Jeff Rice has a post where he discusses his participation in a discussion about the future of textbooks sponsored by the future of the book organization. Interesting enough, but… well… I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but I think there are three basic problems with the basic premise of open source textbooks (though what they’re talking about here is not necessarily open source, I don’t think):
- The main reason why someone writes a textbook and also why publishers publish textbooks is to make money. (This perhaps goes without saying, but in my most recent past experiences, this is not a good reason to write a textbook, mainly because making “real” money from a textbook is essentially like winning the lottery.) In that sense, textbooks are very different animals from academic books, novels, poetry collections, etc.: sure, people want to make money with those kinds of books too, but there are other reasons for both writers and publishers for coming out with those kinds of books, reasons like scholarship to be counted on a CV, pleasure, and/or (dare I say it?) love.
Some institutions will “count” a textbook for the purposes of tenure and promotion, but I don’t think anyone– writers, publishers, or
readersstudents who have to buy the textbook– is in it for the pleasure or love of books.
- The main reason why an instructor assigns a textbook in the first place is because a) she has to as some sort of program-wide requirement (this is of course common in first year composition circles, which is one of the reasons why publishers make a lot of money from these books), and/or b) the instructor has no interest in writing his own materials for a particular class. In my opinion, the best (and worst, simultaneously) textbooks out there are like cookbooks full of fool-proof recipes: add instructor and stir.
- The history of software developed by small groups for a very particular thing– TK3 for example, or potentially this software being developed by these future of the book people– is not very good. It’s not that this stuff is bad software; it’s just that it seems to do only one or two things, and it doesn’t seem to do those one or two things (at face value, at least) a whole lot better than the accepted format. TK3 wasn’t a hit because it didn’t have that much more functionality for most users beyond Adobe Acrobat.
Of course, I wasn’t there; maybe the conversation/thinking that happened there addressed and solved all of these problems.
Anyway, having made those grand and sweeping pronouncements, I am also pleased to report that there is at least a chance that my own textbook project has some kind of, er, “future.” I hope I’m not jinxing this, but a deal is in the works with McGraw-Hill that would essentially allow me to take it to another publisher and/or put it up on the web.
I’ll have to see what this deal looks like and what it allows me, but my plan right now is to actually put it up on the web. That might not be the smartest move as far as publishing and money and such goes– once it is available electronically, I don’t know what my chances are of getting another publisher to pick it up. But publishing it as a web site would represent something that is at least different in textbook publishing so far, which might get the manuscript some attention it might not have otherwise gotten. And it is a move that might bring me a sense of closure. At this stage, closure would be good.