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Why are textbooks so expensive?

by Donald Prothero, May 30 2012

One of the common refrains that professors hear every semester is, “Why are my textbooks so expensive?”  We hear it not only from the students, who might shell out $500 to $1000 or more for all their books, but even their parents, who remember the “good old days” when textbooks were reasonably priced. Everybody is quick to blame greedy publishers, or overpaid authors, or their bookstore markups. It turns out the story is a lot more complicated.

First, some background. I’m the author of five different market-leading geology textbooks (one for every subject I’ve taught), some of which have been around over 20 years, so I  have a lot of first-hand inside information about textbook writing and publishing. The first myth is that the professors get rich writing books that they assign to their classes. Not true. I get at most a 5-10% cut of each copy of the book at list price, which is usually only about $3-6 per copy for a book priced around $70-$90. Even with five different textbooks, I could never make a living writing them. My total income from them in a given year is never more than $20,000, which is poverty-level wages here in expensive southern California, and most years my royalties are much less. On principle, whenever I assign my own book, I sell the students my own spare copies at author’s price so they avoid the bookstore markups or paying me any royalty. I consider that my ethical obligation, although in some cases I’ve had students use my book all semester and only pay me on the final day of classes (when I have the power of their final grade to remind them). It is possible that there are professors whose books sell much more than mine and might be doing better living off sales (IF they happen to teach in a region with a lower cost of living), but as a rule, textbook writing doesn’t pay the bills. Writing textbooks is no way to be come as rich as Stephen King or Danielle Steele, who sell millions of dollars’ worth of books.

(In one way, the publishers screw the authors. They send royalties for sales ending Dec. 31 in early April,  keeping the author starving through February and March while the publisher sits on the money and earns interest. It’s a relict of the old days when the sales figures and royalty share was processed slowly by hand, but now when a computer can calculate and pay it out in a day after the New Year’s, it’s just an anachronistic way for publishers to squeeze authors).

The bookstore does make some profit, but generally speaking their markup is not very high compared to many booksellers. They have to keep their prices within a certain range or students will buy their books at cheaper stores down the street, or gamble that they can buy them online and get them on time.

Most people claim that the publishers are to blame, and certainly they have some arguments. After all, publishers set the cost. In recent years book publishing has become a game of mergers and takeovers, where huge corporations uninterested in quality affordable books demand that their publishing subsidiaries produce bigger and bigger profits. But having worked closely with over a dozen publishers (both university presses and commercial imprints), the actual story is much more complicated. Publishers know exactly what it takes to make a reasonable (but not large) profit on every copy they print, and so they do whatever it takes to make their system work without overpricing. In some cases, the costs are driven up because the market has gotten highly competitive with more and expensive features, like pricey full color throughout, and lots of ancillaries (website for the book, CD-ROM of Powerpoints or images, study guide for students, instructor’s guide, test banks, and many other extras). In the high-volume markets, like the introductory courses taken by hundreds of non-majors, these silly extras seem to make a big difference in enticing faculty to change their preferences and adopt a different book, so publishers must pull out all the stops on these expensive frills or lose in a highly competitive market. And, like any other market, the cost per unit is a function of how many you sell. In the huge introductory markets, there are tens of thousands of copies sold, and they can afford to keep their prices competitive but still must add every possible bell and whistle to lure instructors to adopt them. But in the upper-level undergraduate or the graduate courses, where there may only be a few hundred or a few thousand copies sold each year, they cannot afford expensive color, and each copy must be priced to match the anticipated sales. Low volume = higher individual cost per unit. It’s simple economics.

This not to say that all publishers are equal. For the same quality  and quantity of production, there are some publishers who seem to be significantly more expensive than the rest. Some of these are presses which specialize in highly technical academic and professional books and journals, where they sell only a few hundred copies to individual professionals and the rest to libraries. Others (especially expensive foreign presses like Elsevier and Springer-Verlag) are consistently overpriced, charging whatever the market will bear, although often this is because the Euro happens to be stronger than the dollar at a given time, and we suffer from the unfavorable exchange rate.

