12 August, 2008

The textbook racket

The Hattiesburg American ran a huge front-page cover story Sunday on the textbook racket. The thesis of the story is that students are being gouged by the prices of textbooks. Per semester it can run to about $800.

The premise has merit. I used to spend about $350 per semester back in 1990, and according to this online inflation calculator that corresponds to about $580 today, roughly 33% higher than inflation.

The article considered a number of explanations for the high cost. One whipping boy* who richly deserves it is the publishing companies. They have gone out of their way to make it very difficult to resell used textbooks. The major trick is that of issuing a new edition every two years. A representative defended the practice by asking, Would you want a book that is older than four years in the hands of a doctor who is treating you?

Well, yes, actually. In fact, I'm quite sure that most of my doctors consulted books that were older than 4 years when they treated me. Quite frankly, if the field of medicine changes that much that quickly, I wouldn't want any doctor who isn't at the cutting edge of medical research. I wonder if the good representative has any clue how old are the books held by the doctors who treat her?

As for my classes, I haven't seen anything new in a Calculus textbook since I first took it in high school twenty years ago. Yet Calculus textbooks are ridiculously priced.** Publishers can't protest about economies of scale here, since the market for Calculus textbooks is huge, I say huge. But the Calculus textbook we're using costs a disproportionate amount more than the specialized textbook I'll be using for a graduate course. See if that makes any sense, aside from price-gouging.

Textbook publishers do have one valid excuse: they put a lot of side effort into premium textbooks that you don't often see. There may not be a lot of new material in any Calculus textbooks, but there are a lot of supplementary materials developed for them: online homework assignments, for example. Okay, that explains a bit.

Nevertheless, our department went with a new, stripped-down edition of a textbook that costs 20% less than the previous version. It's called Essential Calculus and reduces the colors to blue and black; prunes many optional topics; offers fewer projects, etc. as compared to other versions of the same text. It still includes online homework lessons, and students can resell the books. The textbook representative was very helpful with this. In our case at least, once the department made it clear that we wanted their book, but we also wanted to help students cut costs, the representative was very accomodating.

Probably the biggest trend is customization. Textbook publishers very helpfully offer to customize a particular textbook if necessary. Sometimes this is understandable; NC State, for example, customized its Calculus text at least for a while to include material on some topics that did not come standard. The drawback for the student is that it's harder to sell these books back, or to find used versions of the book. Bookstores won't buy back a used book if they don't think they can resell it the following semester.

It flabbergasted me to read that some faculty are not only not trying to help students save money, they may be participating in the campaign to squeeze them for more money. According to the article, some textbook representatives have been peddling a customization whereby

  • the university's name is printed across the top of the book;
  • a copy of the syllabus is on the front page; and
  • a photo of the faculty appears inside.
I've heard of vanity, but when faculty receive 15% of the proceeds from a textbook customized in this way, as reported by the article, we've crossed into an entirely new level of vice. The faculty member who reported this to the reporter added that her department's textbook committee found the offer unethical and declined, but imagine the temptation of receiving an cool $30 for every student in a lecture hall where 300 students are registered.

*Is the term whipping boy sexist?

**On the other hand, they have the merit of being useful for 2, 3, or 4 semesters, depending on the student's major's requirements.


Brandon said...

I tell you what, while I like doctors who keep up on new research, I'd be a little suspicious of a doctor who had to keep going back to a textbook....

jack perry said...

I hadn't thought of that point. Still, I can see how a doctor would need to resort to a medical reference at least on occasion.

But it terrifies me to think that human anatomy changes so much that doctors should need to acquire a new book every two years.