The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , , on June 2, 2013 by davehurwitz

You must have seen the cover art by now.  This freaking book is everywhere.FAIR WARNING:  This review contains a hell of lot spoilers.  I’m sorry, but this is pretty much unavoidable, as there are structural issues I want to discuss here, and to understand them I’m going to have to describe the plot of the book.  So, if you want to read The 5th Wave with any sort of suspense, you might want to hold off reading this review until afterward.  ‘Nuff said?

The 5th Wave is an alien invasion story.  Refreshingly, the invasion does not involve death rays destroying iconic architecture or jet vs. star-fighter dogfights.  Instead, what happens is a calculated series of attacks on populations and infrastructure.  In the first wave, an EMP weapon fries all electronic devices running on microchips, everything from cell phones and the computers to automobiles and airplanes.  In the second wave, multiple tsunamis–created by gigantic metal rods dropped from orbit onto Earth’s fault lines–inundate the world’s coastlines, killing 40% of the population.  In the third, a plague carried by birds kills 97% of those who remain.  In the fourth, alien ‘Silencers’ implanted into human beings hunt down those immune to the plague, ending trust and cooperation between survivors.

This is where our story begins.

Yancey’s novel contains two main point-of-view characters.  The first is sixteen year old Cassie Sullivan, and the first hundred pages or so belong to her.  Once your typical high school girl, we first find Cassie weeping and shivering in a tent in the woods, clutching a battered teddy bear and an M16, a complete emotional wreck.  Cassie has lost her entire family: her mother, her father, and her five year old brother, Sam.  Through journal entries, Cassie introduces the world of novel and gives her backstory.  This first portion of the novel ends when Cassie is shot by a Silencer sniper.

Subsequent Cassie sections detail her peculiar escape and her subsequent rescue by Evan Walker, a taciturn farmboy who has also lost every member of his family, girlfriend included.  While Cassie recovers from her wounds in Evan’s family home, she vacillates between trauma-fueled suspicion and a growing affection for her quiet, able host.  Unfortunately, evidence begins to mount that Evan is not exactly what he seems to be.  Could he even be the man–the thing–that shot her?

All of the above makes for a pretty satisfying narrative, full of suspense and emotional turmoil.  Though certainly derivative of Jack Finney’s The Bodysnatchers, these first few Cassie sections are my favorite portion the book.

Yancey’s second protagonist is Ben Parish, a former high school football star who has also lost everyone he ever loved, not to the plague or the Silencers, but to human looters.  Ben is further haunted by his panicked abandonment of his little sister, a failure he can never forget.  Plucked from a tent city outside Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ben and other children–some as young as six and seven–are trained to be soldiers.  Ben throws himself into his new role, seeing it as a path to redemption.  But when Ben’s unit finally takes the field, it becomes clear that the ‘infested’ humans they’ve been sent to kill are simply human beings, which means the officers who sent them may very well be the enemy.

Again, these early Ben sections tell a compelling story.  Here too, I’m reminded of another author’s work–in this case Orson Scott Card’s Enders Game–but, like Cassie’s, Ben’s story stands on its own merits.  No, Ben Parish isn’t the problem.  The 5th Wave breaks down, in my opinion at least, where the Ben and Cassie stories intersect.

That point of intersection is Cassie’s brother Sam.  Far from being dead, Sam ends up training alongside Ben at Wright Patterson, now rechristened Camp Haven.  Both Cassie and Ben vow to get him out of Camp Haven, and their overlapping rescue attempts occupy the book’s final pages.

Where the majority of the novel puts familiar alien invasion cliches to new and interesting uses, the climax is just cliched.  Air ducts large enough to admit human beings penetrate the supposedly ultra-secure Camp Haven, leading to places like the armory and the control center.  There is a final showdown with the alien commander, Colonel Vosch, which fails to end decisively only because there are sequels still to come.  Finally, there is the James-Bond-style destruction of the base, with our heroes barely escaping giant explosions and a massive, fast moving sinkhole.  For a book that began so promisingly, this is a dismal end.

