Thursday, October 06, 2005

Indian-made foreign books

Two new undergrad texts in economics (Econ-101) are to be published soon: one by Paul Krugman (with Robin Wells) and the other by Glenn Hubbard (with Anthony O'Brien). Their prices? Just check them at Amazon later, but you can bet that they will be priced near $100. At those prices, I think students in India will wait for their Indian editions.

These two texts will be going up against an established one, written by another heavyweight: Greg Mankiw. Price? A very cool $138.95! Before you come back to the earth, let me push you into the stratosphere again by another factlet: Mankiw reportedly got a 1.4 million dollar advance in 1997 when its first edition was published.

Clearly, textbook prices are going up, and going up fast. In his NYTimes op-ed, Ian Ayres, a professor at Yale Law School, discusses why they are outpacing the inflation rate, and what can be done about it. Another issue he discusses is about authors prescribing their own books as texts for their courses; this, clearly, creates a conflict of interest. He discusses a mechanism for dealing with this conflict too.

The first year of our UG program was an interesting exception. For all our basic courses (in mathematics, chemistry, applied mechanics, etc., except physics) the prescribed texts were invariably books by Indian authors (and published by Indian companies). This suited us fine, because we would not have afforded the foreign ones. My point is different, so let me elaborate a bit.

The 'bible' that our mathematics professors at BHU preached from were written by Prannath and Agarwal. Some of my friends from Chennai used to be proud that they used Manickavachagam Pillai (spelling?). The problem was that they were mostly bad! Their only virtue was that they were affordable. They were poorly designed, and wore a rather sickly look, and insisted on just presenting information in a really dry format.

Having said that, I have to admit that they were absolutely great for preparing for exams. They were systematic, had tons of example problems and even more practice problems. If you did them all, even if you didn't learn anything from their 'theory' part, you would still emerge with a fairly decent understanding of the theory; and of course, you would ace the exams.

Evidently, the availability of good -- and reasonably inexpensive -- books is important. In India, this was a problem until a few years ago. During our undergraduate days in the early eighties, access to good text books (there were hardly any texts in metallurgy or materials science by Indian authors those days; the situation is not much different even now) was only through the (well stocked) library in our Department in IT-BHU. Remember, there were no xerox machines those days!

The only foreign book we could afford was the great Resnick and Halliday for physics. Even here, there is a twist; the edition that we used was at least one (probably two) edition behind the latest in use elsewhere! Reason: only this older edition (that was re-printed in India) was affordable; the latest edition could be found only in our library.

That was then, and this is now. When I walk into our Institute's bookstore, what hits me is the sheer variety of books on programming. Java, C++, C, C#, Unix, Linux, Python, Perl, Tcl/Tk, EJB, AJAX, ... You name it, they have a book on it. I think I even saw books on B+, B, B-, C+ ... ;-)

There is a wide choice of texts available in other subjects too, but the choice is the largest for programming.

One of the interesting consequences of this new publishing phenomenon is exemplified by a pretty high level (graduate) text on condensed matter physics by Lubensky and Chaikin. It is a bestseller, in spite of its being addressed to a rather small audience! The last I checked, it was already into its sixth reprint. I bought it several years ago at Rs.275, and it is now at about Rs. 325 or so. I am sure the low price contributed a lot to its bestseller-hood; lots of students who didn't need it still bought it as a reference text, or perhaps to impress their friends. [This reminds me of what a reporter for Science said about Stephen Hawking's A brief history of time: "it's a nice coffee table book." ;-)]

The availability of lots of good textbooks at reasonable prices has been one of the major revolutions in India in the last dozen years or so. Invariably, they are all 'Indian editions' of texts used elsewhere. I like to call them 'Indian-made foreign books! But unlike in the past, they are all quite 'current'; many are published within six months of their appearance in the Western countries.

Many of them are written by American authors, with a clear, easy-to-follow presentation. They are well designed, with lots of white space for esthetics and for writing your notes; they have nice pictures and drawings that our older books lacked (we don't see much colour yet, though the original American versions have colour pages and pictures). All these wonders are available for reasonable prices in the range of Rs. 200 to 500.

