You’ve just started your freshman year in college, so one of your first stops is the campus bookstore to pick up your textbooks. You signed up for Econ 101, where your professor has assigned one of the top-selling basic textbooks in the field: Harvard professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s 936-page Principles of Economics (South-Western/Thomson), now in its fourth edition. The price: $175.95, or if you want to throw in a study guide to help you ace the course, $209.90.
Wow, that’s steep for just one book – but you’ve only just started. Next class: the first semester of your college’s world history survey course, spanning the period from 1 million B.C. to 1500 A.D. In that class the prof is having you read the first volume of Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past (McGraw-Hill), the ever-so-politically correct overview by Jerry H. Bentley and Herbert F. Ziegler that devotes only 28 of its 600 pages to ancient Greece. The sticker price for Traditions and Encounters, now in its second edition: $89.69. Next, chemistry class, where the assigned textbook is Karen C. Timberlake’s Chemistry: An Introduction to General, Organic, and Biological Chemistry (Prentice-Hall), now in its ninth edition. The price here is $148.80 for 736 pages plus a CD-ROM, and another $64.90 if you want a study guide. The bargain on your textbook list, if you can call it that, is Lynn Bloom’s The Essay Connection (Houghton-Mifflin), the required anthology for your freshman English class, and “only” $61.16 for 656 pages. The Essay Connection is in its eighth edition, an improvement over the seventh edition, its blurb promises, because the book now includes essays by David Sedaris (can’t you read him at home in your parents’ New Yorker?), a photo collection on the horrors of war (guess what non-English-related political point that’s trying to make), and cartoons and other illustrations for students who learn better by looking at pictures.
Your textbook-bill total for the semester is now $475.60 for just four books, more than a fourth of the average $2,315 in tuition and fees for a semester at a U.S. state college, according to figures for 2004 from the U.S. Education Department) – and that doesn’t include optional study guides, the lab manual you might need for chem class, or the photocopied handout packet your English teacher says she’ll be passing out at your expense. Why the sky-high prices for basic textbooks? After all, the brand-new, critically acclaimed translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Knopf) lists at only $37 for 1,273 pages in handsomely designed hardback. If Knopf, a trade publisher, can bring in a lengthy volume with a scholarly apparatus of notes and bibliography for less than $40, why can’t textbook publishers, serving a market of generally cash-strapped young people, do something similar?
Welcome to the world of textbook pricing, where, it would seem, the usual market forces don't apply. The textbook market in no way resembles the trade book market, in which the same person – the consumer – desires the book (the new War and Peace, the latest diet guide or whatever), acquires it, and pays for it, so that price points and competition are crucial. What the textbook market resembles most is the market for health care, in which one entity (the physician/the professor) desires – that is, assigns or prescribes – the product, a second entity (the patient/the student) consumes it, and a third set of entities (insurance companies/parents) foot the bill. Spiraling prices for textbooks, like spiraling medical costs, seem to be the inevitable result. A General Accounting Office report in 2005 noted that textbook prices rose 186 percent in the U.S. from 1986 to 2004, compared to only a 3 percent rise in other prices over the same period and a 7 percent rise in average college tuition and fees. The seemingly out-of-control price increases have prompted laws in six states and pending bills in at least four others – plus a measure passed by the House of Representatives on Feb. 7 – that aim to regulate the way in which textbooks are marketed so as to lower costs to students.
In September 2006 an advisory committee to the U.S. Education Department issued a lengthy analysis of the economic forces that possibly lead to high textbook prices. They included inelastic demand (student who want to pass their courses have to buy the books); an oligopolistic supply market in which only a handful of publishers (including Thomson, McGraw-Hill, Prentice Hall, and Houghton-Mifflin) dominate, high production costs that create barriers to entry by possible competitors with the Big Four; the fact that college bookstores, which typically charge some of the highest retail prices, tend to be profit centers for their universities; the fact that professors typically receive free comp copies of the books they assign their classes and thus often don't know how much the books cost; and the further fact that the professors who author textbooks have a financial stake via royalties in assigning the books to their captive classes. The Harvard Crimson recently reported that Mankiw has made his Principles of Economics required reading for the nearly 2,300 students who have passed through the beginning economics course he teaches at Harvard. Furthermore, multiple editions of a textbook (Principles of Economics has gone through four in the nine years since its first edition in 1998) tend not to reflect rapid developments in the field (how much does the law of supply and demand change?) so much as the desire of publishers, and in many cases authors, to render older editions obsolete, discouraging students from buying cheaper used copies.
