Thursday, March 8, 2007

Textbook prices

Earlier this week, Holly K. Hacker wrote an article in the Dallas Morning News about the soaring price of textbooks used in college courses. Subsequently, she was nice enough to point me to the July 2005 report prepared on this issue by the GAO for members of Congress. So, thanks a bunch, Holly!

The GAO report is quite informative and I would recommend it to anybody who is interested in digging deeper. For example, the markup (percentage of the selling price that the bookstore keeps) on used textbooks is close to 33%. The average markup on new textbooks is 23%. Of course, the publishers and authors don't see a dime from used book sales. But, unlike Garth Brooks who passionately argued against sales of used CDs, I have no problem with that. Students, who are not fond of collecting books, have every right to recoup some of the money spent on textbooks.

In my opinion, parallels can be drawn between publishers of textbooks and pharmaceutical companies. Both:
  1. Claim that they have to invest a considerable amount of money in developing textbooks and supplementary material.
  2. Sell books in several countries at prices that are significantly lower than the prices in the US.
  3. Are opposed to reimporting cheaper medicines/books from abroad.
Obviously, the cost of developing a new medicine is many orders of magnitude greater than the cost of developing a new textbook. Also, an effective medicine can be a best-seller and result in handsome sales for several years. However, sales of new textbooks decline significantly after the first year. So, now the time between successive editions of a textbook book is shrinking. This affects students who hope to sell their used, previous edition, textbooks.

I find the claim of publishers that they have to invest heavily in course supplements, and that is the reason they have to keep increasing the price of textbooks, dubious. In my experience, most of the supplementary material is provided by the authors. This includes PowerPoint slides, laboratory exercises, programming projects, multiple choice questions. I am not aware of the publishers offering significantly higher royalties to authors for such material. As for the software that enables instructors to assign online tests from a question bank, it is the same or similar for multiple books from a publisher. So, the cost is amortized across them. These supplementary course materials that come in a nicely sealed CD or DVD that is stuck to the inside cover of a textbook are like the "mandatory optional" upgrades that the car dealers are so fond of offering.
The reason why I refer to them as "mandatory optional" upgrades is the insistence of publishers to bundle them with the textbook. In my opinion, publishers vastly overstate the pedagogical value of these supplements.

When politicians start worrying about things like the price of textbooks, one starts reading about "wonderful" solutions like sales tax holidays, and using the same textbook at all state universities. The former cures the symptoms, not the underlying problem. The latter shows a lack of appreciation of the uniqueness of each college course, and the unique perspective that each instructor brings to a course.

Finally, in her article, Holly alluded to the unethical actions of some college instructors with respect to the choice of textbooks. Over the last few years I have come across similar claims in several other articles, and wanted to investigate further. It appears that most of them refer to an article in the June 27, 2003 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. According to that article, a small California publisher named North West Publishing supposedly offered $4,000 to instructors in various colleges to adopt a book printed by it. The book in question had gone out of print, and North West Publishing claimed to have obtained the rights to reprint it from the original publisher. The original publisher disputed this claim. That makes me ponder how upright a citizen North West Publishing is of the publishing world. But, this single incident has tarred the reputation of the entire academic community. To all those people who took the money knowing quite well that this was a kind of bribe: what have you done to atone for your lack of good judgement?

If any reader (at this early stage, perhaps I am the only reader of my blog!) is aware of other ploys adopted by publishing companies to manipulate the choice of textbooks, please drop me a line.

  • Interesting factoid, courtesy the GAO report: Attending a community college, as opposed to a four-year college, doesn't reduce the cost of textbooks.

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