How not to sell textbooks

So, I have a new course I’m teaching in the spring that attempts to give non-programmers enough programming background to either do some simple stuff or effectively hire and talk to programmers who can do it for them. In other words, enough to get their feet wet and have them think systematically about web systems. It will be a new part of the curriculum in both the online and offline interactive masters programs.

I have mostly settled on teaching Python, and while it used to be easy to look through the two or three Python books out there, the field has exploded. I was, at least initially, excited to see a Python textbook designed specifically for teaching Python to non-programmers, and that it had a focus on the manipulation of media: Introduction to Computing and Programming in Python, A Multimedia Approach.

I was a bit daunted by the price tag. With a few exceptions, I’m not usually a fan of textbooks. They tend to systematize things for students, rather than allowing students to systematize themselves. But for structures that already have some accepted system–stuff like law or programming–a “textbook” type text is sometimes helpful. And while I won’t assign a text just for the sake of having a textbook, if there is an exceptional textbook, I will happily assign it. Nonetheless, nearly $100 is a big chunk out of a student budget, particularly if you won’t be using the whole text. There is an online version of it available for a bit less. Anyway, I figure I’ll at least get a review copy and see if it is good enough to assign to my classes, despite the price tag.

I click the button asking for a review copy. It asks where I teach, what course it’s for, and the expected enrollment–all standard questions. About a week later, I get an email from a Pearson rep asking for contact information for my university and for my dean or chair.

OK, the letter was polite and all, but I’m thinking, do I really want to be the one who ended up eating into the schedule of my chair (who, by the way, is one of three people right now!) or dean right before classes start? Nope. Frankly, if they want my bona fides, it’s all right out there on the internet. Oh, and if that didn’t work, they could look and see that I had actually refereed a text for them in the past. They had sent me money to look over one of their books, but they weren’t sure if they wanted to let me do it for free. I already told them where I teach, and while our university web site is an unmitigated disaster to navigate, it’s not impossible to find out who I am. It would be easier, I said, to buy and return from Amazon.

Now, I wouldn’t do that. It’s crummy to do that to Amazon (even if they aren’t a ma & pop shop), and it actually ends up costing Pearson more money than had they just sent me the book. But when it came right down to whether I was willing to part with $100 to review the book, I just figured we’ll go with a publisher that actually opens its arms and tries to be flexible for teachers, like O’Reilly.

The irony, of course, is that the whole idea of giving profs review copies is that it drives them to force students to buy a book. The reason they can afford to give me access for free, is that if I decided to adopt it, they would see thousands of dollars in sales come their way over the next year or two, not to mention the fact that use in one course is often the best way of encouraging profs in other universities to use the text. (Admitedly, I’m sure their prime market is large undergrad classes with hundreds of students, but even if we aren’t a cash cow, our small grad classes are at least a cash cat.) But they were so worried that I was not really who I said I was (I presume) that they end up losing that possibility. It’s a bit like turning down a scruffy looking customer when he comes in for a test-drive of a car: you do it at the peril of your margin.

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