Perhaps inevitably, textbook pricing has become a pet project of U.S. PIRG, the nationwide alliance of Ralph Nader-inspired state public interest research groups, or PIRGS, that tackle perceived consumer issues. U.S. PIRG has about 100 campus affiliates, often funded by contributions from mandatory student activity fees. The PIRGS and their national parent have been the main instigators of the price-regulation legislation. The House bill, strongly supported by U.S. PIRG, would require publishers to provide college faculty with extensive pricing and related information about every book the instructor is considering using, including its wholesale price, the copyright dates of every previous edition over the past 10 years, substantial changes between editions, and the availability (with prices) of alternative formats for the book, including e-books and coverless no-frills versions that can be loaded into a three-ring binder. The information would presumably spur professors to assign cheaper versions or older editions that could be bought used. The House bill – like many of the state measures, including a bill passed by the Colorado state legislature in March – would also require the "unbundling" of CD-ROMs and other supplementary items that are often shrink-wrapped into a package with the textbook itself; those extra items would be required to be sold separately. Finally, the House bill would prohibit instructors from selling their free copies of textbooks to used-bookstores for treat-your-spouse-to-dinner money – a common practice well known to book reviewers (including the author of this article).
Not surprisingly, textbook publishers resists such measures – and for good reason. As they point out, students are willing to spend up to $400 for an iPod – so why not $200 for a chemistry book? Furthermore, many textbooks are genuinely more expensive to produce than trade books, not only fatter and sturdier but often filled with graphs, charts, maps, illustrations, and reproductions of works of art that all cost money to make. Requiring publishers to provide detailed pricing and related information for every edition of a textbook every format whenever a professor expresses interest in it would only add an additional cost that would have to be passed on to someone, and that someone would probably a student. Such regulation's effect on smaller publishers seeking to break into the textbook market could be devastating, having the ironic effect of preserving the perceived oligopoly of market dominance that consumer advocates decry.
Bruce Hildebrand, higher education spokesman for the American Association of Publishers, argues that one main reason textbook prices are escalating – and being increasingly sold in conjunction with software and other products – is that cost-conscious colleges are cutting back on their traditional human and bricks-and-mortars educational support systems: teaching assistants, graders, language labs, and even science laboratories in some basic courses. In their place are CD-ROMs, e-tutors, and guided online homework, all especially useful to the vast majority of college students these days who are not quite college-ready, but all representing educational costs that colleges have quietly shifted from themselves to their students. "Faculty like the software" [bundled into text books] nowadays," says Hildebrand. "You can build a custom book. You can strip out the graphics and the other stuff and sell it cheaper. Georgia Tech tried that with a chemistry book published by Houghton-Mifflin. The cheaper book didn't sell. The students didn't want it." Furthermore, says Hildebrand, unbundling mandates, besides raising the price of extras for those who can benefit from them, interfere with the First Amendment rights of textbook authors and publishers to produce a package of materials that fits their idea, not some legislature's, of the learning experience they want the students who use them to have.
"Honestly, the faculty member is the one who has to make the decision [regarding which edition or format of a textbook to use," says George Priest, antitrust law professor at Yale. "The faculty member is the best monitor of what is in the students' best interest."
For example, says Priest, he personally monitors the law casebooks he assigns his Yale classes to find the cheapest edition for his students. "I teach a class on capitalism," he says, "and I found a $7.95 edition of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, in contrast to the $12.95 edition I had been using. It took me more than four hours to correlate the passages in the two versions I wanted to assign – all to save the students $5."
Trusting in professors' dedication to their students' interests, which is, after all, part of any college teacher's job, might be a more effective route than punitive regulation of publishers' practices if the goal is lowering textbook costs. In California, for example, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last October vetoed a bill passed by the state senate that closely resembled the federal House bill, instead signing a measure that mandates price disclosure only on an instructor's request and told professors to consider cost in assigning textbooks, but did not require them to assign any particular version.