The 5th Wave also suffers from a certain thematic muddiness.  If this books has a message, it is not conveyed clearly.  Part of this is faulty technique.  Yancey repeats a number of phrases and sentences throughout the narrative in order to lay out possible responses to the invasion.  There are simply too many of these.  The survivors are compared to both cockroaches and to clay.  The reader is told that only the ruthless will survive, then exhorted to see each remaining life as precious.  Worse yet, these key phrases are often put into the mouths of wildly different characters–some of whom spend the whole book apart–and given brand new meanings.  The end result is not enlightenment for the reader, but confusion and annoyance.

None of which is to suggest that The 5th Wave is a bad book.  It is simply not as good as it might have been, which is a pity.  Yancey can do better than this.

A crow sits atop a a tombstone against the full moon.  Nice and spooky.One benefit of the hype surrounding The 5th Wave is that it has convinced Simon & Schuster to publish The Final Descent, the fourth and final volume of Yancey’s Monstrumologist series.  (Due out this September)  These historical horror novels tell the story of Will Henry, unhappy orphan and reluctant apprentice to Pellinore Warthrop, a scientist who studies–and occasionally battles–monsters.  Though never bestsellers, The Monstrumologist and it’s sequels are superior to the more commercial 5th Wave.  They are more frightening, much more gory, and more deft in their treatment of theme and character.  In short, they are Yancey’s masterworks.

Dave Hurwitz

Redlaw by James Lovegrove

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , on April 20, 2013 by davehurwitz

Satan & All His Little WizardsThere’s a blurb from The Bookseller that appears on several of James Lovegrove’s book covers that reads “Lovegrove has become to the 21st Century what J.G. Ballard was to the 20th.”  I find this comparison funny, or at least peculiar, as I vaguely recall somebody–possibly Mark Ziesing–calling Ballard the 20th Century’s H.G. Wells.  (Never mind that Wells lived and wrote well into the second World War.)  Does this make Lovegrove–by extension, as it were–the 21st Century Wells?  While I can attest to the validity of the Ballard / Wells comparison, I had never read any Lovegrove until recently.

Lovegrove seems to be best known for Age of Ra, an alternate history sci-fi action spectacular in which the Gods of ancient Egypt have taken over the British Empire.  The premise is a bit outlandish, perhaps, but no more so than the alien lizard people who rule Britannia in Lavie Tidhar’s Bookman Histories.  It could be wonderful.  So why didn’t I start there?  A stroll over to Solaris Books–Lovegrove’s mass market publisher–will show you why.  Though Age of Ra is a relatively recent book, it has already been followed by Age of Zeus, Age of Odin, Age of Aztec, and Age of Voodoo, as well as the novellas Age of Anasazi, Age of Satan, and Age of Gaia.  While the urge to repeat a success is certainly understandable, a palpable odor of dead horse hangs over this series.  I decided to start elsewhere.

The monster in my chest want to eat armed midgets.The new series starter Redlaw seemed more my speed anyway.  Our titular hero, John Redlaw, is an officer of SHADE, the Sunless Housing and Disclosure Executive, Sunless being the politically correct term for vampires.  Redlaw is an aging veteran, having joined SHADE at the time of its formation twenty-some years previously, when the sunless–driven from their traditional Balkan homelands–started arriving on British shores.  At present, the sunless are corralled into SRAs–Sunless Resettlement Areas–fenced ghettos reminiscent of prewar Nazi Germany’s housing for Jews.  In theory, the fences keep the human and vampire populations safely divided.  In practice, the strong and agile sunless can leave any time they like, though they risk summary destruction at the hands of SHADE.  Vampire-hating Stoker gangs roam the borders of the SRAs, eager for a piece of the action.  When this uneasy truce is broken by a series of riots, Redlaw begins to suspect that someone is manipulating both groups.  But to what end?

