Collected Papers and Chapters in Course Packet Publishing

When I went to college back in the 80’s I found that some classes had a course packet of collected papers and chapters instead of a text. I was happy because I thought I’d save some money and not get stuck with some bulky textbook full of filler. Turned out the course packets were also expensive, bulky and full of filler, but they weren’t printed or bound properly. Thanks to the professors who would make cosmetic changes every year, they also had no resale value! Now that I’m on the publisher side of the fence, that sounds like a formula for steady sales and profits and, with print on demand, a way to deliver a more professional and lasting product to students, one that they can resell.

Course packets at most schools are an odd beast that are either produced in the school copy center with slave labor or farmed out to a local copyshop. In Massachusetts, the copyshop approach is primary, and near every campus you’ll find one burning the midnight oil at the start of each semester, cranking out course packets that are sold for anywhere from $20 to $50. The price to the student includes both the copying cost and the royalty payments for all of the papers and excerpts included, or at least it’s supposed to work that way. Professors who are on the ball are pretty good about respecting the intellectual property rights of other professors and publishers, though the payments system struck me as somewhat arbitrary and obscure.

Print on demand is ideal for course packets if the papers or excerpts they include can be obtained in digital form. The problem with many packets is that they really are a copyshop job. The professor (or slave labor) will literally make copies out of books, some in portrait orientation, others in landscape, so that the packet is nothing more than a poorly bound collection of mismatched formats and fonts. The most irritating bit about working out of a packet in class is the lack of sequential page numbers. There’s a lot of page flipping going on when everybody needs to find page 13 in Rosenthal’s essay, which comes somewhere in the middle of the 400 page collection.

However, when the papers or chapters are available as digital text and a subsidiary rights scheme is worked out, the course packet can be published as a print on demand book, with sequential page numbers, properly oriented pages, and a genuine perfect binding. At this point, the packet has morphed into an anthology, and with the help of an ISBN number and a fulfillment service like Lightning Source, Replica or BookSurge, can be available for ordering through Amazon and bookstores. Amazon will be happy to resell used versions as well. Why every college bookstore in the country isn’t signed up with a print on demand vendor is beyond me.

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