Better yet, would-be textbook-price regulators might simply trust students themselves to figure out ways to make their learning materials cheaper. Many already bypass the premium prices prevailing at their campus bookstores for the rich used-book market on Amazon.com, where Principles of Economics can be had for $93 and The Essay Connection for as little as $8.10. Numerous other websites, such as textbooks.com, half.com, ecampus.com, and campusbooks.com compete to allow students to comparison-shop for books as well as buy and resell them at low prices. Other enterprising students, and even a few commercial entities, have discovered that many popular textbooks sell for less – sometimes a lot less – in licensed versions in foreign countries; they re-import the international editions from abroad and sell them for considerably less than their U.S. prices to classmates and other willing buyers. Of course, such maneuvers can violate U.S. trademark laws and subject sellers to liability for damages, warns James Grimmelman, professor of intellectual property law at New York Law School. "The [trademark] law basically enables price discrimination," says Grimmelman.
That may be, but the pressure on textbook prices by the combined strategies of enterprising students and used-book websites is likely in the long run to bring those prices down without government intervention. Eventually some publisher, major or minor, will figure out ways to give students and their professors exactly what they need for far less money – and at that point the textbook market will move quickly to correct itself, all by itself.
35 thoughts on “Why Do Textbooks Cost So Much?”
I have a good question. An instructor assigns a $175 text book but the students don’t buy it. At the same time, the same instructor self published an e-book that follows his lectures to a T. and explains each topic in his course very clearly IF the instructor simply informs students that his ebook is available on amazon, but does not require it for the class, is there anything wrong with that?
After owning a company that produced text books for major publishers, the reason they are so expensive is because the big publishers dominate the text book market and are so large that they have completely lost control of what goes on in producing them. Years go by while paying high priced authors and editors to have conference calls weekly and nothing ever gets done. The large publishers need to go away and smaller publishing houses with more efficient workflows need to take over. Text books will never be as cheap to produce as trade books but they can be much, much cheaper. My wife is an editor so I hope this doesn’t happen anytime soon, but it will….
My textbooks would have cost about $900 this semester if I purchased them new. I ended up only buying my chemistry book (used), and that’s only because we had homework every week coming directly from the book. Websites like to list lots of reasons why textbooks are so expensive, but really the only reason is because the publishers want more money. Maybe they should go back to school so they can get a better job, ho ho ho.
This is as wonderful as your other content. 😀 Appreciate it being put up.
“It takes less time to do things right than to explain why you did it wrong.” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Great piece, Charlotte! Check out Laura’s comment (3rd), and it’s happening now…
Thanks for such an informative article. What great insights!
This is a high quality post.
This is the right blog for anyone who wants to find out about this topic. You realize so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I actually would want
I like this post, enjoyed this one regards for posting. “Money is a poor man’s credit card.” by Herbert Marshall McLuhan.
I am in agreement with Srinavasa. As a newly minted MPPA I was disgusted with the prices of both used copies and copies to rent for some of my classes. I paid just under $100 for a textbook I rented for 11 weeks, the new price was $135. I decided to pass on the second required text and used a borrowed older edition from a fellow student. Had I purchased full-price both books, I would have paid just under $300. This was for a class on Negotiation and Conflict. Sadly, it did not contain useful information on how students can negotiate with textbook publishers! By the way, the tuition for this one class cost just under $2000!
I just went back to college after not being in school for more than 10 years. I was astounded to find that a single book could cost up to $325. As if college isn’t enough of a scam in this country, this whole text book pricing definitely is. Spending several hundred dollars per book that will be used for just one semester is bogus. Then they update the books every year so that you cant use last years book which keeps everyone buying new books every year. SCAM
My brother taught a senior-level college finance course. He stayed with the existing edition, and gave tips to the students where they could get deals. Even though the publisher pushed him HARD to use the new edition, he did his research, saw the changes were actually minimal and stuck to his guns. It’s kind of like pharm reps. educating doctors. The sellers are the only convenient source of information the docs have.
I am an American student attending an all English program in Thailand. I just bought my textbook in the “Global Edition” form. Instead of costing $180 it was only $25, the market price over here. It seems to have all of the same information, and doesn’t include any international perspective. On the back it does have a severe warning about importing it back to the USA or Canada. Humm….
