Over the fold is a picture guaranteed to strike fear in the heart of anyone hoping to make money in the textbook industry:
The screenshot shows a popular site for illegal downloads, with the results of a search for James Stewart's calculus textbook.
A simple economic model of crime suggests that people will choose illegal downloads over legitimate purchases if they're cheaper. The cost of downloading is the probability of getting caught times the fine if caught, plus any psychic costs of illegal activity. When a new textbook costs $150 or $200, the maximum fine for downloading copyright material is $5,000, and the probability of being caught and convicted is fairly low (especially for those who know how to take appropriate precautions), it is surprising that anyone actually buys textbooks.
It's impossible to know precisely how textbook publishers will respond to the threat posed by on-line downloads, and how the overall nature of the publishing industry will change, but it is already possible to spot a few trends:
Students do not have to read the textbook to pass courses. Students do have to take exams and complete assignments to pass courses. The first trend, already well underway, is that publishers will move into the assessment business, creating on-line assignments, exams, and so on. Aplia is a good example.
The Ontario government has prevented instructors from requiring students to pay extra for assessment materials such as Aplia, arguing that this is, effectively, an unauthorized tuition increase. Yet publishers will continue to develop such products, and market them to universities. For a university administrator faced with external pressure to demonstrate that students are learning X, Y or Z in university, and frustrated with his or her complete inability to control what or how faculty teach, the siren song of textbook publishers - "we will ensure that your students are achieving key learning outcomes" - might have some appeal.
If students cannot be relied upon to cough up the cash, textbook publishers will start looking to raise more money from instructors and universities. Right now textbooks are paid for by students, but marketed to instructors, who choose the required text for their courses. Companies compete by providing instructors with complementary copies of textbooks, powerpoint slides, test banks, study guides, solution manuals, and so on. If the student market collapses, companies may decide to start charging for all of those beautifully prepared powerpoints.
Third, if publishing a textbook through a major publishing house becomes less profitable, professors - who are the ones who actually write the books, after all - may decide to bypass publishers altogether, e-publishing their own books.
Finally - and this is of particular concern for people who are interested in Canadian public policy - there are some texts that simply may not get written. The market for specialized textbooks, such as Public Finance in Canada, is already small. If it is further reduced by on-line downloads, publishing such texts may no longer be worthwhile.