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megimoo
07-27-2008, 11:10 PM
First It Was Song Downloads. Now It’s Organic Chemistry.

AFTER scanning his textbooks and making them available to anyone to download free, a contributor at the file-sharing site PirateBay.org composed a colorful message for “all publishers” of college textbooks, warning them that “myself and all other students are tired of getting” ripped off. (The contributor’s message included many ripe expletives, but hey, this is a family newspaper.)

All forms of print publishing must contend with the digital transition, but college textbook publishing has a particularly nasty problem on its hands. College students may be the angriest group of captive customers to be found anywhere.

Consider the cost of a legitimate copy of one of the textbooks listed at the Pirate Bay, John E. McMurry’s “Organic Chemistry.” A new copy has a list price of $209.95; discounted, it’s about $150; used copies run $110 and up.

To many students, those prices are outrageous, set by profit-engorged corporations (and assisted by callous professors, who choose which texts are required).

Helping themselves to gratis pirated copies may seem natural, especially when hard drives are loaded with lots of other products picked up free.

But many people outside of the students’ enclosed world would call that plain theft.

Compared with music publishers, textbook publishers have been relatively protected from piracy by the considerable trouble entailed in digitizing a printed textbook. Converting the roughly 1,300 pages of “Organic Chemistry” into a digital file requires much more time than ripping a CD.

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More students are choosing used books over new; sales of a new edition plunge as soon as used copies are available, in the semester following introduction; and publishers raise prices and shorten intervals between revisions to try to recoup the loss of revenue — and the demand for used books goes up all the more.

Used book sales return nothing to publishers and authors. Digital publishing, however, offers textbook publishers a way to effectively destroy the secondary market for textbooks: they now can shift the entire business model away from selling objects toward renting access to a site with a time-defined subscription, a different thing entirely.

The transition has already begun, even while publishers continue to sell print editions. They are pitching ancillary services that instructors can require students to purchase, just like textbooks, but which are available only online on a subscription basis. Cengage Learning, the publisher of Professor McMurry’s “Organic Chemistry,” packages the new book with a two-semester “access card” to a Cengage site that provides instructors with canned quizzes and students with interactive tutorials.

Ronald G. Dunn, chief executive of Cengage Learning, says he believes the printed book is not about to disappear, because it presents a large amount of material conveniently. Mr. Dunn predicted that textbook publishers were “headed for a hybrid market: print will do what it does best, and digital will do what it does best.”

Whether students will view online subscriptions as a helpful adjunct to the printed textbook or as a self-aggrandizing ploy by publishers remains to be seen.

As textbook publishers try to shift to an online subscription model, they must also stem the threat posed by the sharing of scanned copies of their textbooks by students who use online publishing tools for different purposes. The students who create and give away digital copies are motivated not by financial self-interest but by something more powerful: the sweet satisfaction of revenge.

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Textbook Torrents, a site that opened last year and was wholly dedicated to arranging peer-to-peer sharing of textbook files, closed without explanation this month. But other sites continue to rely upon similar technology for disseminating unauthorized copies of textbooks, facilitating the piece-by-piece movement of copies of files found on the computers of participants.

The Pirate Bay, which is based in Sweden, presents a devilishly fearless challenge to American textbook publishers. It describes itself as an “anticopyright organization” and offers music, movies, television shows and software, as well as e-books like textbooks — not a single item of which, it boasts, has ever been removed at the request of a copyright owner.

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The textbook publishers have abundantly good reasons to promote e-books. When Cengage sells an e-book version of “Organic Chemistry” directly to students, for $109.99, it not only cuts out the middleman but also reduces the supply of used books at the end of the semester.

THE e-book is wrapped with digital rights management, which, history indicates, will be broken sooner or later. But as long as it does work, digital publishing with a subscription model is a much fairer basis for the business. Such an arrangement spreads revenue across multiple semesters, so it isn’t the unfortunate few students in the first semester with a new edition who shoulder the bulk of the burden.

A one-semester e-book subscription does require a change in expectations. Students cannot sell their texts at the end of a course, so buying one can’t be viewed as a short-term investment to be cashed out. But as students show no attachment to textbooks in any case, the loss of access after semester’s end seems likely to go unlamented.


http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/27/technology/27digi.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&pagewanted=print