Alex Beam

A textbook case of piracy

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / September 8, 2008
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I was heartened to learn that college kids are wielding the same Internet piracy tools they used to bring down the recording industry to download textbooks. Although the textbook oligopolists are fighting back mightily - the Association of American Publishers uses Covington & Burling, a take-no-prisoners law firm in Washington, D.C., to hunt down malefactors - there are at least two sites still around offering books: Textbook Torrents tends to be shut down, and moves around the Web, but the last time I checked, was offering such books as - well, you'll see.

As a writer, how can I support this? I should be an absolutist on copyright protection for all books, magazines, and newspapers. But I'm not. The publishers have disgraced themselves, and they are paying the price. Three-hundred-dollar textbooks in the hard sciences are not unusual, and the companies are selling to a captive audience. Hundred-dollar add-ons, masquerading as digital workbooks, or problem-solving sets, are not uncommon.

Publishers love to put out bogus "new" editions to drive a stake though the heart of the used textbook market, which was gaining its second wind at online auction sites. It's not as if calculus changed since Newton invented it, is the rallying cry you hear from student activists.

How do I know textbook publishers are nothing but pirates in pin-striped suits? Because when the fast-buck artists take over a company like Houghton Mifflin, they never talk about how proud they are to be publishing Philip Roth and J.R.R. Tolkien. They know they are going to make a killing in the profit-choked textbook division, which gorges on the goodwill of parents who want their children to be properly equipped for college courses.

Now most textbook publishers are going digital, and Amazon is promising a larger-format Kindle reader for the student market. The publishers say that iTexts, which often cost less than $100, save students money. But their opponents, led by a coalition of Student Public Interest Research Groups, point out that the password-protected digi-texts put the sword to the used-book market so despised by the publishers.

Congress has gotten into the act, legislating more "transparency" in textbook pricing in the just-passed Higher Education Opportunity Act. It looks like a jumble of half-measures to me. If it had any teeth, the publishers would be squawking madly.

A young Northeastern University student named Shawn Fanning wrung billions of dollars of excess profits from the record companies when he invented Napster. Yes, it's true that recording "artists" now gouge young people 10 times more aggressively at the concert turnstiles than they ever did at Tower Records stores, which no longer exist around here. But Steve Jobs found the right price point for music at iTunes. Between the pirates and the publishers, we'll find our way to the right price point for textbooks, too.

Now it's time to arbitrage . . . tuition.

Don't steal this book

Inevitably, a reviewer will call John Hanson Mitchell, author of "The Paradise of All These Parts: A Natural History of Boston," a latter-day Henry David Thoreau, not necessarily a compliment. Call him what you will - in real life, he edits the Massachusetts Audubon Society magazine Sanctuary - he is a smart guy, walking around, paying attention. I'd name his genre nostalgic realism; Mitchell certainly knows where this city and its many peculiar institutions come from, and he understands modernity as well.

I love that his brother owns a boat named after Richard Henry Dana, and that it doesn't have an engine - there's Boston in a nutshell. I think this book will take its place next to Walter Muir Whitehill's "Boston," with engravings by Rudolph Ruzicka, as one of the treasured Hub tomes of our time.

Able was I . . .

Ere I saw Alaska? Send in your Sarah Palin-dromes! A palindrome is a phrase that makes sense read forward and backward - e.g., "Madam, I'm Adam." I think there's a lot to work with here: Is Levi vile? Close, but no cigar. I'll buy the winner a used copy of the kind of book that Governor Palin wanted to keep out of her local library - "Huckleberry Finn," perhaps.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is

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