Open Source Textbooks


A reader asks:

I know you are doing a lot of request threads so I wondered if you could possibly do one about the outrageous price of textbooks. I thought of this issue yesterday when I listened to a segment on weekend All Things Considered where they assembled a group of high school juniors and seniors. Many of them were obviously worried about how they were going to pay for school and the price of text books seemed to be a real concern since many scholarships cover only tuition rather than cost of living (text books, room and board, etc.).

High prices for textbooks seems endemic to the textbook concept, since it’s hard to see how you could ever establish a market with vigorous price-based competition for these things. Fortunately, I think there’s a pretty promising alternative in the form of open source textbooks. The idea would be to create textbooks that could be distributed at something close to marginal cost of production and distribution of the books—possibly including free or super-cheap online or ebook versions.

Of course in principle all sorts of media could be distributed that way. Fiction books, commercial non-fiction, music, movies, etc. But textbooks seems like an unusually promising case. Not just because textbooks have an unusually large extra monopoly cost, but because they’re not really a consumer product. Textbooks are overwhelmingly either being purchased by government agencies or non-profits, or else the purchasers are being ordered to buy them by government agencies or non-profits. Under the circumstances, what would make the most sense would be for state departments of education, universities, and interested private foundations to simply pay to commission initial work on open source textbooks and/or encourage staff to participate in improving them.

There are a lot of logistical hurdles and coordination problems involved in getting something like this off the ground in a big way, but the benefits would be large. Indeed, more generally it would serve the public interest to have better and more widespread open source stuff in general—including in the most famous case of software—and looking for ways at the margin to use public funds to support open source activities rather than closed source ones would be very good policy.