Updated: Dec 31, 2019
Many of you have probably not heard his name. Kirtseang is originally from Thailand who migrated to the US. The spirit of entrepreneurship that founded America possessed him. He set up a pipeline of buying US college textbooks in Thailand (cheaper versions), importing them through his relatives and friends and reselling them on eBay. One publisher who was affected by this (Wiley) sued him on the grounds of copyright infringement. The case wound up in the US Supreme Court and a few days ago, the verdict was pronounced. In short Kirtseang’s right to resell the territorially restricted books was upheld. Kirtseang the giant killer was born.
To many the giant he has slain is the villainous publisher or rather the lot of them. The argument in the West is that publishers overcharge US College textbooks and sell them cheaper in other countries. US students too have a right to buy the cheaper versions, etc. etc. But to me there is another giant that has inadvertently been affected – the giant body of students that study in developing countries. There are many voices rejoicing in the US while the giant I see is dying in his sleep. He is sleeping because this body of students is oblivious to the loss of inexpensive versions of textbooks originating from the US. Textbook publishing has always been a complex business. Authors want better royalties but don’t want to do much with the content, students want better quality at cheaper prices and the world thinks “freely available” is synonymous with “available for free”. Students in developing countries are hit with a double whammy and that is why I say the giant is dying in his sleep. The obvious consequence is cheaper editions of US textbooks disappearing from the market. There will be one single global price for all editions, the price set at US levels. The second whammy in developing countries, such as India, is the lack of quality authorship that could replace US texts. I am sure my comment will stir a hornets nest and its best, I explain this.
Indian authorship can be world class, but as of today it isn’t.
Textbook publishing has been a non-paying labour of love from the author’s point of view. Most home grown (Indian) publishers don’t have a royalty model linked to sales. Textbook creators (authors or plagiarists) are paid a lump-sum when the manuscript is delivered. From that point on it is the publisher that makes the money (or loses it). It’s true that publishers have the most to lose with any product they publish. But is the risk real with a student body as large as India? The answer may lie in an open dialog with the stakeholders, but I believe this (dialog) has been surpassed by circumstances.
Today’s The Times of India carries a section on textbook photocopying; a sort of war between publishers and students with academics pitching in. (I witnessed a similar one at a seminar I presented a few weeks ago.) There are some staggering numbers quoted and I am not sure even I (as a publisher) understand them. The figure quoted is Rs. 3.5 lakhs for purchase of textbooks for a BA (honours) course in Delhi University (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/Cost-scarcity-of-textbooks-drives-business/articleshow/19313074.cms). The argument for photocopying is boosted by the same article stating the photocopied version (customised course pack created by the photocopy shop) sells for around Rs. 7000. I am truly astounded at the argument but even if it was to be taken at face value here are some questions that behoove an answer.
Did DU recommend the wrong set of books?
Did publishers publish the wrong type of books? Are they brain dead for putting a book out of print when clearly students want them?
Should we believe that the photocopy shop is more aware of the course requirements than DU and the publishers put together are?
I am all for inexpensive (read cheap) textbooks but we need to get our collective act together. I can’t believe publishers and a prestigious university got this wrong. There are other factors such as fluctuating costs of paper and taxes that skew the costing process. The answer lies elsewhere. To talk about expenses incurred by students on every other activity other than textbooks would be like diving into a sea of box jellyfish. I am sure to be mauled no matter how deep I dive or how quickly I get out of the pool. And honestly this would be a poor defence to begin with.
It is Kirtseang who opens up possibilities for domestic textbook publishing to grow. And I don’t mean just India, but every developing nation on this planet. There is a high cost of creating original textbooks in the US. This can’t be denied but it is this very cost that is also an opportunity for domestic book publishing to step in and fill the void. And I believe it can.
My quandary still remains, is Kirtseang a villain or a hero…