As a current student, I would naturally side with lower textbook prices. I’ve had the fortune, these past three years, of being an English major, and therefore having relatively low textbook costs (only $150 or so a semester!). One professor – an astronomy professor, no less – wrote and provided as a free .pdf file his own textbook, complete with study questions and a test guide. His students praised his name to no end.
This summer, I applied for and received a double major in psychology. Coming from an English degree, the price of the textbooks blew me off my feet. $75 to rent a textbook? $130 for a used copy? My calculus textbook last semester cost $175, and I learned I could sell it back for $0.25 because they’re switching to a new edition. I wouldn’t venture to sound arrogant, but I’m fairly confident that they haven’t made such advancements in calculus in the past two or three years that they need to put out a new edition. Even if, as some have suggested, renting and buying used copies are cheaper alternatives, it’s still not that cheap. My textbook bill for this semester was $389 even after I rented and bought from other students. That can buy me food for three and a half months. We are college students and most of us fit into the poor-student stereotype – not everyone has rich daddies paying their tuition.
Since, as Michael B. pointed out, most of the professors are hell-bent on inserting their own little views into textbooks, it should be no trouble to provide said textbooks as free .pdf files. They can then update it as they like, issuing “new editions” without necessitating a twenty-dollar hike in price, not to mention saving trees. Like John_N said, few of the professors are in it for the money (though I’ll not dream of calling my political science professor a greedy old baggage). Fifty bucks more or less won’t matter, and it would save their students a considerable amount as well as making sure that every student read it. I know more than one student who, stuck between buying a book and buying food, chose the food and had to receive a less enriched learning environment because the textbook costs were too damn high.
I know this isn’t very mature of me, but the textbook companies can suck it and go cry to their mommies. The price of textbooks has left inflation in the dust. What the hell more do they want?
My view is, if they didn’t push the prices up so much, students wouldn’t be forced to buy so many used copies. Many students prefer unused copies, since it allows them to mark them up as they wish, but can’t afford them. If the companies stopped increasing the price, fewer students would feel so pressured and pinched in their wallet. If the prices keep increasing, then pretty soon, only rich kids, merit students, and scholarship students can afford to receive higher education – or rather, receive higher education without emerging with a mountain of debt.
The high cost of acquiring textbooks has forced students( both graduate and undergraduate) to download pirated copies of textbooks. My only gripe here is that if the publisher reduced the price of the textbooks piracy would decrease.
I come from India and there the textbooks are priced at 10% of what they are sold here. They are called economy editions. If that concept is brought here to the states you will not only counter textbook resellers but also online pirates.
Great one, apteka!
Readers of my articles previoius think he could, the answer is an emphatic, can buy based on my designer Designer Replicas Handbags
I think that there should be apps for textbooks and you can download the various material to your i pod or kindle. This would also be beneficial in school systems where there are not enough text books to go around.
I like John_N’s suggestion about a Linux style effort to write freeware textbooks.
I and two of my colleagues teach a research methods course, and until I arrived they used a $60 statistics lab workbook. Writing a whole book was daunting, but writing a couple of labs each wasn’t too much work, and now our students only pay $9 (for the copying/binding–if I trusted them enough to actually print it out I’d give them free .pdf files, but…). We can update it each semester at no additional cost, change problem sets, and so on.
This would be harder for things like World Civ, but I look at our history department, with 20 or so instructors that teach the course, and surely each of them could come up with a 20 page chapter, and the department could give one person some time (summer grant?) to edit and make it more coherent.
Sure it wouldn’t have as many fancy pictures (with their copyright costs), but we all produce our own study guides (don’t we?), so that would be easy to add.
It’s been over a decade since I was in college, but I know one thing that would have saved my some money my freshman year – if professors for intro courses agreed on a single text instead of each requiring their own vanity publication with the same information but perhaps in a different order, with different examples.
A greater attempt to standardize on texts -either within an institution or across many – with professors publishing smaller works with their own takes on the material would probably save students a great deal of money.
Mankiw’s book is an exception to the rule. Many, perhaps most, college textbook authors do not make tens of thousands or even thousands of dollars. They write the books because they want to see a better one on the market. Few get rich in this business. Some I know complain that when all is said and done they earned ten dollars an hour for their labor.
The used car analogy above is only complete if you discuss complaints about the difference in price between the new Ford and the used one or you criticize Ford for calling the 2008 model new when the only differences with the 2007 are cosmetic.
