#3. The Deadline Is the Bottom Line
You, cultured reader, might read that title and think, "Indeed! That is the very foundation of business!" Hopefully this has placated you, and you have recovered your eyewear. Don it, for it shall be knocked out again: In the textbook industry, hitting that deadline is more important than anything -- even if it means omitting extremely vital information.
"After Hitler's death, Gremany was defeated, and we all lived happily ever after.
I once worked with the Texas School Board, writing a middle school text. One of the topics was Texas ecosystems. I did my research and came up with a dozen or so unique ecosystems that exist in the state. Unfortunately, the deadline was looming like a massive schoolyard bully waiting to pummel me into cryptobiotic soil, so I contacted the publisher and had the following conversation:
Me: Hey, friends, I don't think I have enough time to really flesh out all of these ecosystems for the students of the great state of Texas. It may be best if we push the deadline back a day or two."
Publishers: Whhhaaaat? Miss a deadline?! You'll never work in this town again, you shameful harlot!*
Me: Oh God, oh no!
Publishers: Haha, nah, we're just messing with you. Fuck it. Just pick four and do those. The kids'll just have to pick up the rest of their ecosystem information on the street, like we did.
*Not an exact transcript
"Yo, you want some of that marshlands, some of that tundra, some of that rain forest? What you need? I got you."
So that's how it came to pass. I picked the ecosystems I thought were coolest, and that's what we went with for the official textbook. If you are in middle school in Texas, I'm sorry that you have no idea what a prairie is. That one's on me.
#2. The Names on the Textbook Mean Nothing
Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Getty Images
But you, distinguished reader, know what to look for: You only buy textbooks from esteemed and respected professors. Well, that fancy professor is probably a very nice person, but she didn't write your book. And you'll never know who wrote it, because when I submit my work to the publisher, I am required to remove all indication of my involvement -- no byline, no credits in the back, no thank you note, and no accountability. This is so the publisher can take full credit and assign authorship to whomever they like.
Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images
"I don't give a shit who it is as long as he has a beard. Beards equal sales."
It works like this: The school district hires the publisher, who outsources the actual content creation to a writing company, who hires a contract writer like me to make all that "not book" into a big steaming pile of "book." If your textbook said "By Joe Schmo, Some College" on the cover, there's no way you'd shell out a car payment for that sweet, succulent knowledge. But thanks to the industrywide ghost-writing system, you end up buying books from experts in the field who not only had nothing to do with the textbook, but may actually be horrified to discover the kind of ridiculous (sometimes plagiaristic) crap that is being attributed to them.
John Howard/Digital Vision/Getty Images
"Apparently I'm vaguely racist against Swedes now."
But it's not like the industry is hurling this stuff out there en masse without paying any attention -- they pay a lot of attention. To the updated "new" editions, at least ...
#1. Updated Versions Are Just Rearranged Content
Remember standing in the college bookstore, trying to decide between buying a four-year-old calculus textbook for roughly the price of a wet sandwich or the brand new edition that cost six times as much? It's always a gamble: What if there was something in the new edition that was substantially different? What if it was actually worthwhile, or even worse, on the test? Better buy the new one, just to be safe.
And that is, of course, exactly what they're counting on.
Steve Mason/Digital Vision/Getty Images
"Damn right. Those two new paragraphs you bought just paid off my boat."
I sometimes contributed to assignments that were works in progress, which means I got to see what was being changed from one edition to the next. I would say that a solid 80 percent of the comments I saw were changing page and chapter numbers. The rest was roughly 15 percent formatting adjustments, 4 percent typo corrections, and 1 percent actual changes to content. This is, in part, why textbook prices have risen 812 percent since 1978.
Cathy Yeulet/Hemera/Getty Images
Don't feel bad if that number is mind-boggling to you. Your math books were probably written by someone who failed algebra.
Basically what I'm saying is that your suspicions are absolutely correct: Updated editions of textbooks are old content, lightly rearranged. That $180 price difference goes into changing some page numbers and rewording a chapter or two, while the rest is presumably used to bankroll those sweet cocaine parties that the textbook industry is so famous for.
For more truth bombs about our educational system, check out If Schools Told The Truth.
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