The IMFBs have made access to pedagogically oriented texts far more accessible. Another good thing is that they have set the benchmark for Indian authors of textbooks. Students may still buy the far cheaper, poorly written books by their own university professors for other -- er, well known -- reasons, but real learning -- available in IMFB's -- is now accessible.

More importantly, for the publishers, this phenomenon has reduced the need for xeroxing; so, they get at least some money that they would otherwise not have gotten at all.

Bottomline: there indeed is money at the bottom of the pyramid. It may not be much (now), but it will only grow.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Indian made foreign books is a great term :)
    I remember that I had to buy text books priced at 10 and 20 pounds and I cried bitterly at how expensive it was! and funnily enough, these books - published by Sage - were available in India at a fraction of their London price... so this post touched a raw nerve

  2. Anonymous said...

    Yes... touched a raw nerve it did. We in Chem Engg had to pay big money for our books - all of the prescribed books were by foreign authors. Only 2 of them were IMFBs back then. Believe there are many more these days.


  3. Abi said...

    Charu, ItG: Thanks for your comments.

    The students who are studying abroad these days can -- in principle, at least -- hope to buy such books in India. During the late eighties, we could do nothing of that sort; we just ended up envying fellow students from South Korea and Taiwan who had that option.

    "Foreign books printed in India" is a more accurate description. IMFB, on the other hand, plays on something more familiar to many Indian readers ... ;-)

    To be fair to the authors of the texts we used in those days, they did the job of presenting all the information we needed to imbibe in a systematic, competent fashion. They were short on two things IMHO: (a) a pedagogical orientation (over which the authors had control) and (b) production quality (over which they didn't).

    The books that lack these qualities suffer in comparison with the superior textbooks in the market today; such a comparison is possible only now.

  4. Anonymous said...

    Dear Abhinandan,

    "Affordable textbooks" is an oxymoron, because if it is not , then I don't understand how it can be a textbook. Nonetheless, what you say is very true about their high costs.

    In an indian context, the costs are prohibitive because we consider only books written by "foreign authors" as good ones and these books are very expensive. For example, the books that are used for solid state physics are C. Kittel at introductory level and Ashcroft-Mermin at advanced level. These two are classic texts, but nobody in India has even attempted to write texts that are intented to be pedagogical, affordable and can compete with the above mentioned texts. We have good teachers and it is simply a thing nobody is concerned about it seems.

    The NCERT physics books have Prof. TV Ramakrishnan as one of the authors, for history it is Prof. Romila Thappar, but a similar effort should be made for undergraduate texts.

    I feel that faculties should develop their own course content complete with fresh examples, alongside the ones from good texts and make the content made entirely by them available free of cost on the web.

    I have this ambition of making good pedagogical content available on the web accessible to everybody. Currently I am working on Semiconductor Device Physics, but hopefully I will be able to find people who can come up their own chosen area of research/work.

    Recently when I talked to Ramesh Mahadevan (he was in Boulder in late August, 2005) he told me about the efforts he is involved in translating a few texts into tamil. Actually long back I had written to him about translating Resnick & Halliday into Tamil and when we talked this time he asked me whether I am still interested and I said I am.

    I might sound a little too ambitious wanting to do so many things but I feel a network of bloggers getting together sharing things is not a bad thought. Remember Linux.

    Stony Brook

  5. Abi said...

    Hi Narasimhan,

    Thanks a lot for your comment. You have covered a lot of ground. I have not been able to think through all of them. Let me respond to just one of them.

    The lack of undergrad books by Indian authors is probably due to (at least) two reasons:

    (a) the market is small.

    (b) Even where the market is large (such as introductory math or physics), it gets fragmented since each university has its own syllabus. Professors, when they write books, tend to tailor them to their university curriculum. This makes the market smaller for each text.

    The trick, it seems to me, is to write a comprehensive (and inexpensive) texts -- Resnick and Halliday is a good example of this approach -- so that it can be used everywhere. Also, It makes sense to write a text that is general enough that it can be marketed abroad as well. At least one of my colleagues has written an advanced text that has been marketed internationally with quite a bit of success. If this success can be replicated for basic books too, it will be great.

    Well, good luck with your text, and also with translating R&H!

    Finally, sorry for the delay in putting up a reply; the IIPM thingy has taken most of my blogging time.