Vampires aside, Redlaw is your basic troubled-cop-uncovers-massive-conspiracy potboiler structured like an open-play mystery, where the reader knows more than the protagonist.  Our villain, Nathaniel Lambourne, is a fairly standard evil billionaire, aided and abetted by the more well rounded Giles Slocock, a brutally self-serving MP.  Action sequences punctuate the plot at regular intervals, including an all out riot at the very steps of Parliament.

Lovegrove tries to elevate his narrative to the level of allegory, making clear parallels between the treatment of the sunless–most of whom were turned against their will–and the real-world treatment of other despised minorities, especially Jews.  I find this analogy suspect, to say the least.  Left to their own devices, the vampires in this story would most certainly prey on human beings.  They are predators and must be confined, if not destroyed outright.  This is not the case with living minorities.  Contrary to what some people seem to think, Jews don’t drink human blood.

Overall, Redlaw is an fairly entertaining read, even if it takes itself a bit too seriously.  It’s not a patch on Hard Spell or Midnight Riot, but it will do.  I’ll most likely pick up the sequel at some point, though I hope Lovegrove quits before the premise gets stale.  After all, H.G. Wells never wrote Return to the Island of Doctor Moreau or The Time Machine, Part Two.

Dave Hurwitz

The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , , on April 11, 2013 by davehurwitz

Two Englishman at CricketWhile many readers of modern day Victoriana believe that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have their criminal opposites in Professor Moriarty and Colonel Sebastian Moran, this isn’t really the case.  The Professor and the Colonel, though they have been portrayed as a Holmes-and-Watson type duo in countless non-canonical books, TV shows and films, never share a scene together in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle.  Nor do they appear in a great many Doyle stories.  “The Napoleon of Crime” appears in two, while “the second most dangerous man in England” only rates one.  Conan Doyle created both men to fit specific plot purposes.  He invented Moriarty in order to kill Holmes.  After a change of heart, he used Moran to bring him back from the dead.  Once these ends were accomplished, both characters were quickly discarded.

More worthy of comparison to Holmes and Watson, but less familiar to American audiences, are A.J. Raffles and “Bunny” Manders, gentlemen thieves.  Raffles and Bunny are hardly master criminals.  They don’t sit at the center of a vast criminal network, but operate alone.  Rather than pull off elaborate, impossible-seeming thefts, they choose easy scores and careless victims.  Nor do they cross swords or match wits with famous master detectives.  They have enough to do outwitting their victims and evading the ordinary police.  Though less impressive than the exploits of France’s Arsene Lupin, their crimes have a more credible, less fanciful feel.  Compared with Moriarty and Moran, Raffles and Bunny seem more like real people with genuine motives and emotions.

Is his hair realy black?  Can't be!

David Niven as Raffles from the 1939 Film

A.J. Raffles is a sensation seeker who views his burglaries as ‘sport’.  In the story “Gentleman and Players” he professes to be bored with cricket–which he excels at–because it does not compare with crime.  As he says, “What’s the satisfaction of taking a man’s wicket when  you want  his spoons?”  Scoring points in a mere game does not satisfy like stealing silver.  Were it not for an ill-defined code of gentlemanly conduct, Raffles might go further still.  In “Willful Murder” Raffles and Bunny contemplate silencing their blackmailing fence, Angus Baird.  Over dinner at his club, Raffles proclaims “the biggest man alive is the man who’s committed a murder and not yet been found out….  Just think of it!  Think of coming in here and talking to the men, very likely about the murder itself; and knowing you’ve done it; and wondering how they’d look if they knew!  Oh, it would be great, simply great!”  Circumstances prevent Raffles from testing this theory, but it’s clear that the possibility of being caught adds zest to Raffles’ exploits.

