Sunday, August 22, 2010

Textbook Prices

Today, on the eve of the start of fall semester classes, Mark Saal’s column in the Ogden Standard-Examiner appropriately takes aim at astronomical textbook prices. And although many of his examples are books for economics courses, he also lists the price of an introductory astronomy textbook!

(Feynman joke: “There are 1011 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it’s only a hundred billion. It’s less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.”)

As Saal points out, high college textbook prices are mainly due to the fact that the people choosing the books (the professors) are never the same ones who are paying for the books (the students). Publishers bombard professors with free copies of textbooks and in fact, I doubt that most professors even know what their assigned books cost. (The sales reps certainly don’t volunteer this information.) Under this system, textbook prices have been creeping upward considerably faster than inflation for the last 25 years.

One force that tries to counteract this trend is the used book market. Students have been selling their used books to each other for a very long time. College bookstores take an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude, buying back used books for half price and then reselling them at 75% of the price of a new book. (The difference, 25% of the new price, happens to be the same as the bookstores’ profit margin on new books.) Students who don’t wish to keep their books can save a lot of money under this system, buying a used book for 75% of the new price and then selling it back at 50%, for a net cost of only 25%. Students who want to keep their books, though, still pay 75% of the new price.

Fighting back, publishers do everything they can to suppress the used book market. Mass-produced introductory books are now revised every three or four years, thereby making all used copies of the previous edition worthless. The revisions rarely add anything of value to the content. If publishers could revise books even more often, I’m sure they would—but that’s pretty much impossible. So they now publish most books in paperback, designed to self-destruct after a semester of use (while saving almost nothing in production cost). Another trick is to shrink-wrap a single-use student workbook with the main book, hoping that professors will require their students to have both. More recently, publishers have started providing online extras such as self-grading homework assignments, protected by a password that students have to pay for unless they buy a new book. The password expires after a year, and cannot be transferred to another student.

Being the half-assed crusader that I am, I’ve been fighting this system, in my own small ways, since 1990. I’ve written angry letters to publishers, posted a web article documenting the alarming trend in prices, and even made my own publisher put a clause in our contract to limit the price of my thermal physics textbook. I’ve never required my students to use the shrink-wrapped workbooks or online homework systems. For my own astronomy section, I’ve started writing a free online text (emphasis on started).

But of all the ways that professors can save money for their students, the most promising by far is simply this: Turn the publishers’ tactic against them and let your students use an earlier edition of the book. College bookstores won’t stock superseded editions, because they can’t be returned to the warehouse if they don’t sell. But the Internet makes it extremely easy for students to obtain used older editions, and the prices are rock-bottom.