Canada’s education tax breaks are flunking

CHRISTINE NEILL - Contributed to The Globe and Mail

Canada’s hodgepodge of federal and provincial tuition and education tax credits for postsecondary students are expensive, not well understood, loosely targeted, and in desperate need of change.

Federal tuition and education/textbook tax credits are the most costly postsecondary student aid program in Canada. They cost the federal government about $1.6-billion in 2012; meanwhile the Canada Student Loan Program cost less than $1-billion. The tax credits – when combined with their provincial counterparts – cut the cost of postsecondary education by just over $2,000 a year for the average Canadian university student, and a bit less for college students.

The tax credits are non-refundable, meaning you need sufficient taxable income against which to claim them. So students from low-income families benefit least from them, while students from relatively well-off families benefit more. But these credits often do not go to the students themselves. Some students pass along these credits to their parents. Others carry them forward until post-graduation employment.

Tax credits are vote getters. They are also administratively simple. But lessons from economics, including behavioural economics, show us that these tax credits are unlikely to affect youths’ decisions to undertake more study, or to help reduce the financial burden of study for those who need it the most.

Another major shortcoming is that potential postsecondary students do not know about the tax credits, especially in advance of applying.

The tax credits are not mentioned on the national financial aid website (CanLearn) that gives students estimates of the cost of postsecondary education. Nor are they mentioned on most provincial student aid websites (Ontario is a commendable exception), or in tuition fee or financial aid documentation. The credits really only pop up on year-end tax forms, buried along with a bunch of other tax credits. So many students do not know the credits exist, let alone how much they might save.

Good policy must time payments right – people do not change their behaviour as much for future benefits as they do for immediate gains. And support must be targeted. If the goal is to get more kids studying in our colleges and universities, then we should target aid to those whose choices are most amenable. Canadian research suggests that – unsurprisingly – kids from richer families do not change their education choices because of a couple of thousand dollars a year in aid, but kids from poorer families do. So if the intent of the policy is to boost the education level of Canadians, it makes sense to give more to kids from low-income families – the opposite of what the tax credits currently do.

One simple change would be to make the tax credits refundable. This would allow individuals to claim them regardless of earned income. And this would make the credits more efficient and equitable, since it would allow all students, not just those whose parents earn enough to have a tax liability, to claim them sooner rather than later.

It’s easy to improve the billions we spend on postsecondary tax credits each year. Making them refundable is a simple, low-cost change that would improve fairness and economic efficiency, and that would garner broad political support.

Christine Neill is associate professor of economics at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her commentary, “What You Don’t Know Can’t Help You: Lessons of Behavioural Economics for Tax-Based Student Aid,” can be found at

Why Sell your Textbooks to

As we get towards the end of the fall semester, students should start thinking about getting the maximum value they can for their old textbooks.

While the bookstore tends to be the most convenient option, make sure you search through the internet and see who’s paying the most for your books. is always a great options for students looking to sell their textbooks in Canada for the following reasons:

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There are other sites on the internet that offer cash for your old textbooks so make sure you do your homework! If you have any questions about’s buyback service, contact us at [email protected]!


College Textbooks Are Ridiculously Expensive. Two Senators Are Trying to Change That.

Book prices have gone up 82 percent in the last decade, and Al Franken and Dick Durbin are planning to thwart more growth.

By Matt Berman -

Everyone knows that college tuition costs have been skyrocketing. But, it turns out, it’s nothing compared to the growth in college textbook costs.

The American Enterprise Institute shows just how much they have risen since 1978.

The 812-percent growth in textbook prices is far greater than the percent growth for college tuition and fees over about the same period. Prices have gone up 82 percent in the last decade alone. The average college student is nowpaying about $1,200 a year on textbooks and supplies.


For students and their familes, the rising cost of college textbooks is a serious problem. Democratic Sens. Al Franken of Minnesota and Dick Durbin of Illinois have just introduced a bill to begin to fix it.

The Affordable College Textbook Act, introduced by Durbin and Franken this month, aims to lower book costs by promoting the use of open-source textbooks. Open books, as defined by the bill, are texts that are “licensed under an open license and made freely available online to the public.”

Open-source textbooks aren’t radically new. Rice University already offers nearly a dozen textbooks for free online through itsOpenStax program, and aims to expand the program to 10,000 students. Boundless, an open educational-resources start-up, offers digital textbooks along with an app complete with flash cards and quizzes.