And these comparisons between old editions and new ones are failing to take into account changes in pedagogy over time. Does the student from 1970 read and learn the same way the YouTube student of 2008 does? Does that great threat from Libya in 1984 really hold true to the student in 2008? I prefer my children and my students not taught from that old edition.
I teach computer science — as updated versions of languages come out, the texts have to change.
Last year, I got a new edition of a text I had been using, and that I did like. The changes were trivial, and the price went up — to something like $105 for a paperback. Another popular text went up to $155 for the 7th edition, again with minimal changes. These aren’t the kind of book you will want to have on your shelf for the next 30 years, either.
I decided to search for alternatives, and found some — free, online texts. I found one I liked better than the paperback. These aren’t typed notes; the publishers expect a .dvi or a .pdf file from an author anyway. The author is making these available as a gift to the world.
I urge all instructors to look around for online materials. An earlier comment mentioned “War and Peace”. I found it online in 30 seconds. If you can save each student $40, shouldn’t you make the effort?
I realize that the academy needs to change perceptions as well — online publishing isn’t recognized as scholarship now. That does need to change.
I would really like to see more organized efforts. Perhaps a group of faculty could collectively write a calculus text. Writing a 1500-page calculus text is an incredible task. Writing two sections of one chapter is not, and there should be many people able to take this on.
In regards to only making money on original sales of books:
Every marketed product (that I can think of) is like this. When a person sells their x-year-old Explorer to someone else, Ford doesn’t complain about having to wave goodbye to all that work.
Here it helps to think about our normative goals: If it is for the enrichment of professors, then, yes, new versions as much as possible. If it toward the economizing of education, then let’s not churn so much. If professors need to make more money, the smart thing to do would be to increase tuition and cut out the publishing middle-man. But of course, a single sticker price is harder to slide past consumers than a bunch of comparatively smaller fees in the form of textbooks. So in this way, inter alia, our institutions of higher ed. are emulating credit card companies.
If the first person to buy a new version is a “sucker,” the best way to reduce the number of “suckers” is to have fewer versions. It is true that the first buyer will have to pay the highest proportional cost of textbook, but the full cost will be shared with subsequent users that they sell to, and with any intermediaries (like those devil used bookstores). The fewer the versions, the more users there are to share that cost (again, think of a used car).
Moreover, students take multiple classes over the course of their educations. Assuming a random distribution of new versions across those classes, everyone gets to be a sucker once in awhile. And if everyone is a sucker, is anyone a sucker?
Finally, even if new editions of textbooks came out once every 20 years, with so many professors writing their own versions (because their unique presentation of the subject matter is *so critical*), there would still be plenty of paper in the pipeline for publishers to somehow make do. True, some would probably fold. But I’m not going to lament the trimming of what has been made fat at students’ expense.
“To save the students $5”? To save *each* student $5. In the aggregate that antitrust professor will be saving his students hundreds of dollars.
I’ve been on both sides of this, as teacher and as student. Plus, as author of non-textbook books, and working for a publisher of books.
And I can’t believe the costs of the textbooks.
Textbook authors and publishers complain they only make money on original sales of books, not re-sales? Welcome to the real world, people. That happens with EVERY book.
My latest book will have a press run (from a university press) of 2000 copies. Unlike a textbook, it doesn’t have a guaranteed (forced) market, and the run will be 1/4 of the 8000 HM textbook run cites above. Yet its cost will be 1/4 that of the textbook.
In the for-profit law publishing house I used to work for, we produced books for lawyers–much smaller runs than textbooks, again at much less cost.
As to updated editions–in my field, history, it’s a joke. American and European History basic textbooks barely mention the last couple years, so there’s no intellectual reason to update every two years. And if a history teacher can’t teach 2005-2008 without a textbook, he/she has no business being a history teacher.
And, sometimes, the new editions are distinctly inferior to the older editions: a case in point is Palmer & Colton’s A History of the Modern World, which was the standard textbook in Western Civilization courses for almost 50 years. When my kids were in high school taking AP European History, I had the occasion to compare the 1970 4th edition I used in grad school, with the latest 2002 9th edition. The older edition was better written and avoided political correctness – hardly any of the noticable changes were for the better.
