Coffee heat rising

Time flies…damn fast!

Woo HOO! There’s a book hiding in this pile of pills!

Tempus fidgets, as my mother used to say. She and about a million others in the Greatest Generation, I’m sure. True that, though: time passes so fast you don’t even notice it going by.

Yesterday, for example, I didn’t notice it was Wednesday. Thought it was Tuesday. Along about sundown it happened to occur to me that a whole day had disappeared. 😀 Tossed a blurb from Asked up online, but never did much else, partly because we had another sharp storm in the evening that threatened to blow down trees and power poles.

Just wrote that little piece on Quora — “Did You Ever Walk Out on a Doctor (because he was disrespectful…).” And right off the bat, it attracted something over 200 “likes” — a kind of a record. Since it went over so well there, I decided to add it to the Asked collection.

Another essay — on getting out of an abusive relationship — is closing in on 1,000 likes. Can you imagine?

In the middle of this, up pops a message from a client: did I receive the paper he’d sent me to edit?

Uhmmmm…well, nooooooo….

Turns out the damn MacMail decided out of the blue to route messages from this guy into “Junk Mail.” This was several days ago. He sent me a new copy before I could find the original among the 105 unread messages in “Junk,” the 174 derailed to “Trash,” and the 415 (!!!!) in  the “Facebook” folder.

Holy shit! There is simply NO way anyone could possibly keep up with that tsunami.

Tuesday was one long struggle through the heat and humidity to stay focused on writing the proposal for the Drugging of America book. On reflection, I realized Chapter 1 covered way too much ground, and that I needed to break it into three chapters. That took most of the day.

So I now have three new chapters — for a total of 17, plus the introduction, plus the references section, plus a resources section. And now I have to revise the chapter outline. Whee!

But by the end of today, most of the proposal was drafted. Still have to write a self-aggrandizing bio, but otherwise the most difficult parts of that thing are done. Tomorrow I’ll finish the body of the proposal, revise the chapter outline, and get the thing ready to send off. I hope.

My plan is to send one proposal to one university press — the one I think most likely to publish this book. Then when (which is usually the case: when not if) they reject, I’ll send out a half-dozen at a time until someone bites.

And I think they will. This really is a great idea for a book, one whose time has arrived. And there isn’t much competition. Other than Barbara Ehrenreich’s latest eloquent rant, that is.

But the advantage I think mine has is that it isn’t an eloquent piece of creative nonfiction cum seat-of-the-pants reporting. This is a book that could be — easily — used as a reading in a number of college courses. And not just in pharmacy or nursing. The proposal will suggest courses — real courses that I’ve tracked down at universities — in public policy, nursing, and pharmacy, plus a combined program that leads to an MD and a master’s in journalism.

Texts that sell in college courses, as you can imagine, are the sine qua non of academic publishing. Sell a book to one professor, and you sell upwards of a dozen copies a semester. If it’s a decent undergraduate course — as you can bet will be the case in colleges of nursing — you’ll unload upwards of 30 copies per section. A required lower-division course? Hundreds of copies. Every semester. At a stiff price.

I was still getting substantial royalties from The Essential Feature 10 years after the thing went to press…because every professor who ordered it for a course spawned 30 or 60 sales. Per semester.

So…that’s how I hope to sell this book.

However it flies, the thing is not going on the trash-heap that is Amazon.

Selling your squibs on Amazon is fine as a hobby. That’s essentially what my little scribbles are — the FireRider series and the diet/cookbook thing and the various other stuff. Taken together, they generate about $5 a month. When the weather’s  good. But pretend as much as you would like that you’re “in business” to sell the stuff: it’s still self-published. You can’t get a newspaper or magazine to review it for love nor money, nor do you have much chance of persuading a bookstore or a library to pick it up. And it certainly is not going to end up on some professor’s syllabus!

Another day has slipped by. I’m exhausted! Going to bed, before it starts to rain again…

Textbook Ripoffs: Why college leaves kids in debt

One of next fall’s English 101 students e-mailed yesterday. This is a kid who was in one of my other courses and decided to take the upcoming class because she liked my style (read: she got a good grade). She asked how much we will be using the textbook and then said she went to the bookstore and found it was selling for $150. She’s not eligible for financial aid this semester and says she doesn’t think she can afford that much. She’s doing the best she can, she adds, to stay out of debt.