Franken and Durbin are hoping to speed up the open-source trend. Their bill would set up a competitive grant program to support pilot programs at colleges and universities “that expand the use of open textbooks in order to achieve savings for students.”

As with anything that gets introduced in today’s Senate, there’s no guarantee that this bill will go anywhere. Or that the grant program alone would significantly contribute to reducing the amount of money students pay on textbooks. But with the cost of new textbooks growing about 6 percent per year, it’s well past time to actually try something new.


Texas Education Board Flags Biology Textbook Over Evolution Concerns

By MOTOKO RICH – The New York Times

The Texas Board of Education on Friday delayed final approval of a widely used biology textbook because of concerns raised by one reviewer that it presents evolution as fact rather than theory.

The monthslong textbook review process in Texas has been controversial because a number of people selected this year to evaluate publishers’ submissions do not accept evolution or climate change as scientific truth.

On Friday, the state board, which includes several members who hold creationist views, voted to recommend 14 textbooks in biology and environmental science. But its approval of “Biology,” a highly regarded textbook by Kenneth R. Miller, a biologist at Brown University, and Joseph S. Levine, a science journalist, and published by Pearson Education, was contingent upon an expert panel determining whether any corrections are warranted. Until the panel rules on the alleged errors, Pearson will not be able to market its book as approved by the board to school districts in Texas.

“It’s just a shame that quality textbooks still have to jump through ridiculous hoops that have no basis in science,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which monitors the activities of far-right organizations.

Ms. Miller (no relation to the Pearson textbook author) said she nevertheless gave Friday’s vote “two opposable thumbs up” because the board “adopted all of the science books and the publishers made no effort to water down evolution or climate science in those books.”

Three members of the state school board — Barbara Cargill, the Republican chairwoman appointed by Gov. Rick Perry; Martha Dominguez, a Democrat from El Paso; and Sue Melton-Malone, a Republican from Waco — will select experts for the final review panel for the Pearson textbook. The board voted that the experts must have at least a Ph.D. in a “related field of study” and could not have served on the original review panel for the book.

The alleged errors that will be reviewed by the new expert panel were cited by Ide P. Trotter, a chemical engineer and financial adviser who is listed as a “Darwin Skeptic” on the website of the Creation Science Hall of Fame and was on a textbook review panel that evaluated Dr. Miller and Mr. Levine’s “Biology” last summer. Mr. Trotter raised numerous questions about the book’s sections on evolution.

“I think I did a pretty good review, modestly speaking,” said Mr. Trotter, speaking from his home in Duncanville, a suburb of Dallas. He said Dr. Miller and Mr. Levine’s textbook “gives a misleading impression that we have a fairly close understanding of how random processes could lead to us.” He added, “If it were honest, it would say this is how we are looking at it, and these are the complexities that we don’t understand.”

Susan M. Aspey, a spokeswoman for Pearson, said that the publisher “is proud of the work we’ve done with educators and scientists to create effective materials for the state of Texas.”

Ronald Wetherington, a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Southern Methodist University who has already looked over Mr. Trotter’s complaints, described them as “non sequiturs and irrelevant.”

“It was simply a morass of pseudoscientific objections,” Dr. Wetherington said.

Joshua Rosenau, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit group that defends the teaching of evolution and climate change, said he hoped the Texas school board members would select scientists with mainstream views.

“Tomorrow morning, you could walk five minutes up to campus and knock on any five doors in the biology department,” Mr. Rosenau said, referring to the University of Texas at Austin. “And in five minutes they would say these aren’t errors,” he said of Mr. Trotter’s list.

Separately, the board also directed Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher of an environmental science textbook, to make minor changes to its sections on climate change.

A spokeswoman for Houghton Mifflin said the publisher had already responded to the change requests.

“We stood by the integrity of our content,” the company said in an emailed statement, “and made no material changes to instruction or point of view.”


Google Books ruled legal in massive win for fair use

Scans that show snippets are legal—they don’t replace the full book.

by Joe Mullin

A long-running copyright lawsuit between the Authors’ Guild and Google over its book-scanning project is over, and Google has won on the grounds that its scanning is “fair use.”

In other words, the snippets of books that Google shows for free don’t break copyright, and Google doesn’t need the authors’ permission to engage in the scanning and display of short bits of books.

The ruling (PDF) was published this morning by US District Judge Denny Chin, who has overseen the case since it was filed in 2005.