But as I’ve long suspected (and this article confirms), the real culprit is something most students don’t suspect: used book recyclers, and students’ own preferences for used books that are cheaper and already marked with someone else’s highlighter marker! I vividly remember when I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, and textbooks were cheap (typically around $20, which is low even adjusted for inflation). I kept nearly every textbook I bought and they are still part of my library. (A quaint notion now—many of today’s students don’t want to own any paper books, and prefer only electronic media). Some, like my chem and physics textbooks, don’t go out of date and I use them still. All of my 40-year-old geology textbooks are still useful to me, and they occupy prime space in my library. I would never consider selling them after my course was over, and even less so now when they are collector’s items. Back in the early 1970s, there were only a few used textbooks on the campus bookstore shelves, and they were typically so worn out that their small markdown over new copies was not worth the cost difference. If students DID recycle books, they typically bought and sold them among themselves.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, the market changed drastically with the expansion of used book recyclers. They set up shop at the bookstore door near the end of the semester and bought students’ new copies for pennies on the dollar. They would show up in my office uninvited and ask if I want to sell any of the free adopter’s copies that I get from publishers trying to entice me. If you walk through any campus bookstore, nearly all the new copies have been replaced by used copies, usually very tattered and with broken spines. The students naturally gravitate to the cheaper used books (and some prefer them because they like it if a previous owner has highlighted the important stuff). In many bookstores, there are no new copies at all, or just a few that go unsold.

What these bargain hunters don’t realize is that every used copy purchased means a new copy unsold. Used copies pay nothing to the publisher (or the author, either), so to recoup their costs, publishers must price their new copies to offset the loss of sales by used copies. And so the vicious circle begins—publisher raises the price on the book again, more students buy used copies, so a new copy keeps climbing in price.

As an author, I’ve seen how the sales histories of textbooks work. Typically they have a big spike of sales for the first 1-2 years after they are introduced, and that’s when most the new copies are sold and most of the publisher’s money is made. But by year 3  (and sometimes sooner), the sales plunge and within another year or two, the sales are miniscule. The publishers have only a few options in a situation like this. One option: they can price the book so that the first two years’ worth of sales will pay their costs back before the used copies wipe out their market, which is the major reason new copies cost so much. Another option (especially with high-volume introductory textbooks) is to revise it within 2-3 years after the previous edition, so the new edition will drive all the used copies off the shelves for another two years or so. This is also a common strategy. For my most popular books, the publisher expected me to be working on a new edition almost as soon as the previous edition came out, and 2-3 years later, the new edition (with a distinctive new cover, and sometimes with significant new content as well) starts the sales curve cycle all over again. One of my books is in its eighth edition, but there are introductory textbooks that are in the 15th or 20th edition.

So the problem is not a simple one, and the consumers who don’t understand the dynamics of publishing are quick to blame publishers—but not the friendly book dealer buying up your books at the end of the semester, or the man in the mirror who would buy a tattered used copy just to save a buck or two. I hardly expect us to go back to the “good old days” when students kept their books and built up libraries, so this trajectory has no “reverse” switch.

How about making it cheaper as an electronic book? For over 20 years now, I’ve heard all sorts of prophets saying that paper textbooks are dead, and predicting that all textbooks would be electronic within a few years. Year after year, I  hear this prediction—and paper textbooks continue to sell just fine, thank you.  Certainly, electronic editions of mass market best-sellers, novels and mysteries (usually cheaply produced with few illustrations) seem to do fine as Kindle editions or eBooks, and that market is well established. But electronic textbooks have never taken off, at least in science textbooks, despite numerous attempts to make them work. Watching students study, I have a few thoughts as to why this is:

  • Students seem to feel that they haven’t “studied” unless they’ve covered their textbook with yellow highlighter markings. Although there are electronic equivalents of the highlighter marker pen, most of today’s students seem to prefer physically marking on a real paper book.
  • Textbooks (especially science books) are heavy with color photographs and other images that don’t often look good on a tiny screen, don’t print out on ordinary paper well, but raise the price of the book. Even an eBook is going to be a lot more expensive with lots of images compared to a mass-market book with no art whatsoever.
  • I’ve watched my students study, and they like the flexibility of being able to use their book just about anywhere—in bright light outdoors away from a power supply especially. Although eBooks are getting better, most still have screens that are hard to read in bright light, and eventually their battery will run out, whether you’re near a power supply or not.
  • Finally, if  you drop your eBook or get it wet, you have a disaster. A textbook won’t even be dented by hard usage, and unless it’s totally soaked and cannot be dried, it does a lot better when wet than any electronic book.