As used textbooks are mostly sold by bookstores (Aren’t they?), why not sell textbooks with two wholesale price-points attached — ‘New’ and ‘Preowned’ — and require a set payback amount or percentage from the store when a used book is sold. This would create a continuing, albeit diminished, income stream for the publisher and author(s). And, as apparently there are a very small number of publishers, I don’t see why this would impose a major accounting burden on the retailer. Once the tracking/payback system is in place, little further effort would be required to remain in compliance.
I realize this is a special-case type of solution, but then isn’t this a special case problem? And I’m guessing that bookstore point-of-sale software comes from a limited number of suppliers who could provide this as an update or add-on very easily.
Having been on both sides of this issue in the not too distant past, I can say that I’ve always been amazed at the cost of text books.
Laura points out that the books are only of value to her (and her publisher) when sold new. I don’t doubt that. But I’ve attempted to sell books back to the bookstores and upon finding out that the book won’t be used the following semester (maybe it’s an every fall only class), the resulting buyback price is ~20% of what I paid (assuming it’s buyback is offered at all), rather than ~75% if it is being offered the following semester. Is $20 better than zero (20% of a $100 book)? yes, but if I was counting on $75 – then I personally wouldn’t resell the book.
As a faculty member, I’ve always looked for the soft cover version of any textbook I use. I’m disappointed that many books are not offered in softcover. I’ve also gone out of my way to only require one (1) book – and make my personal copies available at the library for any subsequent material I require.
Textbooks are a necessary evil. Some are better than others. I personally kept all the textbooks in my own major (Computer Science) from Freshman year until I finished my PhD – but not everyone does…
Competition from used book sellers may well ?drive the rapid turnaround on new editions,? as Laura Freberg points out. I would submit, though, that it?s the skyrocketing price of textbooks that drives the used textbook market. Charlotte Allen?s essay above doesn?t really answer the question she poses, maybe because there is no simple answer to that question, but I do have a few things that need to be considered. First, it seems to me that the ancillary materials, particularly those that the instructor has access to, drive the prices of textbooks over the price that seems reasonable to our students. Those online resources, test banks, and overhead presentations must add considerably to the overall cost of a textbook. Could faculty be persuaded to do without those things? Secondly, I?m guessing that all the color graphics, full-color photos, and physical and electronic supplements geared to the student must also add significant dollars to the cost of each book. Finally, the scatter-gun marketing techniques used by so many of the publishers?sending multiple copies of complementary and review copies to try to get adoptions?has to cost the publisher a great deal of money, another cost passed on to the consumer. This last, in its current form, actually feeds those free copies to the used book wholesalers, allowing competition before the textbook is released to the public. All of these issues, especially in partnership with faculty, could be addressed by the publishers themselves. After all, it seems to me that selling 140,000 copies of a $50 textbook would be much simpler and more profitable than selling 70,000 copies of the $100 textbook.
That the used book market is driven by high prices I have no doubt. At my college bookstore, students rarely balk at paying $50 – $75, even for a paperback textbook. Once the price gets above that range, the demand for used books is evident by how quickly the used books sell out. When prices are below $75 (New) I often have students look specifically for new books; when that price is $100 or more, that behavior becomes very rare.
Compounding all of this is the present attitude of the average college-age consumer that information should be free. No doubt this is the result of nearly universal internet access where a student has been trained at home and in high school that all she has to do is a Google search to find out anything she wants to know. When this attitude encounters the very real shock of a $150 textbook (compared to a class that costs about the same,) students understandably look for alternatives.
From what I’ve read, these textbooks contain substantial information and a lot of useful study guides (e.g., maps, charts, etc.), that they are generally expensive because of these guides, and that students prefer having these guides. Given that, perhaps we can see these books as part of our personal library and lifelong education and not things that should be discarded or resold after one use, or even read merely to pass a course.
Society in general has to be convinced that these subjects and textbooks are not supposed to be seen as things one is forced to invest in and can easily forget but as part of one’s formation. The books will certainly have to be designed so that individuals will value them for various reasons throughout their lives: as foundational guides for more complex works, as references (thanks to helpful charts, maps, etc.), and so on.
Dave’s point is well-taken. Most fields, say algebra, rarely need updating. My own, behavioral neuroscience, is moving so fast that anything you publish is already outdated, so frequent new editions actually make sense.