The parties tried to settle this case, but the judge rejected the settlement as unwieldy and unfair. Now, the case has instead resulted in a hugely significant fair use win, opening the door to other large-scale scanning projects in the future.

Along with the First Sale doctrine, fair use is the most important limitation on copyright. It allows parts of works to be used without permission of the copyright owner to produce new things: quotes of books used in reviews or articles for instance.

Legal disputes over what or what is not “fair use” are often complex, and there are four factors that judges consider. But the one that’s often the most important is what kind of effect the fair use will have on the market for the original product.

Judge Chin seemed to find the plaintiffs’ ideas ignorant, if not nonsensical, in this regard. He wrote:

[P]laintiffs argue that Google Books will negatively impact the market for books and that Google’s scans will serve as a “market replacement” for books. [The complaint] also argues that users could put in multiple searches, varying slightly the search terms, to access an entire book.

Neither suggestion makes sense. Google does not sell its scans, and the scans do not replace the books. While partner libraries have the ability to download a scan of a book from their collections, they owned the books already—they provided the original book to Google to scan. Nor is it likely that someone would take the time and energy to input countless searches to try and get enough snippets to comprise an entire book.
Seeing the project as a boon to researchers

Before Chin gets into the deep legal analysis, he begins with a section noting the many benefits of Google books. The giant book-scanning project has already become an “important tool for researchers and librarians,” noted Chin. Through data mining, researchers can do things they’ve never been able to do before, examining “word frequencies, syntactic patterns, and thematic markers to consider how literary style has changed over time.”

The program expands access to books, particularly to “traditionally underserved populations,” he notes. The books Google scans provide the potential for them to be read in larger text formats or with Braille or text-to-speech software. And the project could save old out-of-print books that are literally falling apart in library stacks.

Chin runs through the four traditional factors that decide whether use of a copyrighted work is “fair use.”

First, he found Google’s use of the works was highly transformative. “Google Books digitizes books and transforms expressive text into a comprehensive word index,” he wrote. There’s already legal precedent allowing large-scale scanning in order to create indexes and search services—created, in part, by Google. Chin cited the Perfect 10 v. Amazon case, which ruled the scanning of images and publication of “thumbnails” in Google image search is legal.

He also found that Google Books “does not supersede or supplant books because it is not a tool to be used to read books.” The service adds value to books.

Chin notes that Google is a commercial service, which weighs against a finding of fair use. But while the service may draw more people to Google websites, Google isn’t engaged in “direct commercialization” of the copyrighted works. The company “does not sell the scans it has made of books for Google Books; it does not sell the snippets that it displays; and it does not run ads on the About the Book pages that contain snippets.”

Another factor is the amount of the work used. Google is scanning full books. But “copying the entirety of a work is sometimes necessary to make a fair use of the image,” wrote Chin, citing a case involving the use of reduced-sized Grateful Dead posters called Bill Graham Archives v. Dorling Kindersley.

Important, of course, is the fact that Google is showing limited amounts of text to book searchers. Blacked-out sections and other technical measures prevent full-book copying.

In the end, the full-book scanning weighed only “slightly against” a finding of fair use. It was overridden by the other factors. Especially important was Chin’s view, discussed above, that Google Books would not hurt, and may in fact help, the market for the original books.

A nearly-settled case will now be fought on appeal

The parties tried to settle this case but were unable to. A proposed settlement not only involved a complicated set of compensation rules for authors, it also had sections dealing with unaddressed copyright issues like “orphan works.” But Chin rejected the settlement in 2011, saying it wasn’t fair. Fundamentally, it was just too big—issues like orphan works were best left to Congress, not to a class-action lawsuit.

In the long term, the failure to settle may result in more scanning, not less. If Chin’s ruling stands on appeal, a clean fair-use ruling will make it easier for competitors to start businesses or projects based on scanning books—including companies that don’t have the resources, legal or otherwise, that Google has.

“This has been a long road and we are absolutely delighted with today’s judgment,” said a Google spokesperson. “As we have long said., Google Books is in compliance with copyright law and acts like a card catalog for the digital age, giving users the ability to find books to buy or borrow.”

Authors’ Guild Executive Director Paul Aiken expressed his disappointment with the ruling, saying that Google’s book-scanning project is a “fundamental challenge” to copyright.

