E-textbooks redux: what does Kirtsaeng mean to the market?

Librarians rejoice! The Supreme Court of the United States insisted in its Wiley v. Kirtsaeng decision that we can legally lend foreign-manufactured materials! The media noticed, too, at least the education media: both the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed mentioned library lending prominently in their Wiley v. Kirtsaeng headlines and ledes.

The case was about textbooks and textbook-market arbitrage, though. That’s worth keeping sight of, as Andrew Albanese’s Publisher’s Weekly coverage does. Extrapolating from reactions on all sides, what does the Wiley v. Kirtsaeng decision likely mean for the textbook-publishing business, and what can textbook publishers and libraries do if they don’t like that?

What’s incontrovertibly clear now is that the importation of physical textbooks into the United States from countries where they are cheaper to buy is legal. My impression is that textbook importation has until now been a semi-underground industry, mostly leveraging online auction services rather than hanging out online shingles of its own. That seems likely to change, as would-be Supap Kirtsaengs build legal businesses openly. In macro-economic terms, this could mean that textbook prices in the US will be knocked down to the lowest-available worldwide price plus shipping costs and a markup for the importer—which sounds expensive, but as Kirtsaeng vividly demonstrated, can be considerably cheaper than current US prices for the same books.

What can textbook decision-makers do to keep their income high? Possibilities include:

  • Raising print-textbook prices to US levels worldwide. These prices are not tenable in many markets, so textbooks will not sell, so textbook publishers will make less money. This doesn’t seem a likely tactic.
  • Refusing to make print textbooks available anywhere but the US, as suggested in the American Association of Publishers’ reaction to the decision. This might well produce a short-term income gain, especially in a post-Wiley world. Education markets are growing so much faster overseas than in the US, however, that this strategy bids fair to lose publishers their most promising markets permanently.
  • Changing print textbooks sold abroad just enough to be poor substitutes for domestic books. (Hat tip to Andy Woodworth.) This is feasible, but far from costless, and it risks both those potentially-lucrative foreign markets and a public-relations backlash.
  • Restricting print-textbook supply in foreign countries, perhaps insisting upon demonstration of student status or enrollment in a specific class. This would have stopped Kirtsaeng’s relatives from purchasing the textbooks he resold. It’s leaky, though; what is to stop students from sharing a copy while buying one apiece for profitable resale in the US?
  • Legislative redress. Given existing agitation from students and parents over textbook prices, this seems unlikely to work, but if Maria Pallante genuinely does spur legislative activity around copyright rewriting, textbook publishers are likely to find help from her.
  • Copyright-treaty redress. The international copyright treaty space actually offers textbook decision-makers significant hope, since it’s where copyright maximalists and infringement-enforcement hawks are focusing their effort. I would not be at all surprised to see restriction of textbook arbitrage attempted in a future ACTA.
  • Moving away from print (and the ownership of print that allows first sale to come into play) toward electronic textbooks, where lucrative information-leasing is vastly more common, and DRM limits (though cannot entirely prevent) leakage.

I have already expressed significant concern in these pixels about that final possibility, which the Wiley decision motivates textbook publishers to pursue even more strongly than they already are. I don’t care to repeat myself, not least to avoid another dunking in the hot water I got into then! Instead, I’d like to argue that open-textbook programs offer a feasible, student-friendlier alternative to (or augmentation of) Big E-Textbook Deals, even for universities pursuing those deals.

At the recent Library Technology Conference 2013, reference librarian Kristina De Voe described Temple University Libraries’ pragmatic pilot program introducing open textbooks to faculty. While some pilot-program participants used the same textbook-avoidance bricolage techniques I do—cobbling together open-access journal articles, gray literature, news articles, top-drawer blog posts, digital collections, and suchlike to round out a nicely up-to-date syllabus—others dipped their toes into actual open-textbook waters and found them inviting. Crucially, Temple faculty found that their students not only saved money, but engaged more with the materials. Temple hasn’t demonstrated clear learning gains from open textbooks yet, but faculty haven’t seen learning losses either, putting paid to the oft-heard concern that electronic textbooks automatically lead to decreased learning.

Even before state legislatures force some of us to, even before most of us decide to help fund open-textbook creation, helping faculty work with open textbooks and other open readings only makes sense. At minimum, open readings mean that no student will suffer academically from the decision not to purchase a (print or electronic) textbook, as is sometimes happening now. For institutions considering (or already part of) Big E-Textbook Deals, programmatic campus use of open textbooks increases negotiating power with publishers and platforms: prices had better stay reasonable, and allied services must be usable and worthwhile, or the institution can and will switch to open alternatives.

As Temple’s example demonstrates, academic libraries can lead open-textbook programs, even though we have historically avoided involvement with textbooks and their issues. Materially helping many students should be incentive enough, but if more is needed, working directly with faculty lets librarians inject more library-purchased and library-digitized materials (including primary sources) into classrooms. Temple found the rewards well worth the effort; I strongly believe other libraries will as well.

