A cheaper, lighter book option for LSM1103 Biodiversity

The profits from making an International Edition of Solomon, Berg & Martin’s Biology (9/e) are kept lower than they are in the west. The book retails for about S$60 in Singapore, and this recommended text for LSM1103 Biodiversity has a potential market of 550 students from the Life Sciences 1st year cohort. Not all students will buy the book and some use their existing A level alternative of Campbell Biology (9/e).

With United States Supreme Court copyright decision Kirtsaeng vs Wiley 2012, however, these small Asian markets over Asia have become now a source of cheap books which will threaten the publisher’s larger US market. The 9th edition of Solomon et al. costs about S$150 there and imports from Asia will collapse the demand for US versions.

So to protect their US market, there is a feeling that publishers may stop publishing International Editions. And students will find only a very expensive US edition of Solomon in the co-op. Which they won’t buy.

In any case, I obviously won’t be recommending a $150 text.

A few weeks earlier, my new Botany and Microbiology colleagues in the module easily agreed that we all use the same text book for LSM1103 Biodiversity. So that finally reduced the recommended text from three to one.

Now we aren’t using the the entire book, just the section which deal with topics in biodiversity. So students don’t actually need 80% of the book they would purchase. Happily, publisher reps said they can easily arrange for a “custom print” of the relevant single section in the books. This would reduce the weight by about 80% and probably halve the cost.

Then I asked about e-versions of the book, and publishers all agreed to add a time-limited version for only marginal increase in cost.

So now, students will be happy with the cheaper, lighter texts with their optional e-versions. Publishers are happy to provide these customised options for our very specific needs, as there is no threat of piracy or legitimate resale to the large US market.

And I’ll be happy because more undergraduates will actually be reading their texts.

Yes, that “International Edition” can be used and sold in the US (says their Supreme Court)

When students buy a textbook published by a US company in the NUS co-op, they may have to fork out something like $60 for a copy.

The same book, sold in the US, may cost between $150-$200. The difference? The book cover! Holey-moley!

Well, also, the copy you buy in Singapore will be labelled “International Edition” or, in the past, “Not for sale in the US” or both.

Solomon, Berg & Martin, 2011
Solomon, Berg & Martin’s Biology (2011, 9/e)

So alert Singapore students heading overseas for studies should do their book shopping at the NUS Co-Op and make large savings.

Is it illegal? Publishers frown on this, but there is no law preventing this. Anyway, students purchases are negligible compared to the large US market so this has not really been an issue

Then Thai student Supap Kirtsaeng studying in the US, had family and friends ship him the cheaper international books from Thailand. He resold them in the US at higher prices and pocketed the considerable profits – close to US$1 million).

This dedicated operation won the ire of publisher John Wiley & Sons Inc. They took him to court and initially won their case in US district and appeal courts.

But on 19 March this year, the previous decisions were overturned by the US Supreme Court.

So it has now been made clear to all that you are free to use, import and resell copyright works in the United States even if they were produced outside of the US. In other words, the US Copyright law’s “first-sale doctrine” does not exert geographic limitations.

Amongst the relieved appear to be US Librarians as well – they can “loan the 200 million foreign-made titles on their shelves without seeking permission from copyright holders or fearing a lawsuit” (“Libraries Can Lend Foreign Books,” by Ry Rivard. Inside Higher Ed, 20 Mar 2013).

To combat this vulnerability, US publishers may decide to sacrifice the smaller profit market of International Editions in Asia, for example, to protect their much larger and lucrative US market.

This would mean my students in Singapore would only see US edition texts in the co-op. They are not going to fork out $150 for a single module text book and I would suggest alternatives.

But I needn’t begin looking for alternatives, there already solutions – custom print and e-books. The latter are already available for most new books and new editions. Happily, this will also lower student’s costs as they are cheaper than text books.

Students are more likely to buy and read a cheap, mobile copy of a recommended text rather than a heavy text book. And that will make their lecturers happy.

And happy too be will the publisher’s representative – lecturers should talk to them if in doubt about your recommended texts. They respond quickly and help with solutions. They don’t want to see $150 textbooks in the co-op either, it’ll mean the death knell for their line of work.

I almost regret the solutions. Using alternative resources for first-year biodiversity from multiple papers and resource webpages would be good training for our first years. But perhaps in later years.

First, they need to learn to read.


  • “Libraries Can Lend Foreign Books,” by Ry Rivard. Inside Higher Ed, 20 March 2013.
  • “Supreme Court Gives American Consumers Victory Over Copyright Owners in Kirtsaeng vs. John Wiley & Sons,” by Gary Shapiro. Forbes.com, 20 Mar 2013.
  • “Kirtsaeng and the First-Sale Doctrine’s Digital Problem,” by Clark D. Asay. Stanford Law Review, 07 May 2013.
  • “How Supap Kirtsaeng’s Textbooks Idea Led to Supreme Court,” By Greg Stohr. Bloomberg, 26 Oct 2012