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Although some pirates talk a good game, most are simply in it for the money, says Andi Sporkin, spokesperson for the Association of American Publishers. "There are people who truly believe that all information should be free, but these sites are not being created out of goodwill and faith in humanity. They are created as profit centers." Sporkin says that one of the biggest book-downloading sites, library.nu, which was hosted in the Ukraine but registered on the Pacific coral island of Niue, brought in annual advertising revenues of around $11 million.
Van der Sar is skeptical about that revenue estimate. He says large file-hosting sites can make a lot of money, "even in the tens of millions of dollars," but they also offer a full menu of media, including pirated copies of movies, music, and TV shows. The dedicated book sites are much smaller. "They certainly don't make millions off ads—they can pay the server bill, and one or two people can live from it," he says. "There are many sites without any ads at all—they just want to make the content available. Some have been set up by students who are tired of paying for textbooks with new editions each year."
A Voice Web search easily located illegal textbook-sharing sites of all sizes, as well as sites that lead users to pirated books posted elsewhere. "The publishing industry can get these big sites down, but then there are hundreds of others," van der Sar says. "They might not be as big, but it's very hard, if not impossible, to get content offline."
Van der Sar is a psychologist in the Netherlands, and one of his study areas is behavioral: "Why are so many people sharing when they know it's not legal?" Last month, Portugal decided not to prosecute 2,000 users of file-sharing sites, he notes, because their use was personal, not commercial.
"In the U.S., millions of people are file sharing, and I don't think many are hesitating because they know they can get in trouble," says van der Sar. "They still download because the Internet seems so anonymous. It is not, of course. But pedestrians walk against the light all the time because they know they can get away with it."
With such widespread disregard for the law, publishers have had to consider responses beyond litigation. The Association of American Publishers recently launched a Solutions for Student Success website and PR campaign to convince students that textbook prices, especially those for e-books, are actually cheap when compared to what they spend on movies, gasoline, and mobile phones. Industry insiders now advocate a more forward-thinking approach—harnessing the power of technology and the Internet to alter products. Yet some student advocates and used-book sellers fear the publishers are trying to strengthen their hold on the market.
Back in 2007, seven major publishers helped develop coursesmart.com, which offers rentals of e-textbooks at up to a 60 percent discount off the list price. Critics say prices are still too high: CourseSmart rents the widely used Biology, Eighth Edition (Pearson) for $83.99, which it compares favorably to a regular list price of $215.80, but access to the book expires after 360 days (many e-rentals last for just 180 days). A used printed copy, meanwhile, can be found for as little as $20.22 on the search engine campusbooks.com.
Students also complain about the constant release of new editions, saying publishers only update books to keep prices high and make used copies obsolete. The Association of American Publishers says new editions typically come out every four years, but even that seems absurd to Jeff Cohen, CEO of CampusBooks—"as if calculus has changed a lot in the last 20 years." Still, Cohen says, professors are afraid to buck the trend: "Nobody wants an out-of-date textbook." In 2008, Congress required publishers to show schools what substantive changes have been made to new editions and to provide the copyright dates of three previous editions. It also mandated the unbundling of supplemental materials from textbooks, so these pieces could be purchased (or not) separately.
Publishers have responded to these challenges by offering various methods to lower costs: selling separate chapters from textbooks, printing black-and-white versions, working with individual professors to put together customized textbooks for specific courses, and developing dedicated e-learning materials that promise not only lower costs but higher academic success rates as well. Sophisticated digital products can even alter quiz questions depending on student answers, in effect acting as electronic tutors.
But textbooks are chosen by faculty, not administrators, and many balk at the high-tech products in the name of the academic freedom to teach how they want. In time, however, pressures to lower costs and increase class sizes could leave instructors "absolutely no option but to go to technology," says Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers.
"All these people are arguing over the price of printed textbooks, but the industry is heading in a different direction," Hildebrand says. "The whole thrust in this sector is to go digital."
E-books account for just 6 percent of all textbook sales, but that's double the figure from a year ago. Book distributor MBS Direct expects digital products to claim half the market by 2020. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a big believer, predicting printed textbooks will soon be "obsolete."