pay no more than £2.99, or, let the faculty set the pricing of textbooks


Back  when I was a student in London and Bristol (c 1979) I found The Specials’s first album at Virgin records with a sticker on it that read

Pay No More Than £2.99

£2.99 was a chunk of change back in the day, but not outlandish. Singles were 70p. A pint of bog-standard IPA was 35p. A loaf of bread 27p. I made £4 for a 7-11 pm work session at the pub. Plus tips – usually half-pints. Plus a three-hour lock-in on Saturday night if the governor’s mates dropped by.  So for an evening’s work, I could buy a ska album, a loaf of bread, and two pints at my local. Life was good. YMMV.

I saw the Pay No More Than stickers on a lot of albums, mainly independent labels for reggae, ska, punk, and new wave. The stickers were a way of keeping distributers (chains, high street shops, street markets, touts outside The Venue and The Music Machine) from putting their own value on works they were distributing. (Billy Bragg kept the gesture alive for some years, apparently.) With the sticker, the band and label was proclaiming that the album is worth £2.99- three hours’s work. An evening’s piss-up. Don’t let the next geezer up the chain say otherwise.

We need stickers like that for textbooks – stickers that the author authorizes, or faculty, who know the value of a textbook, can intervene with. That’s what OER is all about, sure, but there are other texts out there.

I’ve been holding off selecting texts for ENGL 3179: Elements of Electronic Rhetoric, hoping for something earthshattering. The course deals with subject matter that is just coming into being, so there are no texts designed for it yet. I have to piece things together. I’ve been using Making Sense of Messages, Stoner and Perkins, for the past four or five years, but the publisher (Houghton Mifflin – not worth linking to) is charging $90.00 for it – way over the top for students. Used copies are showing up online for $20, but our university bookstore won’t let put up a sign in place of the text reading,

The publisher is charging too much for this book. Buy it used online and pay no more than $25.00. Even better, borrow it from a friend.

Making Sense is a pretty good text, not great, but good, published in 2005, showing its age a little – but easily worth $45. The $20 – $30 used price is a good deal. The rental option, in which students pay the publisher  $45 for a semester’s use is bitter tasting. This is to acknowledge that the book worth only $45, but that the publisher and bookstore are going to take a 100% profit  just for distributing the text. I’m putting publisher rentals in the same category as loan-sharking, which is one notch below pirating software.

The publisher’s price prompts me to rethink content and classroom practice. Making Sense is good in detailing method, but always struck me as pretentious and condescending, and thin in its coverage of classical rhetoric. At $45 I would be willing to overlook the faults. For $90, who needs it? Instead, we can take a little step back in time: I’ll teach the framework of method drawing on my copy of the text (a five year old exam copy), distribute my notes to students electronically, and have students make notes and engage the method in class. A little more work for me, a little more work for students outside of class, but we all become less dependent on the text and the publisher. Pity the authors loose on this one.

But, to continue my story, because I’ll be teaching from the over-priced text rather than have students buy it, I can supplement the class with other texts at more reasonable prices. That’s a cost I can ask students to take on. Here they are for fall, 2011:

Rhetorical Analysis, Longaker and Walker. A little thin on method, example papers simply fill space, but good for introducing rhetorical concepts. Student can work with chapters focused on kairos, style, etc, using the method I’ll provide to apply those concepts to digital target texts. $21.00 Amazon. There’s a Cengage version available, too, but their reader is absolute rubbish.

For a text that bridges from print rhetoric to digital and multimodal texts, I’m using The Discourse of Blogs and Wikis, Greg Myers. This has enough method (What I Did) in later chapters for students to emulate…. $45 Anazon, paper; $36 Kindle.

And as a recommended text, Lanham, Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 2nd ed. $23 Amazon, $10 Kindle, used for about $10.

Total, about $90.00, but for a far broader range and deeper set of texts. Texts that students can reuse, resell, pass on. It could be done for $45.00.

Last word goes to The Specials. A message to you, publishers.

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