On My Desk: Why are textbooks expensive?
|Full-service world history textbooks aren't cheap. Though no world history text has yet crossed the $100 line, it's getting crowded in the mid $90s.||1|
A thorough study of textbook costs structures does
not, to my knowledge, exist. Such a study would have to start with the larger
context: the book trade in general. Paper bound academic titles, the kind
published by university presses and certain specialty houses such as M.
E. Sharpe, typically sell for $25 to $45. Given the rising cost of these
volumes, a $95 world history text just might be a bargain, offering the
buyer a thousand pages of text, a comprehensive website, and a big fat box
Any examination of textbook prices would also have
to undertake international comparisons. According to some sources, textbooks
(like prescription drugs) cost less in Canada and Europe than in the United
States, and less in the U.S. than in, say, Mexico. If such differences really
do exist, what explains them?
|Absent rigorous study, readers wishing to apportion blame may choose from four possible culprits: publishing costs, textbook resellers, faculty, and publishers. (College students would no doubt add college bookstores to the list. Naturally, bookstores defend their that their markups. Rather than get into that argument, we will stick here to the publisher's retail price).||4|
|Many (including publishers themselves) point the finger at unavoidable increases in the price of a textbook's many components. The cost of paper, ink, ancillaries, editors, authors, and consultants all add up.||5|
One frustrated student pursued the question and reported that:
Similar stories help account for the high price of world history texts.
One would think that costs increase in direct proportion to the length of
textbooks. According to a US Department of Labor study, however, "the price
for books with more pages seemed to steadily rise with the page range until
around 1000 to 1100 pages. At that point, there seemed to exist a condition
of 'diminishing returns' where more pages did not cost more money, and in
many cases actually cost less."2
Thus, longer books are not always the dearest.
There have always been local markets for used textbooks. These markets were
woefully inefficient; prospective buyers and sellers had very a difficult
time finding one another. Needless to say, the internet has changed that,
creating national markets that are (for publishers) frighteningly
say a publisher brings out a new book (at substantial cost). The publisher
sends free examination copies to professors and teachers. A few ethically-challenged
faculty members, having decided against the book, will then sell it online,
undercutting the publisher's price by 10, 20, or 30%. But this is a mere
trickle. The tide of used copies truly begins rising after the first year,
when second-hand copies flood into eBay, ABE books, Textbooks.com, and other
|The Text and Academic Authors Association (TAA), estimates that the average textbook is bought and sold four to five times. Only the first student pays full freight. From the remaining transactions, publishers and authors see not a penny. Says TAA executive director Richard Hull, "Publishers would respond positively to a plan that would return some of these resale profits." That is no doubt true, but it is difficult to imagine how such a plan could work.3||9|
Within a few years, used books overwhelm sales of
new books. Publishers respond, of course, by offering new editions. There
is, often enough, little truly "new" about the new editions. However, by
reorganizing a couple of chapters here and adding a few supplements there,
publishers can squeeze from a textbook a bit more return on investment.
As a result, new editions may appear once every two to three years rather
than the seven to ten years customary in more civilized times.
Like prescription drugs, textbooks serve a captive
market. Few patients would risk self-prescribing medications for a heart
condition simply to save a few bucks. Students feel even less freedom to
choose their own textbooks. If the teacher or professor wants the Fourth
Edition, do you really want to buy the second? Thus the only real
consumers of textbooks are instructors and textbook adoption committees.
So: what do consumers want? Judging by the books
themselves, they seem to want four color separation, acid-free paper, online
supplements, and at least three packaging options (that is, a complete version,
two-volume version divided at 1500, and a three-volume version cut at 1200
and 1750). They want truckloads of ancillaries as well as comprehensive
textbook decisions, do these consumers take price into account? The answer
is often no. Though publishers certainly face consumer criticism, the critics
usually slam a textbook's alleged political or scholarly deficiencies, not
The fault, perhaps, is in ourselves.
