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.