“Google made unauthorized digital editions of nearly all of the world’s valuable copyright-protected literature and profits from displaying those works,” said Aiken. “In our view, such mass digitization and exploitation far exceeds the bounds of the fair use defense.”

The Guild is going to appeal, he added.

That means the issue will end up at the New York-based US Court of Appeal for the 2nd Circuit. That appeals court has decided several key legal battles between content and technology companies in recent years, including the Cablevision decision. That ruling legalized remote-DVR services, which has aided other tech companies, including Aereo.

Fundamentally, the fact that this case was finally decided on its merits, and not settled, is a better result for the public, argued Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen in his reaction this morning.

“Unlike that settlement, which could have ensconced Google as the only search engine entitled to digitize books without the consent of their authors, this ruling provides a road map that allows any other entity to follow in Google’s path,” said Levy.

It’s judges’ decisions in hard-fought cases—not overseeing secret negotiations between giants—that truly benefit the public.

“[T]he main job of a federal judge is not to supervise settlements, and especially not to bully parties into settling their cases,” he wrote. “The judge’s job is to decide cases, so that every member of the public, not only the parties, can benefit from the public resources that go into the judicial system.”

The 10 Best Books Of The Year (So Far), According To Amazon


There’s nothing more pleasant than curling up with a good book on a chilly evening. But choosing a great read can be difficult.

 Back in July, we wrote about Amazon editors’ selections for best books that were released between January and June. Now, Amazon is back with an updated list of the Best Books of 2013 (so far).

Here are the top 10 books from this year, according to Amazon editors.

1. “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt: This is both the heart-wrenching story of Theo Decker, a man who lost his mother as a boy in a freak accident, as well as a globe-spanning mystery about a painting that has gone missing. The 700+ page book has a moving plot and urgency that is impossible to resist.

2. “And the Mountains Echoed” by Khaled Hosseini: From the author of “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns” comes the tale of a brother and sister separated after their father sells the girl to a wealthy couple in Kabul, Afghanistan. Told through multiple viewpoints over half a century, the book follows the brother and sister through wars, births, deaths, deceit, and love.

3. “Thank You for Your Service” by David Finkel: This nonfiction book is a poignant, eye-opening collection of interviews with soldiers returning home from combat with shattered bodies and minds. An incredibly important read, it’s impossible to remain unaffected by their struggles and slow readjustment to civilian life.

4. Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson: What if you could die and be reborn again? That’s the case with Ursula Todd, the star character of this brilliant, multi-layered novel. With the backdrop of London during WWII, “Life After Life” is funny, philosophical, and powerful as it follows the consequences of Ursula’s time-bending ability on her family, friends, and the 20th-century.

5. “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” by Tom Kizzia: This is the true story of a family that seemed to be living a pious life in an Alaskan ghost town until its revealed there’s a dark underbelly beneath their sweet veneer — FBI files, physical and sexual abuse, brainwashing, and violent deaths. Tom Kizzia, a reporter for Anchorage Daily News, dives into the the murky waters of this family’s past.

6. “Lawrence in Arabia” by Scott Anderson: “Lawrence in Arabia” follows the four low-ranking men who all shaped the Middle East through battles, spying, and scheming during the first World War. Based on intensive research, it’s hard not to get caught up in these sweeping conflicts that still influence the world today.

7. “Tenth of December” by George Saunders: An eclectic collection of a dozen short stories, George Saunders weaves dream-like, stream-of-conscious narratives with his staple dark humor and sadness, all grappling with the question of morality. His first short story collection in six years, Saunders’ writing is irresistible.

8. “The Son” by Philipp Meyer: A true epic of the American West spanning more than 150 years and detailing the multigenerational struggle for power, land, and oil. As told by three unforgettable members of the Texas family McCullough, the book spans from the childhood of Eli “The Colonel” McCullough all the way to the economic frontier of modern Texas.

9. “A House in the Sky” by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett: The dramatic memoir of Amanda Lindhout, a woman whose curiosity about the world led her to its most exotic and remote destinations, as well as its most dangerous country — Somalia. Her harrowing abduction and 460-day captivity is both vivid and suspenseful as she unveils the horrors of her torture and fight to survive.

10. “Eleanor & Park” by Rainbow Rowell: This Young Adult novel about two misfit teenagers who fall in love on a bus is sweet without being saccharine. It’s also a story adults can love, too, as they remember their own high school sweethearts in this funny, sarcastic, yet sincere novel.

