College Textbooks Could Get a Lot Cheaper in the Future

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The cost of college tuition continues to soar and national student loan debt tops $1.5 trillion, but here’s a small consolation for degree-seekers: The cost of academic textbooks could start coming down, according to an article by professors Jenny Adams and Michael Ash for The Conversation.

The price of new textbooks has tripled since 1982, even though the cost of “recreational books” has fallen by nearly 40 percent in roughly the same time span (and yes, inflation was taken into account). So why are textbooks so expensive? As it turns out, technology has partly contributed to the problem. A small number of publishers monopolize the textbook industry, and new technological platforms have allowed them to release new editions more quickly and more frequently, rendering used editions obsolete. Newer electronic books also tend to come with doodads like access codes, which prohibit sharing.

Hope is on the horizon, though, because the textbook industry appears to be in a state of flux. For one, many students have discovered that they can find older versions of the textbooks they need in PDF format on websites like 4shared.com. And even though there are restrictions on sharing materials, many students do it anyway—and some professors have even started posting free content on course websites.

Other students have figured out that textbooks are priced differently in different global markets, and have hacked the system by ordering textbooks from locations where they’re sold at cheaper prices. As an example, The Conversation cites the textbook Economics by Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus, which sells for about $206 on Amazon and roughly $6 in India.

This, of course, is not sustainable for the textbook industry—and at various points in history, schools have been forced to take action to provide their students free or affordable access to information. In medieval times, for example, some manuscripts were priced at six and a half pounds (between $10,000 and $100,000 in today's money), and were often used as collateral for loans. Universities eventually introduced the pecia system (after the Latin for "piece"), in which stationers kept copies of textbooks and scribes were hired out to copy only the selections students needed for classes. And in the 16th century, after the printing press had been introduced, book prices started to drop. Adams and Ash believe that history may repeat itself once again.

Nowadays, many universities are already using more open-source textbooks written by faculty, and some experts have proposed alternatives, like publicly funded textbooks that would be available to all, or using their massive buying power to hold down prices.

So while students may have to continue being resourceful for a little while longer, it's likely that future students “might enjoy more regulated and lower textbook prices than this current generation,” The Conversation argues.

[h/t The Conversation]

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

A New Book by J.R.R. Tolkien Contains Previously Unpublished Essays About Middle-Earth

J.R.R. Tolkien photographed circa the 1940s.
J.R.R. Tolkien photographed circa the 1940s.
Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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It has been more than 80 years since J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit first appeared in bookstores in 1937—followed by The Lord of the Rings trilogy during the mid-1950s—and the enthusiasm for all things Middle-earth doesn’t seem to be waning anytime soon. While the premiere date for Amazon’s prequel TV series hasn’t been announced yet, another important date in 2021 has: June 24.

On that day, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) will release The Nature of Middle-earth, a book of heretofore unpublished writings by Tolkien himself. (HarperCollins will publish an identical edition in the UK.) As avid fans likely already know, this won’t be the first supplemental Middle-earth material in existence. Tolkien wrote prolifically about his fantasy world, and much of his other content was published posthumously—most notably The Silmarillion, an extensive collection of stories edited by Tolkien’s son, Christopher. As literary executor of his father’s estate, Christopher Tolkien edited and oversaw the release of most Tolkien works until his death at age 95 in January of this year.

Time to solve the mystery of which Middle-earthers can grow facial hair.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

According to Gizmodo, The Nature of Middle-earth was edited by NASA computer engineer Carl F. Hostetter, who also happens to be a venerated Tolkien scholar and the head of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship (E.L.F., for short). HMH revealed in a press release that this latest compilation will contain previously unknown details about “Elvish immortality and reincarnation,” “the Powers of Valar,” “the lands and beasts of Númenor,” and “the geography of the Rivers and Beacon-hills of Gondor.” It will also reportedly clear up the confusion over which races (and sexes) can grow beards in Middle-earth, a topic that crops up on internet message boards with surprising frequency.

U.S. residents can pre-order The Nature of Middle-earth from Amazon now for $24.

[h/t Gizmodo]