A recent study found that digital textbooks were no panacea after all. Only one-third of the students said they were comfortable reading e-textbooks, and three-fourths preferred a paper textbook to an e-textbook if the costs were equal. And the costs have hidden jokers in the deck: e-textbooks may seem cheaper, but they tend to have built-in expiration dates and cannot be resold, so they may be priced below paper textbooks but end up costing about the same. E-textbooks are not that much cheaper for publishers, either, since the writing, editing, art manuscript, promotion, etc., all cost the publisher the same whether the final book is in paper or electronic. The only cost difference is printing and binding and shipping and storage vs. creating the electronic version.

Who knows whether the next generation of iPads and similar devices will finally change this pattern, and the next generation of students completely used to electronic books will change their preferences? For now, however, I consider it worth my time to write textbooks (which have taught thousands of geology students around the world), and keep them up to date.

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50 Responses to “Why are textbooks so expensive?”

  1. Mike Williams says:

    About ten years ago I was working on electronic tablet technology at Microsoft and we were well aware of the desire to mark up text with pen or highlighter. People tend to do this much more than creating new documents.

    The hardware options have considerably advanced since then, although the fashion for iPads has swayed things away from larger screens and using pen/stylus devices to mark up text. I don’t think that paper volumes will really start losing out until large crisp lightweight displays are available – the magical folding A3 sheet with dynamic content.

    One of the big problems with small electronic displays is that they don’t allow you to immerse yourself in content the way that you can do with a bunch of paper texts on a desk or on the floor, with sticky bookmarks or simple page-flipping to navigate the material.

    It’s certainly handy to have simple electronic editions as adjuncts to the paper volumes (at least for portability and to do full text search) but for the actual learning and note-taking experience, I think we’re still 5-10 years off having serious competition to paper.

  2. John Huntington says:

    Thanks for this excellent and comprehensive write up!

    I wrote a book for industry and class room use, and I’m working on the 4th edition now, which I am self publishing after three years with a publisher. I did a little survey of my blog readers to ask them which title they preferred, and whether they liked printed or E-Book versions; you might be interested in the results:
    http://www.controlgeek.net/blog/2012/1/13/survey-says-new-book-version-results-from-my-readers.html

    Thanks again!

    John Huntington

  3. John Huntington says:

    Ooops, sorry, that should be three >editions<, not years–the first edition came out in 1994.

  4. Clara Nendleshaw says:

    If used books are sufficient (which they in many cases are) the publishers only need to print replacement stock of permanently disabled books. They don’t need to hire new authors and they can print a crappy looking book for a few cents per page (I know because of my dealings with a university printer) and in a university setting they don’t need to worry about storage because they can coordinate with the students in advance.
    —————————————-
    Regarding your e-book bullet points:
    1) That’s certainly true for some, but most seem to prefer summarising where I live.
    2) That may be an issue in some cases, but certainly not for something like physics. I do have one or two books that are colour-heavy, but it doesn’t really add any value and in any case they’re maths books. Besides, if I want to watch photographs I prefer my computer computer monitor which outclasses paper anyway.
    3) E-readers are in my experience as readable as paper in bright sunlight. Of course if the sun gets too bright you cannot read either unless you sit under a parasol, in which case a laptop works fine too.
    4) There’s a difference between a book and the device. You can grind the device to dust and still have the books if you backed them up in a safe location. Also, most readers are pretty sturdy and while dropping one in the drink would disable it, it is a rather remote contingency. In the past then years, I got a soft-drink stain on one of my books, that’s it, and an e-reader would have handled that better than the book.
    —————————————-
    But there are good reasons to prefer books for the time being. Readers are still expensive and relatively small, making it impossible to lay several books side-by-side, although I suppose you could have one on your reader and another on your laptop. Paging a reader is slow compared to flipping pages and physical bookmarks still work better then the dysfunctional interface of most electronic readers.
    Furthermore, availability is low and the prices are ridiculous. An economist once calculated for me on the back of an envelope what the profit margin was compared to paper books; let’s just say that at present e-books are a scam.
    That said, things will probably improve and in the future e-books will offer benefits like video, integration with your CAS, interactive exercises, and so on.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Regarding your first point: yes, publishers COULD do that, but on a blog so dominated by libertarians and arch-capitalists, we know that it’s unreasonable for them to do so. Their only job is to make a profit, and they have nothing to gain by reprinting an old edition at a lower cost to replace used copies that have fallen apart. Especially since each used copy gives them NO profit at all, their only incentive is to publish new editions that drive used copies off the shelves. I agree that it’s sleazy when they do so without making any significant changes, but that’s how capitalism works–the market calls the shots. Personally, I always make big changes in my textbooks with each edition, so the replacement of the old edition with the new is justified.
      Likewise, the market works on competition. Each publisher has a lot to gain by getting new authors to write a more successful book that will steal market share from another publisher. The market is not a small monopoly where only a few authors are allowed, but a wide-open capitalist fantasy where the competition is cutthroat for market share and profit.
      Unless you are advocating some sort of regulatory system, there is no one involved who is out to protect the students–and I can just hear the squawks of the libertarians on this blog if someone were to suggest such regulation.