To see additional lists of the Best Books of the Year So Far broken down by category, go to

Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through his personal investment company Bezos Expeditions.

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Five books for 2014

Cassandra - The Economist Magazine

As a literary figure herself, Cassandra has seen fit to turn her attention to the arts. In a series of cultural blogs over the coming months, she will predict the most important publications, film releases and events that lie ahead next year.

This week she has picked out five books set to appear in 2014, after gleaning suggestions from colleagues at The Economist (and gazing into her crystal ball).

1. Zero Zero Zero. By Robert Savino. To be published in March 2014.

Since writing “Gomorrah”, which sold more than 10m copies, Roberto Savino has had a precarious existence: he has been under police protection since October 2006 after receiving threats from criminal organisations he uncovered. His new book investigates cocaine trafficking, from Mexico’s cartels to banks in London and New York. Interviews with users, victims, traffickers and perpetrators suggest the trade has had an impact on  the legitimate economy as well as the black market.

2. Nora Webster. By Colm Tóibín. To be published in May 2014.

Colm Tóibín is Cassandra’s bet to be shortlisted to win the Man Booker prize in 2015. His publishers are taking care that he should be third-time-lucky, after he was shortlisted, but failed to win in 2004 and 2013. The entrance of American novels into the Man Booker field for the first time next year is likely to shake things up drastically. Mr Tóibín and his publishers are happy to let the turmoil pass. Although the book is already finished, publication of “Nora Webster” has been set for October 2014, which would make it perfect for the 2015 slot.

3. You Hide That You Hate Me and I Hide That I Know. By Philip Gourevitch. To be published in April 2014.

April marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, in which around 800,000 people died. Central Africa still feels its effects. Philip Gourevitch, a journalist and author, revisits Rwanda to see how survivors and perpetrators live together today. He discusses the bargains made between different types of forgiveness: the personal and the political.

4. Can’t and Won’t. By Lydia Davis. To be published in April 2014.

Last year’s Man Booker International prize-winner, Lydia Davis plays with language in her short stories. Her forthcoming volume, in Cassandra’s opinion, has tales with some rather intriguing titles. “Letters to a Frozen Pea Manufacturer” sounds oddly unmissable, while one hopes “A Small Story About a Small Box of Chocolates” trades in understatement.

5. Lila. By Marilynne Robinson. To be published Autumn 2014.

“Lila” will be set in the same fictional world as “Gilead” (which won the Pulitzer prize in 2005) and “Home” (published in 2008). The eponymous character is the wife of John Ames, already familiar to readers of the series. Though other details are scarce, Cassandra holds high hopes for this latest offering from Ms Robinson.

Will The Real Textbook Industry Disruptor Please Stand Up?

By Alan Martin -

Every industry has its disruptors, those upstarts that force a complete rethinking of the way business is done. For a short time during the latter part of the last decade, the college textbook industry was certain that the digital textbook would be for it that disruptive force. But the industry was wrong. It was the advent of textbook rental that forever transformed the market.

Digital books have no doubt changed the way that the every day consumer reads for pleasure. E-book sales now make up nearly a quarter of all consumer book sales. And adoption of digital textbooks in the K-12 arena is nothing short of a revolution, as more than 20 percent of all schools say they now use digital textbooks and another 37 percent say they will within the next five years – creating a gold rush for publishing companies, media conglomerates and startups all vying for massive contracts with school districts everywhere. Yet in the college arena, digital adoption is still plodding by, as only 2 percent of college students surveyed by the research firm Student Monitor said that they bought all of their textbooks last year in digital form, and only 14 percent said that they had classes that required online texts.

For one, college students simply prefer paper. Over 75 percent of college students surveyed by the National Association of College Stores say they would rather print over digital. Whereas recreational readers appreciate the speed and convenience of tablets, the college student is staying old school. And now there’s no reason not to. Rental has given students a path to use the product that creates the highest likelihood of their success each semester at a price that simply blows away other options.

Take for instance ”Chemistry” published by Brooks/Cole. The book new costs $205. For a used copy you’ll pay somewhat less at $155, and be prepared to fork over $167 for the digital version. But it can be rented for about $65.

