Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Textbook Costs

Via Matt Yglesias, here's John Holbo on the high cost of academic books:

I hereby declare – for the benefit of anyone at Oxford UP who might be reading – that I was going to require my (probably 50-or-so) students next semester to buy your serviceable little paperback volumes: Woolhouse’s The Empiricists and Cottingham’s The Rationalists. I assigned them when I last taught History of Modern Philosophy, a few years back; and it worked out fine. But now that I see they cost $45 each, for a lousy sub-200 page, 7” x 5” paperback and pretty cheap paper. What’s that about? Do I really want my students to hate me? (Do I want to hate myself?) I am quite sure they were not this pricey a few years back. There is such a thing as charging too much, given that these books are not actually so good that they cause one’s head to explode with insight into the history of modern philosophy. So I am going to put these particular books on reserve in the library, and recommend them to my students as resources, but I am re-doing my syllabus in protest at absurd pricing. So there. Oxford UP has lost a course adoption – the holy grail of textbook publishing. Let that be a lesson to you.

Let me second his complaint with my own recent experience. Next semester I'll be teaching political parties and elections for the first time in nearly five years. I usually begin the course with Anthony Downs's, An Economic Theory of Democracy, a political science classic. Yet Pearson Publishing wants $86.67 for the book. Amazon is offering it for about $60, but that's still way too expensive for a paperback. Plus, it shows that that Pearson is already marking it up by $25 or 40% for those, like college bookstores, who buy directly from them. The book has been in print since 1957, so I'm assuming that Pearson has made its money back and then some decades ago. I strongly doubt that Pearson needs to charge $60, let alone $86, to cover printing costs along with a reasonable profit. As with Holbo, I can't in good conscience require my students to pay this much for just one book.


Academic Editor said...

I think you misspoke; Pearson didn't "mark up" the book--that was their list price, and Amazon decided to undercut most other sellers (including your campus bookstore)by selling it significantly below list.

Also, the difference between the two prices is closer to 30%.

On a bigger-picture note, you may be right that Pearson doesn't need to charge this much for a book that first came out over 50 years ago. Then again, they may not have been the original publisher, and in any case, the current edition/printing no doubt incurred plenty of new costs that might not be fully offset by a lower price. Especially when you consider how many copies of earlier editions may be floating around undercutting the current market for *this* edition of the book.

I'll get into more detail on the economics from a publisher's point of view in my own post rather than hijacking your comments further...

OldHardHead said...

Re: College textbooks. My daughter bought a used book from the school bookstore for $160. The book cost $227 new. The class is over. She did well. The bookstore offered to buy the book back and give her $10 for it.

$10? They would turn around and sell it for $160 again.

This is at a county college - makes me really wonder about the price of tuition.

QPRHigh said...

The stranglehold publishers have on academic texts is part of the reason they're nervous about the Amazon large format Kindle and other readers. How are they going to justify three figures for electronic delivery of textbooks? Now, the e-reader manufacturers just need to come up with user friendly annotation and highlighting functions and there will be no more expensive college texts.