      • Clara Nendleshaw says:

        >Regarding your first point: yes, publishers COULD do that, but on a blog so dominated by libertarians and arch-capitalists, we know that it’s unreasonable for them to do so.
        That sentence is broken in so many ways I don’t even know where to start.
        >they have nothing to gain
        If publishers don’t want to do it, the university or students should be allowed do it themselves. If anything, this is a good argument for shortening copyright terms, although in many jurisdictions (including the one I reside in) you can’t actually sue for copyright infringement unless you have a sound financial interest in the work being copied. (A few years ago there was a court case that hinged on that fact. The plaintiff had not made any movements to sell the work, hence the alledged infringing party was cleared.)
        >replacement … is justified
        In your mind certainly; after all you put a lot of effort into it, and you wouldn’t have done so if it weren’t necessary. But is it really, if second-hand books get the job done?
        >works on competition
        For some subjects maybe. But for most of the second-year and more advanced subjects, there’s only one book really. (Note: personal bias is involved here, maybe it’s different outside the exact sciences.) And where there are multiple books, often the teacher calls the shots well in advance and local bookshops (in my experience again) tend to have mostly that whichever the published university subject catalogues proscribe. Teachers usually don’t remember the time when they were starving students, and besides students had it better back then.
        >can just hear the squawks
        The argument from fear of opposition? Seriously?
        In any case, there is a lot that can potentially be done to protect the students. Some professors for example have their books done by the university printer and they tend to be really cheap. Another thing that could be done is to modify copyright law as it pertains to textbooks. Universities could issue a maximum price policy for textbook recommendation. Students could excersise civil disobedience and print themselves, ignoring a system thrust upon them over which they have no influence. Many do, and they tend to get away with it.
        And on re-reading the article I must say that I have found two errors that I overlooked on the first reading. Firstly, your assertion that someone who buys a second-hand book doesn’t realise that means one less sale of new book, is obviously ridiculous. Of course he knows, because *that’s the point*. Secondly, the assertion that there should be a big fixed cost in publishing is no longer true. Ten years ago the university printer still charged extra for low volumes, but since they switched to a computerised optical printing process they’ve started charging flat rates.
        What that means for the general stretch of your article I’m not sure. But between used book sellers and a lack of real competition combined with nobody asking the students what they want or can afford, or even keeping them in mind, I think the latter seems the more likely answer to question of textbook pricing.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        Again, I think you missed the point of what I was saying. I’d LOVE a less wasteful system where the book costs were reasonable, but it’s not set up that way and there are no incentives to make it so. Copyright laws alone prohibit faculty from copying more than a tiny part of most textbooks, so there’s no way around that unless the faculty member owns the copyright to his own book. I don’t have that option: no publisher will cede their copyright in a contract, so you’re playing by the established rules. You’re welcome to try to set up a movement to change copyright laws, or find another avenue of approach, but I don’t have the time. Also, I don’t have the time or resources to self-publish low-cost books. Such self-published efforts seldom sell any more than a handful of copies in the adopter’s institution. But I often spend many months to years working on a book, and after all that hard work, I want at least SOME compensation for all that time and effort. So do nearly all other faculty who write texts. So if you want books written by leading people in the field that can be ordered anywhere, you’re stuck with the capitalist publishing system where there is profit for the publisher and royalties for the author (although I’ve never come close to making enough in royalties compared to how much work I put in).
        I know of NO field in geology or paleontology where there is only one leading textbook and no competition. Maybe in other fields, but certainly not in the introductory market, which is what my article is about. All of those high-volume markets are HIGHLY competitive with numerous excellent titles–and the major texts are all priced about the same, so there is no way for a faculty member (even if he or she could find out the retail price six months or more in advance) could assign a low-cost alternative to a book that does the job better than the rest.
        I DIDN’T say that the consumer doesn’t realize that a used book is replacing a new book in sales (although I’ll bet a lot of them don’t think that way)–but few realize that a used book pays nothing to the publisher or author, which means every used copy sold is another lost new sale and lost revenue to the publisher or author.