It was only last decade that the industry was preparing for the march of e-books into higher education.Large players invested hundreds of millions of dollars in queuing up for a digital transition, acquiring startups and digital publishing houses that could put them in the digital marketplace as they planned to slowly phase out their print offerings.  They set price points that they thought would work, something slightly higher than the price of a used book, and in some cases, up to 50 percent cheaper than the cost of a new paper copy. However, at nearly that same moment, rental snuck onto the scene creating a nightmare for publishers and their fresh digital portfolios. It dropped the price in half, extended the life of the used book like nothing preceding it, drove tremendous value to students, and as a result, was rewarded with significant market share.

In short, the rental industry has put publishers and digital upstarts everywhere on their heels. Rental does more than just drop the price of the physical book by more than half, it also forces digital players to completely reconsider how they can even offer digital products competitively when the existing technology, the physical textbook, costs less than half what it did when digital began its march, and looks like it will maintain that price point indefinitely.

We saw evidence of this consideration earlier this year as eased in to higher ed content with their textbook buying app on Google play. And yes, that app included rental.

Rental has changed the economic reality of the textbook industry and students are the ones walking away with the big win. Whether they save hundreds every semester through physical rental now, or eventually reap the benefits of a digital community forced to both improve their product and meaningfully bring the price down, the content landscape looks to have been irreversibly improved for the college student.

Alan Martin is the founder and CEO of CampusBookRentals.

Chegg, a ‘Netflix for textbooks,’ Is the Real Test of the IPO Market

By Victor Luckerson  -

Pricey textbooks have become an unwelcome tradition at most colleges. Required texts can cost more than $250 new, and the rates are only going up. The cost of books leapt 82 percent between 2002 and 2012, almost as much as the 89 percent jump in tuition and fees, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. This strain on students’ wallets has presented opportunities for a new class of digital disruptors in the higher ed space. One of the most prominent, Chegg, is going public on Wall Street today.

Often billed as the “Netflix for textbooks,” Chegg’s primary business is renting and mailing millions of college textbooks to students around the country each semester at a fraction of a new book’s cost. The company is offering 15 million shares of common priced at $12.50, raising about $187.5 million for Chegg and making its initial market valuation almost $1.1 billion. Chegg will trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol CHGG.

The company is hoping to ride the wave of an extremely strong period for Internet stocks. Twitter’s successful IPO last week exceeded analyst expectations with a 73-percent first-day pop. Meanwhile companies like LinkedIn, Netflix and Facebook have seen their stock prices reach all-time highs in recent months.

Like Twitter’s offering, Chegg’s IPO is depending heavily on the promise of future growth. The company, which sold and rented 5.5 million textbooks between October 2012 and September 2013, has posted mounting losses in the past several years, including a $50 million loss in the first nine months of 2013. In its prospectus the company warns that it won’t be profitable in the near future. Revenue, though, is on the rise, growing 23 percent in the first three quarters of this year to $178 million. The company also had adjusted earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization of $23 million for the first nine months of 2013.

Chegg began its life in 2001 as, a Craigslist-like online classifieds site for students at Iowa State University. It pivoted to the more lucrative textbook rental business in 2007. Now it is in the midst of another transformation as it tries to become an educational hub for students throughout high school and college. Chegg offers study guides to accompany more than 2,500 textbooks and has launched a college admissions portal to connect high schoolers with colleges they are considering attending (colleges pay Chegg a fee in order to contact students). The company also makes money through marketing deals with Millennial-focused brands like Red Bull, including their promotional items with the textbooks shipped to students. Between all its services, Chegg says it reaches 30 percent of college students and 40 percent of college-bound high school seniors in the U.S.

For now, though, print textbooks remain the company’s main revenue driver, generating 80 percent of total sales in 2013. Many other firms are vying for the attention of cash-strapped students, though. Amazon just launched a textbook rental program in 2012, and Barnes & Noble created one in 2010. Many campus bookstores also offer textbook rentals. Major book publishers like Pearson and McGraw-Hill have also partnered to launch CourseSmart, an online store that offers digital textbook rentals.

Other organizations are using different methods to lower student costs. At Rice University, a program to develop a series of free, open-source textbooks called OpenStax College has gained traction in the last year. Offering peer-reviewed texts for introductory courses in areas such as physics, biology and statistics, OpenStax books have so far been used by more than 50,000 students at about 350 schools, saving students $4.8 million from the sticker price of similar books from the big publishers. Eventually the non-profit organization wants to save 1.5 million students $150 million per year with a selection of 25 free textbooks for basic courses.