A hundred and fifty bucks. For a freshman comp book. That, my friends, is a $30 paperback.

It would be one thing if the book contained a lot of difficult-to-typeset equations (though most publishers use LaTex for that purpose—works like magic, and it’s freeware!). And it would be one thing if the book contained a lot of expensive four-color graphics. Or if writing a freshman comp book required a great deal of arcane and difficult-to-acquire knowledge.

But none of these apply. When I say this thing is a $30 paperback, I’m not kidding. It’s printed on decent paper and it does use color on almost every page. But otherwise…

Graphics? There’s little in this book that can’t be done with an ordinary word processor, and nothing in it can’t be accomplished—easily—with InDesign.

Permissions? It doesn’t cost $150 a copy to get permission to reprint a few sample articles. When I published my textbook, The Essential Feature (which, BTW, sells for a mere $40), I was amazed to discover how many publishers will give away rights to reprint if you murmur the words “and my publisher is a nonprofit.”

Expertise? Research clout? Gimme a break! This is a freshman comp book! A smart graduate student could write it. A competent junior editor in her 20s could write it. What is required is basic literacy, an acquaintance with mechanics and the structure of essays, and passing familiarity with MLA style. That’s it. This is not Laboratories in Mathematical Experimentation: A Bridge to Higher Mathematics!


So I say to the kid, “The school just started a book rental program. Call the bookstore and see if you can rent the thing.”

Says she, “I did. They told me this text isn’t included in the rental program.”

I call up on the computer. Lo! One vendor is peddling the thing for $14.95 used. New copies are going for as low as $40, though most sellers try to extract $80 or $90. This morning I see the $14.95 copy is gone—hope the kid snagged it. If not, she may manage to snare the one that’s selling for $17.90. That’s more within reason.

Even at $90, a book like this is a shameless rip-off. But in the “shameless” department, what excuse is there for campus bookstores to gouge kids $150 for a book that’s overpriced at $90?

The departmental chair told me we are required to order the book and we are required to use it in the classroom. When he heard that another faculty member remarked to me that she knew of an instructor who was not having his students buy the book but instead was using material freely available on the Internet (yes, Virginia, everything in this book—even most of the essays used as examples—is available on the Net), he demanded, with arched eyebrow, to know who this guy was. Luckily, I didn’t catch his name.

Not that I’m suggesting any collusion with a rapacious textbook industry. To the contrary. A department can’t have every faculty member wildcatting Internet sites as study material and hope to maintain any pretense of academic integrity. The chair would fail to do his job if he didn’t see to it that all the courses came up to the standards set out by the institution.

Nevertheless, it’s not surprising that young people commonly graduate from college $40,000 in the hole, more debt than they’d incur by purchasing a Lexus sedan. At $150, this textbook would cost my student almost two-thirds of what she’d pay to register for the course!

So, if you have a kid on the way to college, or you’re en route to those ivied precincts yourself, what can you do to protect your checkbook?

• First things first: As soon as the bookstore puts the next semester’s texts on the shelves, pay the place a visit. Note all the required texts, and write down their ISBNs. The ISBN is a number that appears on the copyright page, usually on the reverse side of the title page; it’s unique to each specific edition of a book. The ISBN for The Longman Writer, for example, is 978-0-205-7399-8. Knowing this number will ensure that you get the correct edition—in the case of this book, that’s important, because earlier versions do not include the revised 2009 MLA style guidelines.

• Next, the path of least resistance is to check Enter an ISBN in the search function and it will bring up the correct textbook. Buy used. It’s much cheaper. As we’ve seen, even though new prices are less than you’ll pay in the bookstore, even at Amazon they’re out of reason.

• If you don’t want to own these objects (and really: why should a freshman comp text collect dust on your bookshelf from now until you die?), google “textbook rental.” Thanks to our handy ISBN, we see that The Longman Writer can be borrowed for a semester from for $26.49, about what the book is actually worth.

• Speaking of borrowing, check the campus library. Often faculty members put textbooks on reserve. Even though you can’t take it home, few textbook reading assignments require more than an hour or two.