Note: This post is copyright 2013 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”

How I teach technology

Roy Tennant’s recent series on assimilating new technology (start here to read it) spurs me to talk about helping library-school students do that. My workhorse course, the one I first developed and taught in 2007 that I’ve been teaching ever since, is an introduction to computer-based technologies in libraries called “Digital Tools, Trends, and Debates.” You are all welcome to browse its most recent syllabus.

Most students who take this course are at the office-suite-jockey level of computer savvy, though they range from rather less than that (brave souls!) all the way through computer-science majors and professional network administrators. Building a course that’s useful to that entire gamut taxes my ingenuity every time I sit down to revise the syllabus.

My fifteen-week course can’t turn office-suite jockeys into programmers and sysadmins; frankly, I’m not convinced an entire LIS program can. Real programmers and sysadmins have entire CS and MIS training programs, after all, never mind all the alphabet-soup certifications! Nor can I focus solely on honing the skills of the few programmers and sysadmins who take the course, enjoyable though that would be; they’re the tiny cherry atop a much larger confection.

What the course must do, I decided early on, is turn all my students, at every level of existing knowledge, into confident, self-directed applied learners of technology-related skills. They must know they’ll have to assimilate and use new technology and work through its societal implications throughout their careers, and crucially, they must know they can do that. If they don’t leave with that scaffolding, the course fails, no matter what else they learn from it.

Learned helplessness is the chief barrier to self-driven learning I’ve seen among my students, not at all aided by the well-known technology gender gap. My best weapon against learned helplessness is recoverable failure, oddly enough. I tell them openly (since many of them don’t know) that tech experts are made, not born: made by falling down, making messes, and seeking help. Classroom tech snafus become teachable moments, object lessons in troubleshooting and graceful recovery. Next year, I’m planning to add more hands-on metatechnology exercises: writing a useful bug report (and navigating online bug trackers), troubleshooting opaque error messages, hunting for API specifications, looking for and at source code, diagnosing spear-phishing attempts, and so on.

I have learned that emphasizing the “library” in “library technology” keeps the course from being too discouragingly geekery-intense for technology novices, while serving the already-expert very well indeed. I refuse to let students out of my class, for example, without a basic non-lawyerly sense of US information law, how the technology world bends it and is bent by it, and how it impacts library programs and services from digitization to e-reserves to ebook procurement to social-media use. Similarly, they all need to know the basic parts of an ILS and how add-ins and “discovery layers” are morphing those basic parts out of all recognition, whether they’ll be running ILSes, choosing and paying for them, or simply using them.

I’m still learning how to walk this high-stakes tightrope; sometimes my experiments fail. I taught the basics of regular expressions in fall 2011, but without an advance organizer explaining clearly why, I caused considerably more frustration and less enlightenment than I meant to. I took regexes back out for the latest iteration, but I want to find a way to re-include them, since even in its failed-experiment state, the exercise helped several project groups convert finding aids to EAD and Project Gutenberg plaintext to .epub ebooks. Teaching is like technology in at least one crucial way: errors happen, and the only thing to do is sort out what went wrong and patch them up.

The gradual evolution of the final group project bears witness to my try-then-patch approach; I owe Jason Griffey in particular much gratitude for showing me how to improve it. It is split into two parts: the “project plan” student groups produce introduces them to budget, staffing, training, software and hardware selection, scheduling, project management, and other “soft” issues surrounding technology implementation in libraries and archives, while their “technology implementation” makes them come to grips with unfamiliar and non-trivial technology.

I always warn them that they’ll find themselves frustrated, and they nearly always do. Mid-semester checkins occasionally contain politely-worded howls of anguish. Now and then I have to hint at workarounds, or help a group think through a roadblock. Most of the time, though, they power around or through whatever the problem is without my help. They learn that frustration isn’t the end, that research leads to recovery from errors and other failures—sometimes, that “breaking things” is fun! (One group intentionally broke built-in hotkeys on a keyboard—not, thankfully, one belonging to the school—so that the hotkeys couldn’t be used to circumvent certain security measures on the patron-destined Linux box they’d built. That’s dedication!)

What I’ve taken to heart in the five-year life of this course is that students excel when I turn them loose and express confidence in them. I’ve almost never had a student group turn in a final project that I thought was lazy or poorly-done. More often, they blow my expectations entirely out of the water. I ask them to make a patron-ready Linux installation; they come back with well-thought-through security measures, carefully-chosen open-source software for well-defined patron needs, and tailored recovery CDs for instant reinstallation. I ask for an Omeka collection, and receive works of impressive web-design artistry and complaints that they’ve pushed the limits of the software! I’ve gotten mind-bendingly complex EADs, beautiful picture-book .epubs, well-edited digital videos, and fully-functional Drupal websites, every last project with meaningful participation from students who started out as office-suite jockeys or less.

Best of all is their obvious pride as they demo their work for me, and the oft-repeated refrain, “I never thought I could do anything like this!” When they learn they’re capable of much more than they thought, they’ve learned the most important lesson I can teach them.

Note: This post is copyright 2013 by Library Journal. Reposted under the terms of my author’s agreement, which permits me to “reuse the work in whole or in part in your own professional activities and subsequent writings.”