By contrast, our Watson-like narrator Bunny Manders is both more moral and more cowardly.  He dreads exposure, and his conscience needles him every time he participates in one of Raffles’ crimes.  But these misgivings are completely overwhelmed by his admiration of his bolder friend.  Bunny first met A.J. at school, where he became the older boy’s dogsbody–a relationship that is taken to institutional levels in British public schools–and helped him commit petty misdeeds.  Though both are now adults, the basic nature of their relationship remains the same.  Critics and parodists have suggested that Bunny is a repressed homosexual, and there is some evidence for this.  In “The Ides of March” Bunny dwells on Raffles’ “curly black hair” and “strong, unscrupulous mouth.”  He calls him “irresistible” and “masterful.”  However, this is the first ever Raffles story, and some description of the man’s appearance and character is required.  Gay or straight, Bunny is completely under Raffles thumb.  And so, by extension, is the reader.

Taken together, Raffles and Bunny represent a peculiarly European phenomenon, upper class gentlemen who are too poor to afford the “polite society” into which they have been born and to “well brought up” to work.  Neither members of the peerage nor the professional classes, they are literally at loose ends.  You can see similar men cluttering up the Drones Club of P.G. Wodehouse.  Bunny tries to make an honest living, but the only thing he can bring himself to do is write poetry.  Raffles would make an excellent businessman, but disdains such dull labor.  Given their social standing and character flaws, it seems inevitable that they would turn to crime.

Though the stories that make up The Amateur Cracksman (1899) were first published individually, taken together they read like a continuous narrative.  Hornung followed up with two further story collections–The Black Mask (1901) and A Thief in the Night (1905)–as well as a full length novel–Mr. Justice Raffles (1909).  The Raffles stories were quite popular in their day and are still read a remembered in UK even now.  It’s easy enough to see why.  The stories are light, entertaining, and composed in a highly readable style.  I recommend them to anyone who enjoys Victoriana, but wants a break from Steampunk and Sherlock Holmes.

Dave Hurwitz

REAMDE by Neal Stephenson

Posted in Book Review with tags , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2013 by davehurwitz

Just the author's name and the title. Noting fancy.I suppose it was bound to happen.  At the start of the year I made a resolution to make The Weekly Rot truly weekly again.  Now here it is, only the beginning of April, and I’ve cocked it up already.  Yup, it’s been more than a week since my last post.  Of course, I have plausible excuses.  For a start, the previous post on union membership felt important to me, and I wanted to give it a little more time at the top.  Beyond that, my college observed Spring Break last week, so I considered myself on vacation.  Finally, for most of the last couple of weeks, I’ve had my head firmly wedged in a great big book.

I’m a slow reader, so I’m not normally a fan of massively thick novels.  Speed aside, I believe my favorite genres (horror, crime, science fiction) are not well served by extreme length.  Take Stephen King’s The Stand as an example.  Yes, it’s considered a classic, but few readers would argue that the book is well constructed or arrives at a satisfactory ending.  In my opinion, a book in any of these categories should top out between 350 and 400 pages.  Many works of even less length are exceptional.  Racking up a mere 218 pages, Robert Charles Wilson‘s Bios is more of a novella, really.  Even so, it’s a perfect clockwork of plotting and theme.  Epic Fantasy is an obvious exception to this rule–hence the Epic–but I’ve read very little of this since my teens.

Several people whose taste in books I trust have recommended Stephenson to me over the years, but I have always been daunted by the length issue.  In the spirit of trying new things, I selected REAMDE more or less at random and brought it home from the library.  The sheer size and weight of the book were a bit off-putting.  At 1,044 pages, you could easily batter someone to death with Stephenson’s novel.  It did not sit comfortably on my lap.  Nevertheless, I cracked the cover and read.  Well-written, funny, and intelligent, REAMDE got its hooks into me very rapidly.

A cube composed of orange lines.  I don't really get it.REAMDE falls into a new sub-genre that really doesn’t have proper name yet, but that I like to call Near Present.  Notable works in this field include William Gibson‘s Blue Ant Trilogy (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, Zero History) and certain works by Charles Stross (Halting State, Rule 34).  Charlie Huston’s upcoming Skinner looks like it will belong as well. As a whole, these books deal with the absurdities of the internet age.  The protagonists often have the sort of tech industry non-careers that didn’t exist ten or fifteen years ago.  These are frequently contrasted with characters from developing nations.  Interconnectedness is common theme, displayed in plots rife with random meetings and odd coincidences.  Though structured like thrillers, the action in Near Present novels is often set in motion by something trivial or absurd–the violent conflict in Zero History begins with the theft of the design specs for a pair of pants.