• And between you and me, at 10 cents a page for photocopying, you could xerox the entire Longman text for $68.20, considerably less than the bookstore wants for a new copy. Though I’m asking my students to read many chapters in this thing, I’m not testing them on the entire book. A smart student with an advance copy of the syllabus (generally available at the departmental office) could buy a copy from the bookstore, photocopy the relevant sections, and then return the thing before the deadline to receive a full refund.

Ethical? Legal? No. But when publishers and retailers are openly ripping off 19-year-olds, I wouldn’t feel too bad about a little larceny. You can always plead self-defense…

• If you bought the book, resell it at the end of the semester. Check online for resale opportunities that will return more than the campus bookstore will pay you. Remember that you can resell the book on Amazon, possibly for more than you could get on-campus. Enter the ISBN, check the amounts people are getting, and compare with the figure the bookstore is offering. Don’t stop at Amazon; textbook renters often buy used books, as do other marketers—google “buy textbooks” to bring up a variety of sites. Sell to the highest bidder.

Oh, I’m getting all worked up over this. It makes me so angry! The textbook business, which ought to be an altruistic endeavor, has turned into industrial exploitation of a captive audience, made even more inexcusable by the buyers’ youth and financial naïveté.

If you’re a kid, don’t put up with it!

If you’re the parent of a new college student, teach your student where to find textbooks at reasonable prices, and help them to find ways get supplies from sellers that don’t steal from them.

A post with no title: What can one say?

It’s 9:30 at night and the temperature on the back porch, which has been in the shade all day, is 100 degrees.

Brain’s temperature is somewhere in that vicinity, too. Today reminded me of why I love teaching so bitterly.

Several weeks ago, I spent about eight hours writing an Eng. 102 syllabus and another six to eight hours on an Eng. 101 syllabus. By the time you add all the college’s required boilerplate, one of these things is about 16 single-spaced pages long. Some of said pages are very complex, indeed: braids of the textbook author’s ideas of what the students should learn and what they should already know entertwined with your ideas of what they should learn and what you know your students most certainly will not already know and the college’s idea of what some lawyer on the District board thinks they ought to know and what some veteran of the trenches knows they don’t know and may never figure out.

So I felt pretty good about creating a creditable product, all those weeks ago.

In the interim, the college jettisoned its Eng. 101 text and took on an entirely new text from an entirely different publisher. No problem: there’s only so many ways you can express what an Eng. 101 student needs to learn (if learn she will). It’s all pretty fungible. Recreating the revised 101 syllabus took only about two or three additional unpaid hours.

Then came the announcement that lo! We have a new edition of the Eng. 102 text.

New edition. Why do textbook publishers keep churning out new editions? Because of the lucrative market in textbook resales. At the end of any given semester, college bookstores buy back used textbooks from students who would just as soon never be reminded that they took any of the courses they paid for that semester (about 90 percent of all students, I’d guess). Bookstores buy the books back for ludicrously low prices. Then they resell them for a profit to used-book dealers, who shuffle them around and reconsign them to the college bookstores, who re-resell them to the next batch of students at yet another profit.

Result? Neither the author nor the publisher makes anything on the resale and the re-resale of used textbooks. To continue to make their marginal profit, publishers a) have to jack up the prices of textbooks through the stratosphere (, which regularly underprices college bookstores, is selling the new edition of the 102 text for $78.10), and b) have to grind out new “editions” every two or three years. Each semester a new edition comes out, every single student has to pay the full freight, because no used copies are available. Which is the point.

Secondary result? Instructors get to die with overwork trying to keep up with the shit.

Our textbook author reshuffled her contents so that, although the underlying pedagogical message remained the same, readings were partly deleted, partly reshuffled, and partly changed. To salvage the course plan I’d created…oh, my god. I started around 9:00 this morning and finished at quarter to nine in the evening. During that time I got up twice to pee, and I was interrupted once by SDXB, who killed the better part of an hour talking about himself, and by a volunteer for the Mayo Clinic, who wasted about 10 minutes with a stupid customer service survey. I spent almost ELEVEN HOURS trying to untangle the mess made by the fake “new edition” whose purpose was to pluck the feathers of yet another incoming class of freshmen.

Sumbitch. Not one minute of this time was paid for. My pay for teaching these courses starts when I walk in the classroom door…not during the untold hours I spend preparing the classes.

Academia. What a scam!