According to a 2009 article in the New York Times, the typical college student spends up to $1,100 a year on textbooks. There are three factors that drive up these prices. First, since college students are a captive market, manufacturers charge more to print textbooks than trade books. Second, the publisher’s markup is usually 30% to 40% before they hit the shelves in bookstores. Third, publishers make no money from the used book trade so they usually release new editions every two years in order to reestablish their place in the market and antiquate any used stock in circulation. On average, the cost of textbooks has increased by 6% each year, outpacing both inflation and tuition increases. Many students go online to find cheaper books but the savings tend not to be substantial because used book traders have become skilled in knowing what the market will bear.
An introductory theatre course can be a big part of a student’s semester textbook bill. At the time of this writing, the least expensive introductory theatre textbook by a major publisher is $76 and the most expensive tops out at $123. Since most do not include plays, the total cost for the course increases by another $40 to $50. In addition, when you examine the periodic new editions of these works, the revisions seem minimal and appear to be driven by profit margins rather than recent changes in the theatrical landscape or discoveries in theatre history. This is not to say that some of these books do not contain interesting or provocative content. They simply cost too much for what they provide.
With the support of the University of Florida College of Fine Arts and the University Press of Florida, I am currently working with other professors to produce a scholarly, peer-reviewed, professionally-edited open source textbook that can be used for introductory theatre courses. Once completed, the book will be available for free under a Creative Commons License which credits the original authors when changes or inserts are made and does not allow for commercial profit. Once available, students would have a variety of options — access the text online, purchase a paperback copy from the University Press of Florida, print the chapters themselves, or have a bound book created for as little as $15 through online services.
This textbook will be similar to current ones in that chapters would cover theatrical process (playwriting, acting, directing, and design) and special topics (genres, musical theatre, world and multicultural theatre). However, this “modular” open source version will allow educators to rearrange, add or subtract text to suit the needs of their course providing a degree of flexibility not found in the old publishing model. In addition to making a significant impact on this corner of the publishing world, this work could provide some relief to economically disadvantaged students who too often have to bear the brunt of inflated textbook prices.
Please provide any thoughts you have about this initiative.