REAMDE begins in a similar vein.  A Chinese hacker creates a virus that attacks players of T’Rain, a popular MMO, encrypting all the files on their computers.  The victims can obtain the encryption key by paying a ransom of 1,000 T’Rain gold pieces, equal to a mere seventy-three real world dollars.  But paying the ransom has become problematic, as the in-game drop point is choked with players desperate to get their files back.  One of these players is Wallace, a money manager for a Russian gangster who goes by the name of Ivanov.  Wallace would like to pay the ransom, but since Ivanov is short tempered and doesn’t really get computers, he ends up kidnapping a pair of American hackers and flying them to China with the intention of tracking down and killing the virus writer.  All this happens in the first hundred and fifty pages.  From there, things just get weirder.

REAMDE is a true ensemble piece, the point of view rotating through a wide cast of characters.  The main players are Richard Forthrast, co-creator of T’Rain and retired CEO of its corporation, and his niece Zula, a young Eritrean woman who was adopted into the Forthrast family at the age of eight.  Other characters shouldering story duty include Sokolov, a former Spetsnaz officer who works security for dubious characters like Ivanov, Csongor, a hulking Hungarian systems administrator also in Ivanov’s employ, Qain Yuxia, a Hakka tea wholesaler, Marlon, creator of the REAMDE virus and de facto head of a Chinese gold farming operation, and others.  While the novel is certainly generous enough to support such a large cast, some characters get introduced at oddly inconvenient moments.  For example, Olivia Halifax-Lin, an MI6 deep cover agent in China, first appears, complete with copious back story, right in the middle of an otherwise splendid firefight.

Despite an action heavy plot, Stephenson manages a lot of truly funny moments.  Richard Forthrast’s doorbell rings while he is playing the ultra-powerful T’Rain character Egdod.  Since Egdod’s voice is a Godlike boom, the bell sounds out over an entire city in the game world.  Sadly, there are just as many technical asides that I could have lived without.  The peculiar psychology of screen brightness, while mildly interesting, was not worth interrupting the narrative flow, at least not for me.  (He also tends to go on about geography.)  Maybe it’s just the size thing.  I might have been more tolerant of these digressions in work that was shorter– and more tightly plotted–overall.  Or if I were used to reading longer books.

This dichotomy pretty much sums up my reaction to REAMDE.  While individual pages, scenes, and set pieces were compelling, the sheer size of the book transformed a page-turner into a slog.  Much as I enjoyed REAMDE, by the end I just wanted to be done with it.  In my view, a truly successful novel should leave readers wanting more, not wishing there had been a bit less.

Dave Hurwitz

‘Union’ is Not a Four Letter Word

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on March 20, 2013 by davehurwitz
Blue Sky & Palm Trees

Beautiful Southwestern College

I have made history, of a sort.  As of this week, I am the very first member to be profiled on the brand new website for the SCEA, my faculty union.  I’m honored.  Hopefully other profiles will follow, and it won’t be just me hanging out there by myself.  In the mean time, here are some thoughts on the predicament of unions today and why I became a union member in the first place.

Several semesters back, one of my students came up during break holding a pay stub from Henry’s.  This was her first paycheck from her first ever job, and she wanted to know where all the “missing money” had gone.  I can never resist explaining anything to anybody, so I was happy to help.  Taxes she understood perfectly well.  She had at least heard of Social Security, so that was another easy one.  But when I said that the last deduction paid her union dues, she gave me blank look and asked, “What’s a union?”