      • Clara Nendleshaw says:

        I’m most definitely not missing the point; we just disagree on one or two aspects of the situation.
        There are a lot of players in the field, like authors, politicians, publishers and universities who can independently work to achieve better textbook pricing, most of whom are currently doing exactly nothing. There may be reasons for that, sure, but don’t go blame second-hand book sellers, nor pretend that nothing could be done and that students will just have to suck it up.
        And again I have to say that almost all buyers of second hand books do realise that neither author nor publisher get paid for that book.

  5. markx says:

    The interesting thing about a physical text is that once you really know your way around it, you can instinctively turn to the information you want … knowing which part of the book it is in, knowing whether it is before or after another section you may see as you search, and usually whether it is left or right page and about how far down the page is the particular passage you want.

    I’ve not been able to replicate that feeling on digital texts, and tend to just ‘blindly’ use the ‘search’ function … perhaps just as quick, but it’s not the same feeling at all.

    • Mike Williams says:

      +1

      Humans are really good at 3D navigation through a book – they remember reading something about 1/3 of the thickness through on the left hand side. Most of that is lost on an endlessly scrolling page or a massively hyperlinked wiki. That’s not to say that hyperlinking is bad but it can be very distracting.

      When I was doing physics it would have been great to have animated diagrams and the like, but I think that being forced to mentally grind through material creates a deeper understanding in the long run.

  6. Daniel says:

    I can’t speak to all text books, but forcing students to buy text books in law school is the biggest scam of all. Most law school text books, especially for the standard introductory classes consist of opinions a student could easily print out for free through a simple google search or on a xerox machine at Kinkos for a few bucks. If anything the text books do law students a disservice by consisting of abridged versions of cases, which prevents students from being able to parse out what’s important, a skill that becomes very useful for a practicing attorney.

  7. Bryant says:

    I’ve tried using an ebook for a physics class, but it was too hard to spend that much time reading something off a back lit screen.

    I’m skeptical about the role between ratio of new/used books sold and book prices. Many science and math classes now use online homework services that are sold bundled with the text book and that expire after one semester of use. By including these non-transferable services students are forced to buy new books (subscriptions to these services are usually available separately, but the price is usually so high that the subscription+price of used book is usually greater than buying the new book). By the reasoning provided in this blog the price of these books should be lower because there is next to no used market for them, yet these books tend to be much more expensive than their traditional counterparts.

    • TaVe says:

      “subscriptions to these services are usually available separately, but the price is usually so high”
      Seems like that explains why the books are so expensive. Plus, if 90% of books are more expensive, then you can sell your books for higher prices because people are willing to pay it- especially since it is still cheaper than getting a used book. If anything, it seems they are underpricing if the used books cost more.

      • Bryant says:

        My suspicion is that these subscriptions (which often include online homework services that many instructors use) are sold at such a high price independent of the new text book to discourage the purchase of used books (which lack the subscription bundle).

    • LovleAnjel says:

      Bryant – for the texts I have used, the bundling was optional, so there are likely many classes that don’t require the subscription (for example, we had the bundle with our intro classes but after a year realized students would not use the extras unless they were assigned for a grade). The secondary market for the text alone still exists. In addition, plenty of students would not even open the CD or login card, and return or sell their books as new at the end of the semester.

      • Bryant says:

        From your observations, how big of a price difference is there between the bundled book/web content and just the book?

      • LovleAnjel says:

        In terms of new books, the bundle might add $20 to the cost. Buying the subscription separately was close to the price of the new text alone.

  8. Steven Odhner says:

    My bitterness towards textbooks is caused entirely by the “new editions” where nothing changes. One year we were told we had to buy new books because it had been updated… but the only update was that chapter one was now a preface, causing the chapter numbers to be off by one. No actual text anywhere in the book had been touched.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      I know of publishers that do it–and now you know why they must do it. It’s essential for a publisher to drive those used copies out of the market as quickly as possible or they will go out of business. But in my case, I always make an effort to significantly update and revise every new edition of my book, so it is really new and the old one no longer works, so the purchase is justified.

  9. badrescher says:

    I am a lot more optimistic about the the rise of eBooks and reduced costs (although I am very pessimistic about the plummeting proportion of students who read these texts, regardless of the medium). I really don’t see how textbook publishers can survive these changes, either.

    Although we have not quite reached a point at which eBooks can address most of the reasons that students are more comfortable with paper, we’re close, and there are many reasons that eBooks are superior to paper.

