Publishing Scams

As mentioned many times in this blog, I work in a theological bookshop. This bookshop serves a consortium of theological schools housed in a major research university. We sell textbooks for most graduate theological courses and also for select undergraduate religious studies courses. I do used books, so I buy back some textbooks. Usually the textbooks I’m most interested in buying back are those that are expensive new, and commonly required in more than one course. Bart Ehrman’s The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, published by Oxford University Press. This is a pricy little book, so the first question students ask after they recover from their initial sticker shock is “Do you have any used copies in stock?” The answer is usually no. Why? Because of the startling number of editions of this text that have issued forth from the Oxford University Press since it was first published in 1997.

Ehrman first published this textbook in 1997. It is now early 2013. That is coming up to 15 years since the book was first published. This textbook is now in its 5th edition.

There is a new edition of the book every 3 or 4 years, which means the used textbook market never really develops for this book. Someone buys the book for a first or second year course, then may keep it, particularly if they are a religious studies major, until graduation, by which time there is a new edition, and no one is interested in buying the old edition.

This is a scam. There is no earthly need for a new edition of a textbook to be issued every three or four years unless the publisher wants to continue to milk this particular cash cow. I’ve seen undergraduate textbooks in other fields go through multiple editions, and I’m sure the same thing is true in those fields with other publishers. Not every textbook publisher scams students like this, but many do. I think it particularly sad when university presses do.



Filed under other Stuff, rants

6 responses to “Publishing Scams

  1. Dennis J. Hassell

    University students need to act like the customers they are. Universities are acting like they exist for their own prosperity, not the students. They suffer from institutional-ism. So much of what they do is calculated to extend their power, wealth and convenience, NOT to serve their mandate, their students.

  2. Kathleen

    Thanks for voicing the frustration thousands, if not millions, of students and educators have felt for many many years. Publishers have been doing this for many decades and getting away with it. Even close to 30 years after attending university I still remember the jaw dropping, stunned sensation I felt at the beginning and end of semesters; first at the prices and then when the bookstore couldn’t by back my used books. As a student who had to pay her own way through college it was very painful especially earning a minimum wage of just over $3.00 per hour.

  3. I had a comment that I couldn’t put up as it stood, but I’ll summarize and respond. The commenter first said Why don’t professors let people use the older versions of texts? Some profs do, I know one who says get Ehrman, I don’t care which edition.
    The second solution suggested in the comment was downloading in copyright textbooks for free. This is called stealing and I cannot support it. People who work to produce books should be paid for their efforts.

    • Bob

      Professors do have the collective power to stop the scam you describe so well. Some do, but the majority don’t.

      Isn’t the scan of publishers you describe a form of stealing from students? A scam is defined as “a business scheme that defrauds others.” Publishers make a ton of money scamming students. Many students do not have money–they are paying it from loans. They are scamming the poor. These publishers who publish a new version which is hardly different than the one before in order to make money from poor students since they prevent students from buying used older versions that say the same thing are doing worse than poor students who download the text. Most professors know that the versions are the same, but nonetheless require the new version. In the end, someone is stealing from another. Personally, I think it’s better for the poor student to win. They are only learning this from the example of the business model of publishers and the support of these publishers by many professors.

      • I am going to write a more detailed response in another post. Basically two wrongs don’t make a right. Your argument doesn’t hold water. Ethically downloading copyrighted material is stealing. What the publishers are doing (not necessarily with the support of profs, but more of that later) is trying to get people to buy more books by an edition marketing scheme, which I think is ethically borderline, but not illegal. I don’t think one is better or worse than the other. Both stealing copyrighted material and re-marketing the same material to make it look new and improved are unethical. Both should stop, and one cannot justify the other.

  4. Bob

    I’ll make this my last post, and will look forward to reading your longer post. The publishing scheme you describe should be illegal. As you, I think it’s a scam. A scam should be considered illegal. Publishers don’t consider it a scam. Why would they? They are making 10’s of millions each year selling new editions of the same materal before. Year after year. As a result, they are financially crippling students. Yes, an author should be able to update their book, but it should result in signficant changes to the previous edition. I’m not saying it’s morally right to download, but I also don’t think it’s morally right to support the scam of the publishers. So I think one should choose whatever they think the leser lesser evil is. Publishers are taking advantage of 10’s of thousands of students in North America and are wealthy because of it. I agree both should stop, but in the end it won’t. In fact, it will probably get worse. I should note that I personally wouldn’t download a regular book that does not employ this scam.

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