I will admit to being a little stunned.  I remembered learning a great deal about U.S. labor movements and unionism in a junior high school political science class.  Yet here was a grown woman, a high school graduate, who didn’t know what a union was.  Shocking.  After a longish pause, I launched into a very abbreviated explanation of collective bargaining and the good things it has brought us over the decades: the forty hour work week, overtime pay, child labor laws, safety regulations, workman’s compensation, whistle-blower protection.  By the time I needed to resume class, I think she understood.  Still, I remained befuddled.  Part of me just couldn’t believe that it had been necessary to even have that conversation.

These days, I look back at my reaction as naive.  With collective bargaining under legislative assault in a number of states and anti-union, anti-public employee rhetoric trotted out by local political hopefuls in every election cycle, I’ve realized that this is a conversation that I–that all union workers–should be having with a lot more people.

Not that I’m in any position to throw stones.  When I started working for SWC, I did not join the faculty union.  This was back in the days when non-members paid no dues, but got representation anyway, so I saved a few dollars every paycheck.  I needed the money, and I didn’t feel any guilt about it.  That changed when I needed the union’s help.  I had been denied an interview for a full time faculty position despite a clause in our contract that guarantees a first round interview to all adjuncts with three or more semesters under their belts, a clause the SCEA negotiated, by the way.  I sent an email to the grievance chair, and a couple days later I was back on the interview list.  I didn’t even need to file a formal complaint.  At that point, I decided to pay up and support the union that had supported me.

This makes for a good story, but now I can’t help but see my reason for joining as little selfish, a little shortsighted.  The union is always working for me, whether or not it is solving a specific problem on my behalf.  Recently, the SCEA helped to elect a more labor friendly governing board for my college.  Even now, the union is engaged in some very fraught negotiations with the administration over the next faculty contract.  These things might not seem like such a big deal, especially to freeway flying adjuncts who work multiple campuses, but all of us will feel the impact soon enough, in our workloads and in our paychecks.  I for one am counting on our union officials and negotiators to stand tall.

Why am I pro-union?  Why do I belong to the SCEA?  Because the least I can do is stand behind them.

D. Hurwitz

‘Ask a Silly Queston’ by Donald E. Westlake

Posted in Book Review, Parker with tags , , , , , , on March 16, 2013 by davehurwitz

I’ve exercised my obsession with Caitlin R. Kiernan a great deal in the last few weeks.  The other author I can’t stop going on about is Richard Stark, creator of Parker, crime fiction’s toughest professional thief.  Stark’s appeal has always been something of a puzzle to me, as he depicts a society devoid of morality, populated by the weak and the venal.  Against this grimy backdrop, a near sociopath like Parker seems virtuous, if only in contrast.  Richard Stark is the most prolific pseudonym of Mystery Writers of America grandmaster Donald E. Westlake, a fact that seems unlikely to those who have read “both” authors. While Stark is the ultimate nihilist, much of Westlake’s work is gently humorous, even cosy.

Westlake’s antidote for Parker is John Dortmunder, a New York City thief who never seems to catch a break.  In movie adaptations, Dortmunder has been played by actors a various as George C. Scott, Robert Redford, and even Martin Lawrence, but I always picture him looking a bit like Fred Ward (who has not played Dortmunder, but has played Hoke Moseley), a perpetually aggrieved schlub.  Along with a cast of regular cronies, Dortmunder specializes in easy-seeming scores that invariably go sideways.  Dortmunder confronts these setbacks, not with the brutality of Parker, but with an outside-the-box cleverness all his own.  Of the fourteen Dormunder novels Westlake worte before his death, I have read the most recent five.  All of them were entertaining, light and funny in way Richard Stark never is.

