Lost Leaf: The Rise of Unbound Textbooks


Photo by chu at Morguefile.com

Imagine for a moment, you want to indulge yourself in a work of fiction. You decide to pick up a used copy of a beloved classic, perhaps some Melville or Steinbeck. When you arrive at the bookstore, you do manage to pick up a used copy of “Moby Dick” as to save money, but there’s something off about this book. Instead of getting something that looks like a typical book, you get a stack of three-hole-punched paper.

Confused, you ask the inevitable and innocuous question, “What is this?”

The cashier working at the front counter explains to you, “We’re trying a new model of fiction. We’re no longer binding books.”

You sigh in exhaustion, “So I have to buy a binder and use that to bind my fiction books? Why do I have to do that?”

The person who mans the counter replies, “This will be more convenient for you to read, since you only take the chapters you want to read with you to the beach.”

In shock, you ask, “What if I want to read ahead, or go back to a part I’ve already read and reread it?”

You are given an odd response, “Well, just carry those with you as well.”

You question the logic, “Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of it though? Why not just have the book bound so I can take the whole thing with me?”

Another deflection, “This will make it cheaper for you. You won’t have to pay as much.”

You furrow your brows, “But I have to pay for the binder.”

The cashier attempts to muster up another solid defense. “But if a new edition of the book comes out with a new foreward, prologue, and epilogue, you can just add those to your book!”

To you, this makes no sense. “You can’t assume that other people already have the book, so you’re going to have to print everything again. This just seems inconvenient and unnecessary.”

No response. Begrudgingly, you pay the cashier and go about your way, taking another excursion to buy a binder. When you get home, you take the shrink wrap off the stack of papers and insert it into the binder. Now you can read your fiction just fine!

A few days later, you rip one of the pages on the ring of the binder because you turned it just a bit too quickly. You fix it with some tape, but you keep thinking, this wouldn’t have happened if the book was just bound!

But you will survive, as will your reading experience. However, over the next few days you get to the part where Ishmael becomes bedfellows with Qeequeg and…Tashtego spots a school of sperm whales.

Wait, what? You ask yourself in disbelief. Where did this come from? This doesn’t make sense.

You look down at the page number and notice it’s significantly higher than the last one. You’re missing multiple pages.

Unbound and Unhinged

Despite the absurdity of the situation above, it’s increasingly common for school textbooks to be sold as stacks of unbound loose leaf paper. The same justifications and supposed reasonings are trotted out. Claims of student convenience, adding new sections of a book in a piecemeal fashion, and promises of a cheaper product abound.

They can all be dismantled using basic logic and common sense. They are also subject to the aforementioned possibility of a loss of pages should someone decide to purchase their book used. The only guaranteed way to get all of the information, it appears, is to purchase a new book.

Students often complain about the ever-changing editions that appear to be focused more on getting people to buy new books than providing new information, and this is another subject of hand-wringing.

Due to the fact that the claims provided by the publishers fall apart under the mildest of scrutiny, students speculate that the reason behind this has to do with control of the market and maintaining profitability.

The data presented by the Wall Street Journal appears to support this. As students prioritize minimizing costs, finding used or free textbooks is ideal for the budget-conscious. This of course, translates to lost sales.

One of the advantages of a bound book is that it’s easier to resell. This of course means that a potential  purchase of a new textbook is lost, making the unbound option attractive to textbook publishers.

The downside is that these unbound textbooks are also very easy to copy, but that seems to be of little importance. The copying of a textbook is likely going to be inefficient, time-consuming, and costly. Additionally, it is illegal to copy a whole textbook, although copying portions needed for a project or assignment would be fair game.

Retaining textbooks for future use in one’s career is also made difficult, as now an additional binder must purchased to house the paper after the class has been completed. Otherwise, the unbound paper will remain as such until scattered about through moving or rearranging the objects in one’s room.

However, while there is indeed frustration expressed by students, the outrage has been muted. It is accepted as an inevitability due to the dynamics between administration and textbook publishers.

Since the cost of college has risen to astronomical levels, and student loan debt has skyrocketed, now students are starting to feel and behave more like consumers. This practice is patently anti-consumer in its design, construction, and implementation.

Much like how Digital Rights Management works to restrict those who legally purchase their software, despite claims of being built to thwart piracy, unbound textbooks also punish those who purchased them through legitimate means. The only difference is that piracy is an offense punishable by law and reselling a textbook is just part of the package when it comes to personal property.

Until the perception of an unbound textbook as an inevitability changes, it is likely that more and more publishers will continue foisting them on a reluctant student body. When it crosses over from being a minor inconvenience to being an impediment in one’s education pursuits, however, it starts to warrant serious concern. Missing pages required to complete an assignment is completely unacceptable.