Utterly Meaningless » Blog Archive » PRICEY BOOKS

    Filed at 6:23 am under by dcobranchi

    The DesMoines Register picks on an easy target– college textbook publishers. The books have gotten really costly.

    Students will spend nearly $900 this year on textbooks, or almost 20 percent of what they pay in student fees, the study said.

    The cost of college textbooks has gone up 35 percent in the past six years, according to the National Association of College Stores. The price markup at college bookstores, meanwhile, has remained steady, at about 22 percent.

    But, they’ve always been expensive.

    I have a solution, though, that no one at the Register seems to have caught- make professors pay for their own books. That’s right. No more freebies for the profs. I guarantee that prices would drop immediately.

    6 Responses to “PRICEY BOOKS”

    Comment by
    Judy Aron
    January 30th, 2004
    at 8:58 am

    Many times the books that my son has to buy for his classes (he is a Junior at Boston University) are the books that the professor has written ! I suppose that is the only way they are able to sell them!
    It is appalling how much textbooks cost, and what is an even bigger crime is that the bookstores buy them back for a pittance and resell them at a huge profit. When they cannot sell them back to students they literally fill dumpsters with used texts (some worth $60 new!)- I have seen that at the University of Hartford ! You’d think they would donate them to local schools or something…I have gotten many free and wonderful college texts on book trade-in day at the college book store, just by picking through the trash pile.

    Comment by
    Eric Holcombe
    January 30th, 2004
    at 9:24 am

    I went through the same thing. Buy at 100%, sell back at 50%, the bookstore resells at 75%. There was a lot of criticism of this practice and the bookstore trying to claim a mere 15% profit margin. Well, yeah, on the initial sale. They didn’t want to talk about the 50% profit on the resale, the “new” editions churned out every 2-3 years – and always if authored by university faculty.

    It made for great free enterprise for the student body though; selling between that 50%-75% buyback/resell window was often done.

    Comment by
    January 30th, 2004
    at 11:07 am

    If a professor writes a book I would expect them to want to use it for their classes. The textbook you write SHOULD meet your needs better than one someone else writes. Every publisher I know of does not pay the author for books sold at the university the author works at.

    While I agree that many professors do not adequately consider the cost of the books they choose for their class, requiring the professor to pay for the books would not be a good idea. I get textbooks free to examine so I can decide which book best meets the needs of the class I am assigned to teach. If I have to pay for each book I examine then I am less likely to do as exhaustive of a search. One other point to consider, if I have a choice between two books, one great one that cost $150 and an OK one that cost $20, then I believe the great one is the better investment. When you consider all the time and money that is invested in a college course then the extra $65 becomes fairly trivial in comparison.

    My pet peeves on the cost of books are:
    Professors who require multiple books for a course and then don’t use all of them or only use very small parts of them. I have bought books that were never even referenced in the course.

    Professors who change books frequently. That kills the resale value of a book.

    On the bright side, electronic publishing should change everything. Some companies are already allowing professors to chose chapters by different authors and build their own book.

    Some scholars have written books for the public domain and I would be surprised if more authors did not do so. If I could chose PDF’s from various authors to build my own textbook from a public domain library then I could reduce the cost of the book to close to zero if read on line or just the cost of printing out the document if printed. An even more intriguing idea would be to have an “open source” textbook that could be edited by the users and customized.

    Hopefully electronic publishing will cause the price of books to fall in the near future.

    Comment by
    Steven Gallaher
    January 30th, 2004
    at 4:24 pm

    I do not think that open source textbooks is a viable idea. The reasons that open source software has been successful are 1)People have produced a product for which there is no clear direct market (at least that they can access), 2)These people can get social standing by joining a social group which values creation of open source software, and 3)(for some few) Creation of open source software can lead to payment for other work. (Larry Wall (Perl) and Linus Torvalds (Linux) come to mind.)