A Charm Bracelet 'O Crime!Originally published in Playboy Magazine, “Ask a Silly Question” has a more permanent home in Thieves’ Dozen, a collection of Dortmunder stories that seems unlikely to ever go out of print.  (Westlake is a mainstay of public library mystery shelves as well.)  In this particular story, Dortmunder is on his way to a planning session at the O.J. Bar and Grill when he is kidnapped by a very polite, very wealthy, older man.  This unnamed individual has a problem, and he’s willing to pay Dortmunder to help him solve it.  In his younger years, the elegant man purchased a genuine Rodin bronze.  A recent divorce gave ownership to his ex-wife.  Unable to part with this treasure, the elegant man commissioned a fake, made by taking a mold of the original.  So far so good, but now the ex-wife is donating the fake to museum, an act which will certainly expose the fraud.  Now the elegant man wants to steal the fake while his ex-wife is abroad.  There’s just one problem.  The bronze statue weights more than five-hundred pounds.  Can Dortmunder pull off this heist without giving himself a hernia?  Will he actually get paid?  Will he ever make it to the backroom at the O.J.?  There’s only one way to find out.

Blurbs frequently describe the Dortmunder novels as “Runyonesque,” an adjective that is all but meaningless to me.  (Evidently it refers to Damon Runyon, who wrote humorous stories about NYC underworld characters in the days of Prohibition.)  If forced to pick a single adjective, I would choose something simple, like “fun.”  Though the Dortmunder novels and stories utilize the structure of grittier heist fiction, they contain a lot less violence and lot more dry humor and absurd situations.  I’ve always enjoyed bad ass action, but in recent years, the straight stuff has become a little hard to take.  I’m sure I’ll always be a Parker fan, but I’m becoming increasingly fond of Dortmunder.

Dave Hurwitz

Why Are College Textbooks So Expensive?

Posted in Book Review, Education, Random Weirdness with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2013 by davehurwitz

I get asked this question a lot, usually by frustrated students who’ve had to plunk down a serious chunk of change for a book they don’t really want to read in the first place.  By way of example, the required text for one of my English classes, Evergreen: A Guide to Writing with Readings, has a list price of $132.95.  Textbooks for hard science subjects like Physics or Chemistry can run twice that much.  Publisher’s reps, when I ask them this same question, invariably give the same tired old answers.  They say that textbooks are a niche market, with smaller print runs than popular novels, which drives up the per unit printing cost.  They also say that they must often pay royalties to not only the editor of a textbook, but to the authors of various essays reprinted within the book, which adds to the cost.

Strangely, the jacket art is white, not green.Both of these excuses–for they are excuses, not reasons–are transparent bullshit.  I buy fiction titles from niche presses all them time.  These are books with severely limited print runs, often no more than 500 copies.  Sure, the per unit cost is higher, but I’ve never paid $133 dollars for one of these titles.  The most expensive work of fiction I own cost $60, and was bound by hand with sewn in signatures.  Besides, with 89% of U.S. high school graduates enrolling in colleges and universities, how small is the textbook market, really?  The second excuse is equally bogus.  I’m sure you’ve all seen multiple-author story anthologies at your local bookstore.  All those writers had to be paid individually, too, but those books don’t cost any more than single-author titles of the same size.

Textbooks are overpriced because textbook publishers cling to outmoded notions of how their books should be produced and sold.  Having worked both as a small press publisher and as a college instructor, I naturally have a few ideas about how this situation can be improved.

Print Textbooks in Standard Trim Sizes on Cheap Paper:

They say this book jacket can't pay the rent...Let’s face it, college textbooks are a disposable item.  Most students can’t wait to get rid of them when the semester is over.  If they cling to them at all, it’s because they want to sell them carefully in order recoup as much of the cover price as possible.  Given these truths, there’s no reason not to print cheap books that can just be tossed in the recycling bin after finals week.  As an example, let’s look at another book I use, They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.  This is a small, short, softbound book, with no color printing, but a new copy will still set you back $25.  Why?  Because it’s printed on slick paper with it’s own unique trim size.  There’s simply no excuse for this.  A mass market publisher like Angry Robot could knock out newsprint copies for $8 each and still turn a profit.  That’s less than a third of what my students are asked to pay.  Mass market style textbooks would also mean more new book sales for publishers, since an $8 paperback is scarcely worth reselling.

