I was talking to a colleague of mine yesterday, and he was surprised to find that a number of the students in his mechanics course didn’t have the course textbook, because the bookstore was selling it for upwards of two hundred bucks. On amazon, the book sells for a somewhat reduced (but still princely) $197.87.
I want you to bear in mind that this is only a five hundred page book with no color photos, and one that’s sufficiently popular to sell thousands of copies a year. There should be some economy of scale.
Most importantly, though, this sort of outrageous pricing is rule rather than the exception.
I’ve commented before (here and here) about how expensive college has become (as has virtually every newspaper and magazine in the world) and how baffling it is, even from the inside. Textbooks are, in many respects, even worse. It is incredibly common for students to have 3 or 4 books a term with sticker prices above $100. Bear in mind that most university bookstores have incredibly miserly sellback policies, meaning that students get neither the benefit of keeping the book afterward nor more than about 30% of the purchase price of the book.
So who’s to blame? I have a few ideas:
- The professors, including me. A poll (to any professors who might be reading this): how much do the textbooks you use in your courses cost the students? With few exceptions, I’ll be you don’t know. Do you use the “clickers” that are frequently bundled with textbooks these days? Do you use the test banks and online resources? These things cost the students money, but since we never shop on price, there is virtually no price competition between books.
There’s also the fact that faculty tend to be extremely sticky (some might say lazy). We do not like to switch our lecture notes. There is a reason that the 3 most popular freshman physics texts have virtually identical content on a chapter by chapter basis. The upshot is that we end up choosing textbooks based on the tiniest differences.
- The bookstores and resellers. The markups at college bookstores are huge. Since many students are required to get their books ASAP (and the syllabus is only distributed in the first week of classes — blame the faculty, again) they are a captive audience. The prices may still be high on amazon, but it’s so much worse when the students buy them on campus.
- The publishers. This goes without saying, since they’re a business, and they’re going to charge as much as they can. There is a very pervasive idea that faculty and students are demanding resource after resource: online test and homework modules, graphical demos, digital copies of the book in addition to the paper version, clickers, web resources, and the like. These things, to be fair, cost money. But each one also carries with it a huge markup, and in reality, most professors don’t use a fraction of the resources available.
- Students. If a textbook has been around for too long, it’s just too damn easy for students to google the solution to every problem. So despite the fact that the material has been around for more than a hundred years, introductory physics books feel the need to make new editions every year or so. Of course, once again, this problem can be laid at the feet of the professors assigning those problems. Write some of your own!
The bigger question is, “What can we do about it?” I have a few ideas:
- Start teaching from older books. Suppose you taught out of a mechanics text two generations out of date. Your students could pick them up for $20 or so, and because they wouldn’t get much for selling them back, they might actually start a library.
- Use e-texts. Personally, I don’t like this option, as I still read the old-fashioned way. That said, it should be fairly obvious to the textbook publishers that if they don’t adapt, they’re going to be left behind.
- Refuse desk copies. Suppose that departments needed to pay for a copy of the book in order to use it. You can bet that they’d be a lot more price sensitive. Or, even better…
- Have students pay a “book fee” as part of their tuition which is then dispersed to the departments. If books were bought in bulk and then distributed to the students, there would be enormous leverage to lower the prices.
But I’d also appreciate any thoughts you have on this. It’s been bugging the crap out of me.