19th century school teachers muttered darkly of the "textbook
ring," a cartel of publishers and printers who wickedly drove up prices
and amassed profits. Evidence of such a conspiracy drove some states, notably
California, to publish their own textbooks.4
to some muckrakers, the textbook ring has returned, and with a vengeance.
Exhibit A: the dramatic consolidation of textbook publishing. In 1942, there
were twenty-eight large publishers. By 1995, the number had dwindled to
thirteen (owned by eight companies) and by 2001 to nine (owned by five companies).
While profit has always driven publishing, some of the old line companies
actually cared about books as such. As publicly traded companies, the corporate
behemoths which own the remaining publishers answer to investors who value
rate of return over public service.
In short, these mega-publishers allegedly bloat
prices and rake in the profits. This is the conclusion of a widely quoted
California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG) report "Rip-Off 101:
How the Current Practices of the Textbook Industry Drive Up the Cost of
|What Can Be Done?|
|Some faculty and students have become so frustrated with textbook prices that they have demanded government action. One Massachusetts proposal, for instance, would require that "publishers … give students the option to buy textbooks and accompanying materials separately, rather than requiring students to buy the items as a package." The bill would also require that publishers "disclose how long they intend to produce an edition and how a new edition differs from an old one."||17|
publishers themselves would welcome laws empowering them to collect a share
of every used book's sale price.6
Short of that, publishers could publish texts solely online. This has three
key advantages. First , it eliminates the costs of publishing a physical
book. Second, it cuts the used book sellers right out of the equation. Third,
it lowers the costs of editorial revision.
might rethink the entire idea of a hardbound, thousand page textbook. Complaints
about textbook cost may signal the emergence of an under-served market.
What does that market want? Simple: a 250-300 page world history, packaged
as a trade paperback. The price say, $15-$20 would be low enough to
staunch the bleeding of profit to the secondary market. Ancillaries would
be available separately; buyers could purchase either individual components
or the entire program. Such a product might even appeal to a wider audience.
The recent success of inexpensive introductory texts (for instance, the
Oxford University Press Very Short Histories, Routledge Key Guides,
Modern Library Chronicles, Interlink Illustrated Histories
and Harry N. Abrams Discoveries) demonstrates the promise of this
approach. No need to find new authors; the crew that wrote the last big
textbook can probably collaborate to write this one too. However, single
authorship may better serve the text's internal coherence.
None of this is likely to happen soon. Working through state legislatures will be slow and cumbersome. Any new textbook, no matter what its configuration, requires considerable development. And books that live only online still exclude the millions of students without regular internet access.
|In the meantime, textbook costs are burdensome; every year, college students can spend upwards of $1,000 to $2,000 for texts, while districts and states spend millions. Those of us with friends among textbook editors and authors people, not corporations, whose livelihood depends on the sale of new books are uncomfortable with the consequences of referring students to the secondary market.||21|
Still, where cost is an urgent issue, there are options:
|For those who despair of textbook prices, there is hope. The existing system of textbook publishing (and, probably, of all publishing) is inherently unsustainable. At some point in the future ten years? twenty years? publishers will no longer deliver schoolbooks as thousand-page, paper-and-ink texts. Just how the market will shake out is anyone's guess. But at some point, much more of the world will be able to afford world history textbooks.||23|
Biographical Note: Tom Laichas is co-editor of World History Connected and teaches world history at the Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California.
1 James Beach, "Who's to Blame for the High Cost of Textbooks," at Mark H. Shapiro, "The Irascible Professor." March 18 2005, at http://irascibleprofessor.com/comments-03-18-05.htm.
6 "Open Books: Cutting Cost a Goal of Bill" Boston Globe January 15, 2006. http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2006/01/15/open_books_cutting_cost_a_goal_of_bill/.
7 J.M. Roberts, Short History of the World (Oxford University Press, 1997) and New Penguin History of the World, 4th edition (Penguin, 2004); Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilizations (Penguin, 1995); Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature (Free Press, 2002).
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