    1) If you drop your paper book in a puddle, it might withstand it or it might be unusable. If you drop your reader in a puddle, you can download it to another device (most college students have smart phones and desktop or laptop computers).

    2) If you lose your paper book (or if, as has happened to many of my students, it is stolen), you must pay to replace it. See #1 for eBooks.

    3) If your book is somewhere else (my kids are always leaving books they need in their lockers) when you need it, you’ve got a problem. If you leave your reader somewhere else, you can read an eBook on another device.

    4) The ability of eBooks to incorporate animation, video, and even interactive programs is improving quickly. If used properly, these things can enhance learning. Even if they are not used properly, they are bound to be popular among tech-savvy teachers.

    But what I think is most useful is that most eBooks are easily searched. Flipping through a paper text, even using an index, can be much more time-consuming and frustrating. Tape flags come off, but electronic bookmarks are harder to lose. Highlighting (which does not do much for students, despite its popularity) is not only possible in most eBook reader interfaces, it can be shared among classmates and used as bookmarks. The sharing features might make highlighting a useful tool rather than a placebo.

  10. Camille Jones Guice says:

    Thanks Donald. I was just getting ready to rent a summer school textbook for less than 1/3 the published price when I read this. Personal economics still demand the rental, but now I’ll feel guilty instead of good about it!

  11. Adam says:

    I don’t think students would object so much to the price of textbooks if the course recommended the best textbooks in that particular field. Invariably however the textbook required is the one that just so happens to have been written by the course organiser. That in turn usually means the book is some mediocre set of course notes and isn’t worth the price let alone keeping when the course is over.

  12. Max says:

    Competition is needed to drive down prices. When a specific textbook is required for a course, the only competition is with its used form. I bought most of my textbooks used, and sold most of them. Had new textbooks been cheaper, maybe I would’ve bought them.
    Do professors take price into consideration when they select textbooks for their courses?

    • Donald Prothero says:

      As I said, I only use textbooks that I wrote, and I sell the students my spare copies at my own discount so they get it new cheaper than a used copy, and I make nothing off them. I can’t speak for other professors, but in most cases, we do not know WHAT the retail price for a textbook is until long after it is ordered. When I used other people’s book before I wrote my own, I always went with the book that best suited my way of teaching the class, and cost was not a consideration. Not ALL textbooks are the same, and some are clearly superior to others, so I would never use an inferior book that didn’t support my course well just because it was cheaper.

    • LovleAnjel says:

      I do take price into consideration, but the #1 factor is if the book covers the material accurately, has good figures, and no obvious editing errors (you would be surprised at how many $100 textbooks don’t seem to have been edited). We can find out the base price the publisher set, but that bares little resemblance to the final price in the bookstore.

  13. Chris says:

    I remember buying text books in the 1970s. They were inexpensive enough that when my older brother told me he regretted getting rid of his physics book (Halladay and Resnick, which was blue that came in a two volume or one volume version) I actually bought him a one volume version.

    Also, they did not change that much. A classmate used his father’s copy of the required text for flight controls during our senior year of aerospace engineering. Many of my structure textbooks were written by that “Irish Guy” (student joke) Stephen Timoshenko.

    My younger son was studying engineering (but had to change to a math major as a result of issues with the university not being able to afford the demand). He was given the option of buying the statics book or opting for an online version for half the price, but the latter was only available for six months. Since he figured he would refer back to the text in other classes (like dynamics and kinematics, a class that filled too fast for him to get in) he opted to buy the textbook.

    In recent years I have taken classes with the hope of going back to work. I started out by taking the third quarter of physics that I never managed to do the 1970s (I took oceanography instead, my aerospace engineering senior project was a hydrofoil sailboat done with a Navy veteran). I bought that book on Amazon, because the community college had already switched to the next edition for those taking the first two quarters. The only difference were the end of chapter problems.

    Then when I was accepted as a non-matriculated grad engineering student in large public university I bought the 9th edition of Advanced Engineering Mathematics book, even though I have the copy of the 4th edition from when I was an undergraduate (apparently there is a logical explanation for the Applied Math department also being in Guggenheim Hall with the Aerospace Engr. Depart.). Not much has changed, but at least I learned how to use Mathematica.

