Build-Your-Own Textbooks Could Save Students Hundreds

According to a 2010 report from the advocacy group StudentPIRGs, it's not uncommon for college students to spend around $900 per year on their textbooks. But the crunch of tough economic times, combined with innovations in technology, has offered up some solutions to that problem. Among them are customizable textbooks, a new trend that publishers from small upstarts to major players in the academic world have begun to embrace.

By Eric Garneau

custom textbooks e-books digital books low-cost textbooks

Why Customizable Texts?

When money gets tight, expenses become scrutinized more carefully then before. It's no surprise, then, that the last few years of economic downturn have cast a brighter light on the high costs of textbooks. In 2008, the federal government even got involved, including regulations in the Higher Education Opportunity Act requiring textbook publishers to adopt more transparent business tactics. Yet still prices remain stratospheric, and the question remains: why should students have to pay upwards of hundreds of dollars for a book, especially if they don't even use the whole thing?

That question drives the field of customizable textbooks, which allow instructors to cherry-pick just what material goes into required course purchases. Though the practice of teachers building their own texts has been around for awhile, only recently has it become more accepted. That acceptance has been bolstered by some new businesses expressly developed to help produce custom books and save students money.

Teachers have a number of options for their custom texts, depending on how in-depth they want to go. Many publishers offer their own pre-approved content library for inclusion; for instance, the company Flat World Knowledge sells pre-written, peer-vetted texts that teachers can edit as they see fit. But teachers can also create books from scratch using their own work and other freely available Internet material. In other words, customizing a textbook can be as simple as deleting chapters you know your course won't get to or as complex as generating all the book's content yourself. In reality, most custom texts probably fall somewhere in the middle.

Benefit to Students

Professors who decide to adopt custom texts can do a whole lot of good for their students. For starters, custom books are by design cheaper than their traditional counterparts, and everything students pay for is relevant material. Many custom textbook publishers offer numerous purchasing options, including the ability to choose between full-color or black and white texts. Some also offer print-on-demand options so students can pay for chapters as they need them and print them out using their own paper, thus saving even more money.

Sometimes, custom textbooks can even be free. As a part of the attempt to become more relevant to student needs, publishers have embraced e-learning as a viable means of distribution. Most custom textbook publishers therefore offer digital versions of their books. Students can either purchase their book as a file to view on an e-reader like a Kindle or, using their web browser, they can sometimes view the course reading at no cost to themselves. That's especially handy if they have a tablet PC or other device that makes mobile Internet reading a more natural activity.

Benefit to Teachers

Of course it's not only students who stand to gain from using custom texts. Educators, too, benefit from their adoption, in both obvious and not-so-obvious ways. For one, student satisfaction at having to spend less money can never be a bad thing. Teachers can also rest easy having, in theory, personally vetted all of the material in the texts they're teaching from. There can even be a monetary reward for them - many custom textbook publishers offer modest commissions to professors whose students buy books of their design. That might provide further incentive for educators, if any was needed, to take a hard look at the possibilities of custom textbooks.

Some Top Resources

If you're an educator looking to get started with customizable, open textbooks, check out the sites below. Two are small publishers that will help you build the books you need, one's an offshoot of a major player adapting to its clients' desires and yet another's an excellent source of free material you can use to round out your own books. Each of the sites staff representatives designed to help you navigate your way through the world of open publishing, so don't be afraid to dive in!

Perhaps we ought to consider the question: should professors be allowed to assign their own books?

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