“There are an increasing number of…entities that are really concerned about student access,” says Richard Baraniuk, the director of OpenStax. “If the momentum continues, I think you’re going to see a very different textbook world in the next five years.”

That could be good for Chegg, which is eager to shed its expensive print textbook business in favor of high-margin online education services. Education experts say the shift to cheaper digital offerings is inevitable, though no one is quite sure when it will happen.

“It just seems like Encyclopedia Britannica coming against competition from Wikipedia or print classifieds having to face competition from Craigslist,” says Mark Perry, a professor of finance and business economics at the University of Michigan-Flint. “The Internet is eventually going to have to disrupt this market.”



By SAM SACKS – The New Yorker

The vocabulary of literary ennui is now so familiar that it produces its own kind of boredom. We have seen it in John Barth’s much-anthologized essay “The Literature of Exhaustion”; in Zadie Smith’s confessions of novel-nausea; and in the tireless self-promoter David Shield’s cut-and-paste “manifesto,” “Reality Hunger,” in which the author declares that he is “bored by invented plots and invented characters.” J. M. Coetzee blurbed that book, confessing that he was “sick of the well-made novel with its plot and its characters and its settings.” At the close of an otherwise magnificent review of Norman Rush’s new novel in the London Review of Books, Benjamin Kunkel makes an offhand mention of the death of the novel, a doomsday pronouncement so commonly invoked that it often seems more like a reflex than a reasoned argument.

One of the most genial voices of disillusion is that of the novelist and critic Tim Parks, whose warmly contrarian complaints about the state of writing have been appearing regularly on the New York Review of Books blog. His installment last week (upon which he has somewhat expanded in an essay published today), is an honest, provocative, and maddeningly wrongheaded meditation about his unhappiness with what he calls “traditional novels.” The depth and scope of Parks’s dissatisfaction is fairly intimidating. He feels “trapped” within the expected forms of fiction writing, especially those of realistic fiction. These books’ basic traits, he thinks—“the dilemma, the dramatic crisis, the pathos, the wise sadness, and more in general a suffering made bearable, or even noble through aesthetic form”—have become mannered and artificial to the point of irrelevance. Even worse, their typical trajectory, from “inevitable disappointment followed by the much-prized (and I suspect overrated) wisdom of maturity,” is oppressive and harmful because its universality enforces a single way of understanding the world—a way that not only leads to the disenchantment that has come upon Parks but which also sustains a “destructive cultural pattern”: “We are so pleased with our ability to describe and savor our unhappiness it hardly seems important to find a different way of going about things.”

The essay is diaristic, and this is part of what makes it interesting: there is something forlornly personal in its lament. Parks’s repeated distrust of novelistic wisdom seems telling. Latent in the life devoted to literature is the promise—although we don’t perhaps know where this promise comes from—that books will, in time, arm us with experience and maturity. But what if the solace of wisdom fails to arrive? Parks relates meeting with a former mentor who, retired and confined to a wheelchair, confessed that once-beloved novels by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Green, and others had come to appear like “empty performances.” There may seem to be a lie inherent in works of realism that, in the final reckoning, fail to prepare you for what reality actually brings. And how futile it must feel, as a writer, to inexorably repeat that lie in each forthcoming book.

If Parks’s essay were strictly part of a memoir, there would be no cause to object. But he is also a critic, and, to a dangerous extent, he is putting forth his disillusion as a judgment on the state of literature. This tendency to project one’s own cynicism onto the books that failed to magically prevent it has become a little too frequent these days, and it needs challenging.

The fallacy, to my eyes, is in the invidious distinction between traditional and nontraditional novels. Parks places writers like Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Lydia Davis, and others who have taken part in the “postmodern adventure” in the latter camp, but on the whole he’s sketchy about what he means by the term. What’s clear, though, is that the word “traditional” is derogatory, signifying derivative, clichéd thinking (Parks makes reference to “passable imitations” of nineteenth-century novels), while its alternative promises freshness, liberation, “a way forward in words.”

But Parks isn’t talking only about mediocre novels when he invokes the tyranny of tradition. By his way of thinking, anyone who uses elements of conventional forms has done so out of either unthinking habit or unwilling necessity.

