach from one. they are boring and create horrible discussions, for the most part. beware, these are the kind of generalizations i warn my students about.
luckily, i teach creative writing, where i can have discussion on craft, give small entertaining handouts to teach students what they need to know, and spend the rest of the time having each write a story with the following elements:
a homeless man
an elvis impersonator
the abstraction “ambition”
a city street
then we will dissect this as a group. we will use “key terms,” not just memorize them. they will have to say the term “third-person omniscient” in context and know what that means. but we’ve talked about it, not just read about it, so they understand.
thankfully, i’m not a science or math instructor. then i would be in trouble. all of my ideas would be vapor, and i’d long to be the creative writing instructor with a light book bag, maybe even something stylish.
ultimately, i relearn one thing when the student, the bookseller, and the instructor argue, and it’s that education is both expensive and valuable.