My point, however, is that publishers are motivated to put out new editions even when the discipline does not require this, because they must have books to sell new in order to make money. If an edition has been out there awhile, there are sufficient used books available for all students who need one. Nobody buys new anymore, and the publisher has no income. This is not a good situation for the publisher, the student, or the professor.
If we can fix the business model by making books so cheap (the iTunes model) that resale doesn’t pay, everybody wins. Well, except the used books sellers.
Laura Freberg points to the need to update textbooks regularly. I can accept that for some fields. For most, though, what undergrads are taught in big introductory courses simply isn’t going to change that much from year to year, or even from decade to decade. Calculus, for example, was invented 300 years ago, and geometry 2500. But new editions of textbooks keep appearing with clock-like regularity.
In my own field (history), new editions of Western civilization and world history textbooks roll out from the publishers every three or four years, despite the fact that our picture of ancient Rome or the Protestant Reformation really doesn’t shift much with time. Scholars are always arguing at the margins, but that has very little impact on the contents. There will be different covers, new graphics, a dozen or so pages on events of the last five years, and that’s about it. The order of coverage, arrangement of chapters, and substantive material is SO similar that usually I can update my syllabus by figuring out the difference in page numbers and applying it more-or-less automatically: pp. 8-16 and 100-120 become 18-26 and 110-130.
The need to update textbooks rings especially hollow when new editions don’t actually update: the latest edition of Wolpert’s New History of India, for example, still treats India and Pakistan’s nuclear status as a mystery.
This issue is so completely misunderstood by most commentators. Let me provide a perspective that is rarely seen.
As tempting as it may seem to make the publishers out to be villains in black hats, this is not the case. My textbook for Houghton Mifflin, Discovering Biological Psychology, probably has a shelf life of 4 years, or 8 semesters, before the information needs to be updated in a new edition.
Houghton Mifflin ONLY makes money on the text for the first semester it is assigned. Trust me, I see the sales runs every six months. Once the book is on the used book market, neither Houghton Mifflin nor I see any money. The only people making money at that point are the used book sellers. I wave goodbye to five years of hard work as my book goes through the revolving door of the campus bookstore with never a penny going to the publisher.
This means that ALL costs associated with the text are paid by the first students to buy the book new. In a sense, the first poor sucker to sign up for a course when the book is new is subsidizing his/her classmates who take the course in the following 7 semesters who can buy a cheaper copy used. Let’s say over the course of those eight semesters, my book is used by 64,000 students. Instead of spreading the costs of illustrations, production, staff, rent, animations, reviews, etc. over those 64,000 copies, HM must recover its costs from 8000 copies. You do the math. This is why faculty members who sell comp copies undercut the publisher so much. Two thousand of those babies in the used book market when the book is new hurts a lot.
The used book market also drives the rapid turnaround on new editions. If you can only make money on new copies, it goes without saying that you need new books frequently. Otherwise, we have no publishing companies at all.
Ms. Allen asks why textbooks are different from pleasure reading. Okay, how many of you would actually consider selling your prize copies of Harry Potter? Sacrilege! No, you keep your copy, which means that the publisher’s production costs can be spread over all the copies sold. JK makes money, her publisher makes money, and the book costs $25.
Do we have a solution? You bet. Make textbooks like iTunes. Download once, charge a reasonable price, and put the used book sellers out of business.
Why is this so surprising? It’s what happens when Greed finds that it has cornered a market. If higher education were to become anything resembling a free market, guess what? The price would go down and the quality go up.
A few thoughts–some discussions of this issue (this essay avoids the problem) suggest that professors are bribed by free copies of texts. I get free copies of all texts–sometimes three or four of the same one. This will hardly sway me one way or another.
I once received a message from a publisher urging me NOT to resell books I received gratis, on the grounds that this would raise textbook prices for students. I guess that makes textbooks the only product for which increased supply actually raises the price.
Next, to echo George Priest’s comments, it is not complicated to, say, use the 4th edition of a text and make available to students the relevant page #s for the _3rd_ edition. In my experience, however, undergrads, particularly undergrads in big intro courses where the prices are the worst, are quite unfamiliar with the concept of multiple editions, and often throw up their hands and pay the extra for the current edition.