But this is untrue. For many, if not most, writers, things like plot, character development, and catharsis are not narrative fallbacks but dynamic tools that give shape to the stories they’re passionate to tell or develop ideas that are uppermost on their minds. The art of storytelling is ancient, but it is a flighty kind of world view that automatically equates oldness with staleness. Missing from Parks’s essay is the recognition that talent transmutes tradition. Gifted writers can make accustomed methods feel as new and vital as a work explicitly devoted to structural innovation. In both cases, the object is the same: form is used in the service of artistic vision.

The week that I read Parks’s piece I also read two newly published novels that might imperfectly occupy opposite poles on the imagined spectrum of the traditional and the transformative. Daniel Alarcón’s “At Night We Walk in Circles,” about a travelling theatre troupe in South America, contains everything that Parks rejects. The book’s avowed storytelling template comes from the stage, or stagelike radio programs, such as “This American Life.” Alarcón’s main characters are actors and playwrights, and, in his exploration of the ways that performance can bleed into real experience, he embraces melodramatic plot turns, situational irony, climactic convergences, and the tragic downward arc toward innocence lost. I had my quibbles—parts of the story are saccharine-sweet—but much of the book is animated by this bravura theatricality, and it’s very often lovely and moving.

László Krasznahorkai’s “Seiobo There Below,” in contrast, has no truck with orthodox plotlines. The virtuoso novel is an arrangement of temporally and geographically distinct but thematically connected encounters with the sacred. Each chapter winds obsessively around an object of veneration—a great work of art or a religious icon. The chapters themselves are numbered according to the Fibonacci sequence, which has its roots in ancient Sanskrit texts and relates to the idealized mathematical concept of the golden spiral. Krasznahorkai’s sentences approximate the form of an endlessly involuted spiral—they extend for pages at a time, always turning back on themselves in order to recreate the whirling immediacy, both the awe and the fright, of confronting something otherworldly.

“Seiobo There Below” actually addresses Parks’s wish for a narrative form that is more Buddhist than Judeo-Christian—one that doesn’t place the experience of living on a continuum that moves significantly from a start to a finish but, rather, holds our attention upon the moment, focussing on the “savoring of present experience.” But it is not a matter here of exalting one book over another, which is every critic’s prerogative. (Parks expresses mandarin amazement at the possibility, but the fact is that many serious readers get a lot more out of Alarcón’s kind of novel.) The point is in acknowledging that neither book is any more fundamentally “relevant” than the other. Both do the only thing that fiction can do—as best as they can, they harness their stories and themes and truths to a chosen form and style. Each aims for an effect and, to different degrees, each achieves it.

This sounds banal, but it bears repeating: this is all that a novel is. I’ve always loved the wonderful tautology that Tolstoy used when “explaining” the decisions he made while writing his magnum opus, with its symphonic medley of adventure writing, love stories, and social and historical disquisitions: “War and Peace is what the author wished and was able to express in the form in which it is expressed.” In other words, he viewed form as practical means to an end, not a confinement from which he had to perform weird contortions to escape.

Of course, Tolstoy also thought that strict adherence to conventional forms would hinder the writer of brilliance, and it goes without saying that great works make use of, or subvert, commonplace devices in bold and inspired ways. But implicit in Parks’s essay is a discontented yearning for something quite different from ingenuity—the groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting “way forward” that he desires sounds oddly salvational, a newly discovered way of seeing that will break him out of his present funk like a religious epiphany. Yet to imbue something as abstract as narrative form with talismanic, revelatory properties is to insure the very disillusionment that he is desperate to dispel.

What about brilliance, beauty, truth? Parks doesn’t deny that these qualities exist in today’s literature; he merely contends that they have ceased to carry meaning. That in itself should point up the severe limitations of world-weariness as a guiding philosophy. If brilliance and beauty are traps, then consciousness itself is a trap, and the world, as Hamlet famously opined, is a prison; but even Hamlet understood that he was, to some extent, full of it.

In the Book of Ecclesiastes, the first and best “death of the novel” jeremiad ever written, the despairing Preacher observes, “Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” The ultimate lesson of maturity, the anti-wisdom insufficiently grasped by traditional novels, may indeed be that all great literature is vanity, all of it “empty performance.” In that case, Parks should heed his own advice to savor present experience and privilege “sense and immediate perception” above an artificial “construction of meaning.” Or he can listen to the Preacher and simply read and write joyfully during the small portion that he is allotted. There is so much passion and wonder in today’s fiction; it is his fault, not that of the books, if he lets those things go unseen and unfelt.