Dad the Emeritus Historian of Graeco-Roman Egypt suggested that I wander over to the Chronicle and read this article on reducing the cost of textbooks. Now, I have not written a textbook, but for over a dozen years, I have been helping out said Dad and others with their textbook--what I call "one of the oddest lines on my CV"--and not everything in the article quite squared with this experience. Obviously, YMMV.
The author, David W. Lewis, is concerned that "colleges" are insufficiently involved in textbook purchasing. His definition of "college" seems to be entirely administrative and institutional, as it appears to exclude the actual faculty--those people exerting their "own preferences" as to which textbooks to order. So. The faculty choose textbooks; the publishers "sell those selected textbooks to each student through bookstores"; and, last but not least, "the institutions usually take no ownership interest in the intellectual property that their faculty members create for textbooks, even when the resulting income to the faculty member is significant." What he wants to do, then, is strip as much profit from the entire deal as possible. Publishers charge less; faculty earn less (or, it sounds like, earn nothing); students, supposedly, pay less.
What's really puzzling is this claim: "After a year or two, with investment at that scale, enough content would be in place that a modest student book fee of, say, $50 could be easily justified, and, within three to five years, that fee could rise to $100." This is...odd. Dad and his three co-authors signed a contract with Oxford in 1994; the first edition of their book came out in 1999. This, he notes, is considered relatively speedy in the history textbook writing world (an acquaintance of his spent ten years writing a highly-regarded world history textbook). Now, it might well be faster to put together an open-source introductory math text, or to anthologize content produced by other online sources, but a fully finished and fact-checked college-level history textbook, with maps, images, and charts (not to mention permissions from all the relevant publishers1), will require much more than a "year." In a year, you might have a rough draft. (Of a few chapters.) Moreover, Dad went on to point out, there's no sense here that a textbook counts as a book, with an actual "plot." Even anthologies generally have some sort of plot. (And, in English, "textbooks" are rarely useful; I need editions, anthologies, and the occasional monograph. See previous "Books" post for why, so far, it's really difficult to teach using what's currently available online.)
1 Because once faculty move away from the informal "let's grab some articles off the web!" model and move to "let's generate content that's going to produce cash for the university!", things will look a little different.