Absolutely Terrible Textbook Publishing Giant Pearson Wants To Make Everything Even Worse With NFTs

peter.suber's bookmarks 2022-08-05

Pretty much everyone who has ever gone to college hates educational publishers. There’s an oligopoly of just five giant publishers, and they long ago learned that they are in the best market ever: the buyers of their textbooks (the students) have no choice and are forced to buy the books if their professors assign them — and more such books will get sold every semester that the professor requires it. Therefore, textbook prices are insane by any imaginable standard. And, for decades, they kept getting highermassively outpacing tons of other goods. For unclear reasons, the never ending march upwards in book pricing finally seemed to hit a ceiling around 2016, and prices seem to have somewhat leveled out since then. This chart from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics is really pretty striking:

And, while publishers claim that the shift to digital textbooks (partially accelerating by remote learning during the pandemic) has resulted in a decline in student spending over the last five years, the College Board’s latest estimates are still that students will spend an average of $1240 per year on textbooks and supplies. That’s… a lot.

While there are some considerate professors out there who take into account the cost of textbooks (and a very rare few who will only require open access textbooks), most don’t seem to much care. They assign the books they want, the students are required to buy them, and so the publishers just keep raising the prices. Of course, the other way that students try to save money is by buying used textbooks. The savings are not always that significant, but when you’re talking about such large numbers, it can still make a huge difference.

Pearson, the largest of the Big 5 textbook publishers, also has a longstanding reputation for being particularly evil and uncaring. A decade ago, we wrote about how it had sent a single DMCA notice that resulted in 1.5 million teacher and student blogs being deleted. The company also was a key plaintiff in suing a startup that tried to offer free alternatives to super expensive textbooks (the lawsuit was eventually settled with the startup shifting business models, before it was acquired and its cheaper textbooks were shut down).

But, the most evil thing we’ve seen Pearson do was, back in 2019, when it announced it was so annoyed by the used textbook market digging into its never ending profits, and that it was going to switch all its textbooks to non-resalable digital textbooks. For the books it did print, it was going to try to shift to a rental only system. You pay for the textbook for a semester and then you return it. To Pearson. Who can resell it.

Since then, digital scarcity in the form of NFTs has come and gone as the new hotness. And while I still think there’s something interesting about NFTs (and am still working on a big paper about the pros and cons of NFTs), Pearson, in a manner only it could find reasonable, is embracing NFTs… to fuck over students even more.

The print editions of Pearson’s titles — such as “Fundamentals of Nursing,” which sells new for £57.99 ($70.88) — can be resold several times to other students without making the London-based education group any money. As more textbooks move to digital, CEO Andy Bird wants to change that. 

“In the analogue world, a Pearson textbook was resold up to seven times, and we would only participate in the first sale,” he told reporters following the London-based company’s interim results on Monday, talking about technological opportunities for the company. 

“The move to digital helps diminish the secondary market, and technology like blockchain and NFTs allows us to participate in every sale of that particular item as it goes through its life,” by tracking the material’s unique identifier on the ledger from “owner A to owner B to owner C,” said Bird, a former Disney executive.

I mean, I kinda have to hand it to Mr. Bird, the former Disney exec. Usually, these kinds of execs at least try to hide how fucking evil and greedy they are. Andy Bird doesn’t give a shit.

So, here’s the thing. The power of NFTs to track resales and allow the content creator to participate in later sales is often touted as a benefit of NFTs. But, the reason it’s seen that way is because when done for digital artwork it benefits the artist, who sometimes has to sell their works pretty cheaply upfront.

This, is not that.

This is a company that already has jacked up prices to ridiculous levels on a captive market that is effectively forced to purchase at whatever price the publisher sets — and now wanting to “diminish the secondary market” and to track and take a cut of any future sale.

That’s not the power of blockchains and NFTs. When people talk about the useful aspects of those technologies (to the extent there are useful aspects) it’s to enable greater ownership, not less. It’s to enable greater independence from giant corporations, not more. The reason NFT resale bounties work is because everyone feels that it’s fair, and it creates a seamless way to further compensate an artist who most buyers want to support. Not to funnel more cash to a giant, greedy, evil company that is already sucking students dry.

What Pearson is looking to do is to make everyone hate Pearson that much more.