    (the reasons for my continued unemployment continue, my oldest child… who was and still is the intensive course in parenting including recent surgery at a medical mecca, Mayo)

  14. Susan says:

    Interesting and I appreciate your insights, Dr. Prothero. For some years I’ve been approached to write a text in my scientific field and have resisted, almost totally because of the high price problem. I had the advantage (?) when starting my course 22yr ago that there was not a suitable text that taught at the level I desired. So I ended up producing an inexpensive student packet, which publishers then got wind of and wanted to publish. I resisted because, in all conscience, I could not charge the students $100-plus for a text, even though I expected it would become a constant companion (I teach seniors in a required majors course). I do know that the course packet is valued, as students contact me in years thereafter for replacement copies, so that’s rewarding.

    However, my co-instructor does like to have a text, which I’ve seen sold for as much as $350 on Amazon! I just can’t do it. The text we use is one where the publisher recycles material under new “editions” so I tell students that any of the past three editions are fine to use.

    I don’t know what the solution is. But thanks to your post I’ve learned some unexpected things about the problem. I will probably stick with my course packet on a CD or hard copy.

  15. Don Whittington says:

    I agree with everything you’ve said, yet I cannot bring myself to side with the publishers on this one. As someone who’s been both an author and bookseller, I have to say that the used book industry would not thrive so if the publishers were fairer in their pricing. Further, authors have always been victims of an energetic resale industry almost since the first mass produced books ever hit stores. I get customers all the time who want the latest book from their “favorite author” but would never dream of buying it new and helping pay reward that author for his efforts. All books cost too much.

    Year after year the publishers claim sympathy with the booksellers who complain about prices for textbooks and mass market titles both. And every year publishers whine about cost of goods, etc, then continue to churn out books that use twice the raw material they used just a few decades ago because some bright person decided somewhere that thicker books look more serious and attract more buyers. A brighter writer than I once said that “publishing is the only business on earth that is proud of the fact it isn’t run like a business.” Maybe so, but they’ve somehow managed to create an industry where they are paying you far less in real dollars for your work and selling it for far more money. Let’s just say that when I go out looking for people to trust over money I don’t start with publishers.

  16. Anika J says:

    After many attempts to try to use electronic devices, I’ve always resorted back to using the physical copy.

    As for books being more attracted by included CD’s and other extras; THAT is a waste of time and money. I’ve never come across anyone using them in all my years in university. Usually all of the used books I’ve used left the CD completely in tact. One time I did try a CD because I was having trouble with the content and found it was completely useless. All it had were a serious of powerpoint-like presentations that only repeated the examples that were found in the textbook.

    Obviously I can’t’ speak on behalf of all books across multiple disciplines, but in the case of studying Statics and Materials, my experience has been negative with using any “extras”.

  17. Janet Camp says:

    I bought used books much of the time back in the late 70’s, early 80’s except for those in my major. I NEVER highlighted a book and wouldn’t buy one that was. I had read studies that showed that highlighting does nothing to increase comprehension or actual learning. My professors thought it was a sign of a not very serious student–the same kind that always raises his or her hand to ask if something just explained is going to be on the test.

    I simply don’t buy the used book argument as they were plentiful in my time when all textbooks were reasonable priced. I’m staying with the mergers and corporate greed theory for now, although I’ll reread the post and try to keep an open mind. It’s the same with any big box store. They start out with great prices and drive all the independents out of business–then the prices go berserk and you now have nowhere else to get the overpriced paper clips. The shareholders get rich and the rest of us start hoarding our existing paper clips.

  18. Max says:

    If professors can’t or don’t make price a priority, then where’s the incentive to keep prices low? Professors have a choice of publishers; students don’t. Students only have a choice between the new required textbook and whatever used ones are on the market. The main advantage of buying a new textbook is the possibility of getting a refund if you disenroll from the course or find a cheaper used textbook.
    Buying and selling used books is more of a hassle, but it’s a nice lesson in supply and demand. I didn’t deface my books, so I sold some of them for more than what I paid for them.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Max: professors are expected to make decisions for the bookstore many months in advance. Assuming that 2 or 3 texts are roughly equivalent in quality, all they can do is see what these books are currently going for on the retail market, and usually they are all within a few bucks of each other. Many months later when the bookstore sets the price, they can’t do anything about it. But, as I explained earlier, most textbook markets have books of widely varying quality, and I stay with the best book in the market regardless of price if I feel strongly about that book. If the book doesn’t cover what I need or suit my teaching, it makes no difference if it’s cheaper–it’s useless to me.

  19. Tilman says:

    Well to give a different aspect: the horribly expensive university textbooks are as far as I can see a US/Canada Problem.

    The US import of “Computer Networks” by Tanenbaum, a widely used undergraduate CS book costs 108EUR. This book is surely one of the most widespread CS textbooks ever, so it most certainly is not expensive because it’s printed in low volume.

