XYZ & OER: (Un)Common Goals

Amy JacobsTextbook IndustryLeave a Comment

OER, affordability, textbook prices, higher ed, math

OER, affordability, textbook prices, higher ed, mathXYZ Textbooks is in support of open educational resources (OER). When you boil it down, we share many of the same goals. Today’s college students are under immense pressure to balance the demands of life and schoolwork, so any initiatives that make a genuine effort to support them (in cost savings and time savings) are to be praised.

Education is often a pathway to someone’s dream. When you look at it that way, you start to realize that there are too many impediments. The high price of textbooks, in particular, undermines the aspirations of students everywhere. In mathematics especially, the textbook is critical to success in the course. Students who forego (or delay) the purchase of their core materials are a significant disadvantage, threatening to compromise the investment in their education.

The pricing practices of the big publishers has fueled the OER movement, plus a raft of smaller players like XYZ Textbooks who are not satisfied with business-as-usual. Textbook prices have risen over three times the rate of inflation over the past 30 years, so it’s not hard to see why there’s such fervor around the issue.

Alternatives to high-priced textbooks

Here’s an overview of XYZ Textbooks and OER in general, both the common goals and the differences.


  • OER: Lower the price of core content, sometimes to the point of $0. Foster greater access so that students don’t have to go without. Empower instructors with the ability to customize their course materials over time, in hopes of making their courses more locally relevant.
  • XYZ: Lower the price of professionally-produced college textbooks, while still supporting the student with a suite of world class learning tools. Give instructors and students a real alternative to $200+ textbooks from the big publishers.


  • OER: From independent instructors/producers to foundation-supported initiatives.
  • XYZ: Small, privately-owned, family-run business started and managed by best-selling textbook author Pat McKeague.

Low prices:

  • OER: From $0 (Web view and downloads) to about $30, usually to cover printing costs and some overhead.
  • XYZ: $40 for an All-Access Pass to the entire library of 20+ books plus 10,000 tutorial videos at MathTV, all digital supplements, and the XYZ Homework system. Printed books are all under $100 retail price for one-semester courses.

Comparing content


  • OER: With a few exceptions (e.g. OpenStax), most OER is not peer reviewed. You find varying degrees of quality—some very good, most not up to par. At least not yet. The hope is that increasing usage of OER will help mitigate quality issues, but the fact is that there is generally no process in place to manage quality control.
  • XYZ: A rigorous development and peer review process results in high quality, professionally-produced textbooks, just like at the big publishers.


  • OER: One of the great things about OER is that anyone is free to produce and publish their work for anyone to benefit. As you would expect, there are some excellent producers and some, less so. Some put the effort in trying to make a cohesive pedagogical teaching tool, and others just post their teaching notes.
  • XYZ: Authors at XYZ are selected for their ability to teach, above all. All 8 authors are award-winning college instructors who have become professional textbook writers.


  • OER: One of the big advantages of OER in general. Users can revise, reorganize, and repurpose materials as much as they want, to create a truly customized textbook. The only drawback is that there is usually not a unified delivery mechanism, so materials “patched together” can seem uneven.
  • XYZ: Closer to the big publishers in that customized books are available by request, and assembled and delivered by XYZ Textbooks. Since XYZ Textbooks are digital-first, they are easier to integrate with other OER material—for instance, CC-BY content could be brought into XYZ Custom Textbooks easily.

Comparing support


  • OER: The large majority of OER textbooks do not have have supplemental materials such as test banks and solutions manuals.
    • XYZ: A full set of the basic supplements that you would expect for professionally-published mathematics books—a test bank, solutions manual, and student worksheets. XYZ goes a step further than the big publishers in offering 10,000 tutorial videos in an integrated product called

Support—online homework:

  • OER: No online homework or course management system. Instructors must rely on a third-party system.
  • XYZ: A complete online grading system called XYZ Homework allows instructors to automate homework delivery and for students to get algorithmically-generated problems for unlimited practice.

Support—customer service:

  • OER: No direct support for users, outside of peer-to-peer in group forums and social media.
  • XYZ: Full pre- and post-sale customer service, just like at the big publishers. XYZ employs full-time sales reps and customer service reps.

Comparing printed textbooks

Printed books—pedagogy:

  • OER: Because full-color books are still expensive to produce in print-on-demand, most OER textbooks are presented in black & white. With some disciplines it won’t make a huge difference, but it can have a huge impact on mathematics (and the sciences). Today’s students have come to rely on color figures and graphs which can go further in explaining important concepts.
  • XYZ: Full-color printed textbooks, with professionally rendered graphics and images.

Printed books—availability:

  • OER: Print-on-demand dominates, which can delay the delivery of course materials. The risk is that the student may go a week or two into the semester without the book. The core textbook is so important in mathematics that you don’t want to put the student at risk of falling behind because the book is delayed in delivery.
  • XYZ: Traditional offset printing and warehousing, with direct fulfillment and through retail outlets such as the campus bookstore and Amazon.

Printed books—price:

  • OER: Low prices are a hallmark of OER, and most providers aim to keep their prices—even in printed outputs—at cost or with very little markup. It’s rare to see OER textbooks about $50. Excellent!
  • XYZ: The company was built on the premise of creating a sustainable business without resorting to high prices, like the traditional publishers. Most XYZ Textbooks are priced much closer to OER printed books (XYZ avg = $68) than the Big 3 (avg = $200+).

Affordability matters

As you can see, XYZ Textbooks occupies somewhat of a “middle ground” between OER and traditional publishers. XYZ & OER both have affordable learning at the center of their respective missions. XYZ employs the quality control processes and support of the big publishers, without adopting the industry’s discriminatory pricing practices.

We like to think of XYZ as a “best of both worlds.” Instructors can feel good about making an ethical choice on behalf of their students, without giving up any of the conveniences to which they are accustomed. Either way, whether it’s OER, XYZ Textbooks, or other similar entities making a real difference on the issue of college affordability, we can all agree that it’s a step in the right direction.

Progress is a choice. And you get a vote. One simple change can make a huge difference to your students. Tell them you care. Take action today.

Image credit: “Math by Nic” by Enokson is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Changed from original: Added text overlays.

Amy JacobsXYZ & OER: (Un)Common Goals

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