Stop Printing in Color Unless Absolutely Necessary:

English Composition is not a subject that requires a lot of charts and graphs, yet most of the textbooks I see are printed in color, and styled like commercial websites.  This not only requires a more expensive printing process, but necessitates a higher quality of paper than simple black and white.  So why use color in an English book?  The main reason seems to be that it adds ‘visual interest,’ eye candy intended to lure students into reading the presumably uninviting content.  I’m not against this in theory, but in practice, a lot the ‘visual interest’ items seem pointless or even counter-productive.  Going back to Evergreen for an example, right smack in the middle of a chapter on sentence fragments, there is a half-page full color reproduction of an ad for Tommy Hilfiger clothing.  Yes, it is visually arresting.  Yes, it could reasonably generate a discussion on the psychology of advertising.  But what is it doing in a chapter about basic sentence errors?  Nothing, except distracting my students from the matter at hand, and possibly selling some yachting outfits.  Frankly, I’d rather have plain old black and white, especially if it brings the price of the book down.  In cases that absolutely require full color figures–hard science textbooks again–I suggest the solution adopted long ago by the publishers of true crime books and movie star biographies, print most of the book in black and white, with a signature or two of color in the middle where all the nice photos go.

Ditch the Enhancements:

In the Fall of 2010, a video made the rounds on YouTube in which Management Professor Richard A. Quinn of the University of Central Florida accused most of his class of cheating on a midterm exam.  The test in question had been assembled from a database of potential questions provided by the publisher of his textbook.  Though Quinn seemed sincerely outraged, I was shocked by his naivete.  Really, what did he expect to happen?  Any sizable student population is bound contain a few individuals with Mad Hacker Skillz.  It’s a given that this not-terribly-secure database would be cracked by someone who would then pass on the the questions and their answers, either for profit or out of a misplaced sense of altruism.  No professor worth his tenure–especially one with multiple grad students to use as slave labor–uses canned test questions for precisely this reason.  Yet, this is exactly the sort of ‘bonus content’ that publishers waste time and money producing.  Other typical ‘enhancements’ include publisher hosted blogs and social media sites keyed to specific textbooks.  These too become fertile fields for cheaters and short-cut artists, this time in the form of term papers plagiarized from other students who have posted their legitimate work to these sites.  Frankly, I’ve even grow leery of using textbooks batched with readings.  Once they’ve been in circulation a while, corresponding essays start to appear on the internet, either posted to personal sites by proud students, or for sale as ‘research tools.’  Either way, these present even more opportunities for plagiarism.  Publishers should stop providing these crutches for lazy professors.  They increase the cost of textbooks without improving their intrinsic qualities, and ultimately cause more classroom problems than they solve.

Embrace Student-Friendly Technologies and Sales Points:

There are hopeful signs in this area.  The webpage of Cengage, the publisher of Evergreen, offers an electronic version of the book for $46.49.  This is a rental, a bit like a library ebook, which will vanish from students’ computers at the end of the semester.  Weirdly, it’s actually cheaper to rent the physical book, which comes with a postage paid return.  Clearly, Cengage isn’t pushing its electronic content very hard, despite the obvious cost savings.  But how many students will even find this page without assistance?  Over at Amazon, where most ebook purchasers wash up, a Kindle-ready copy of Evergreen will set you back $92.49.  Hardly an alluring price tag, especially when you consider that you can buy a used copy for half that much from These Sellers.  Evergreen isn’t even for sale at Smashwords, where all the cool kids hang out.  This situation is fairly typical for electronic textbooks.  They’re often too expensive relative to the cost of the print book.  Students and even instructors may be unaware of them because they’re not sold in the usual places, and campus bookstores have an obvious motive to deny their very existence.  But these problems can be overcome.  Publishers can strike deals with popular ebook providers, or at least promote their own sales points more effectively.  A sane and consistent pricing policy, one that bears in mind the easy availability of used print books, can be found.  After all, publishers earn nothing from used book sales, a clear reason to make electronic books cheaper.  In the end, both textbook publishers and their customers–the students–will benefit.  Isn’t that what good business is all about?

Dave Hurwitz

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