    Indeed these three things play directly (in different measure) to the academic research publishing market. While essentially no money is paid to the authors of academic scholarship, these same people are employed, and esteemed, based on their contribution.

    Another way open source projects work is when a group of companies need a similar (commodity-like) product and can benefit from the small inputs of large numbers of people. (The Apache webserver fits in this category.) In both cases, there is a piece of software which would be difficult to produce individually and/or difficult to sell against existing competition. Yes, Apache as it exists today is competitive with the other webserver software, but it is unlikely that it could have been created without being open source.

    None of this applies to the textbook publishing market. Textbook writing (good textbook writing, at least) is difficult, frequently tedious work with relatively little scope for creativity (compared to research). Further, there are no external rewards for writing a textbook. Such publication does not affect tenure decisions, and no esteem is gained among colleagues. As for direct rewards, the market for a given textbook is generally quite small. Even assuming you are able to get other professors to adopt your text, each adoption may only represent a few dozen (or in the extreme case, a few hundred) copies. While income from textbooks is a nice supplement for a few professors, most are not getting rich writing texts. (And those who are have written exceptionally good texts.)

    As for the problems in the secondary market for textbooks: the market is far better than for any other used book market I know. My local used book story rarely pays more than $2 for a given book. The fact that college bookstores can offer as much as 50% of new is that they are relatively assured of quick turn-around, either to next semester’s students or to other universities. They are providing a service by acting as intermediaries between last semester’s students and next semester’s students. They can, and should, extract all of the value they can from that service. If they get too greedy, another intermediary will step in. (This is increasingly easy with the internet, by the way. The text I am currently using for my class has 9 used copies starting at 55% of list on amazon alone. There are other sources as well.)

    Comment by
    January 31st, 2004
    at 1:56 pm

    Costs are high, no doubt. Scientific texts are at the top of the scale. Especially if a publisher knows a title is the “industry standard”. The Instrumental Analysis text I use is used at over 60% of colleges and universities across the nation. I know this not from the publisher, but from other sources. This text (you should know it Daryl, Skoog, et al) now runs about $145 new, with used copies hard to find. Part of the problem is that the other texts in this area are dreck. I tried one of the others, and for $90, there were so many mistakes (esp. problem sets) it was scary. Upper level students should keep their books to form the basis of a reference library. If they keep the receipts, they can become a tax write-off.

    Also, look at it this way. At $145 for a 14 week course, that book costs them $10/week, which is probably a lot less than most of them spend weekly on beer and pizza.

    As far as profs requiring students to purchase a book that they wrote, I would expect that to be the case. If I am going to make the effort to write a text for a course I teach, you are damn right that I am going to have my students use it. I wouldn’t write a text unless I took an approach to the material that is not alreaday out there, and if this text reflects the way I teach, the students are best served by using it. It is true that authors do not get a cut of the texts that are sold at their institutions.

    I teach a non-majors course that I cannot find a decent text for. I use a mix of materials for the students. It is a pain, but not nearly so much as dealing with a publisher to create a text for my particular niche of chemistry.

    Anyhow, enough rambling. Yes the costs are high. It is unfortunate. There really is not much you can do. Hopefully the prof has made wise choices for their class, and the students actually read the text instead of using to prop up a computer monitor or as a doorstop.

    Comment by
    February 5th, 2004
    at 2:18 pm

    Still got my Skoog from grad school. Not only was it a keeper, but I’ve refered back to it many times over the years in my career in industry. Many of my coworkers also have their copies still, conveniently close at hand in their bookcase at work.

    Another classic: Morrison & Boyd. Lots of memories there, too, at least for those of us who actually like organic chem. And I blush to admit I’m one of the miniscule minority who not only passed p.chem but who aced it….

    Ah, memories. Of course, none of the grades in college really mattered a flip once you actually got a job in the real world.. But you can’t seem to tell kids that, or the academic establishments who make out like bandits because of this skewed view of the real world…