    The international version which may not be sold in the US or Canada (the same book but paperback) costs 64EUR.

    The German translation (hardcover) is 40EUR.

    (Note that price levels in the US and Germany are in general quite similar)

    I can tell you with confidence that very few German students would even consider buying a book for 108EUR for just one course. That’s what they pay for University in one semester! My simplistic theory is: If you can somehow afford higher education in the US a couple of hundred dollars a semester more for textbooks must appear like peanuts. The market simply allows it.

    • Max says:

      If the textbook is required and there are no used ones because it’s a new edition, then why not charge $1000 for it? Because when the price is high enough, people are willing to make more drastic choices to avoid paying it. They may settle for an older edition of the book. If there is none, they may take a different class just to avoid the expensive book. If the class is required, they may resort to the black market of international versions and photocopies. They’ll pressure the professor to use a different book.

  20. David Johnson says:

    Whether the author or the bookstore or the publisher is making money is irrelevant if students simply cannot afford to buy the book.

    A book you might keep and use for years is one thing – if one very expensive thing – but *most* students are in classes where they have to buy one or two (or five) books that, honestly, they will never use again. And, in many cases, will only use a few chapters out of even for the class that requires it.

    Which, given the costs of the book vs the amount of the book used, means that in many cases – gradually heading towards “most” as book prices rise – it is simply cheaper to photocopy the pages of the book that you’ll actually need/use rather than buy it. It’s possible that this is in fact a bigger factor than used books in hurting sales.

    And given that these days, you could just scan the book once and pass the pdf out to all your friends, well, it’s pretty obvious the current textbook sales model is doomed, because whether students prefer a paper or electronic version, they prefer *free* to $120 every day of the week.

    Honestly, within fifteen years, most textbooks will be opensource…and free.

    • Max says:

      Distributing copies is probably illegal, though that doesn’t stop people from doing it.

  21. Scott Wood says:

    $20 (1970) = $111 (2010)

    source: westegg.com Inflation Calculator

  22. Justine says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience with text book writing. Essentially your are saying that texts books are expensive because that is how the production and sales incentives shake out.

    Good for you for dealing honestly with your students.

    After, college I taught high school for 4 years and I would describe high school text books as god awful. The system is geared toward creating expensive texts that are full color series of shinny sparkles; test banks, CDs, web-pages with avatars, graphs, charts, primary resources, and games. All of that and they are still totally irrelevant to your average teen. History and biology texts are bogged down by the dictates of politics and people who know nothing about the subject area. Because, the texts are not written by persons who have actually been in class room in years they tend to make token attempts to be relevant to kids. One thing I think that university texts have going for them is that they are written by people still working in their field that actually know what they are writing about.

  23. Student says:

    Ebooks on laptops have too many restrictions (copying, printing, keeping the digital version), and competing book companies means too many cluttered book-reading programs on my computer. Tablets will make etextbooks better to use.

  24. yigit says:

    first try to download as torrent in priatebay , I just did and save my $200 .

  25. Jeremy says:

    Thanks for the point-by-point discussion. I’d never really considered the effect of used book on new book prices, though in retrospect it seems kinda obvious.

    Can’t the point be raised, though, that on the balance textbook recycling helps defray the student’s total cost of ownership for a textbook? As an example (using a well-known first year physics text):

    Cost of new textbook: $183 (from a well-known online retailer)
    Cost of used textbook: $140 (same retailer)
    Income from selling textbook after the class: $115 cash/paypal (from the first textbook buyback site I googled).

    So if I as a student buy the book new and sell it, my cost was only $68. If I buy it used and sell it, that drops to $25, and if I sell it myself rather than going through a middleman it’s presumably even less.

    Now of course, it will be argued that I’m only really renting the textbook here since I don’t get to keep it, but as the author points out this is what students are doing anyway (and it may make the most sense for students in large introductory classes, many of whom will never look at their freshman year textbooks again). I’ve also assumed the new/used prices don’t change much between the beginning and end of the term, and clearly sometimes they do (especially if a new edition comes out, which screws all the students trying to unload an older edition).

    My point is, maybe the problem isn’t quite as dire for students as it initially appears from the sky-high new prices?

    • Donald Prothero says:

      That’s true–but it is dire for the publishers. None of what you suggested would give them any incentive against releasing a new edition every few years to drive the used copies off the shelves…

  26. Joseph Anderson says:

    I understand the mark ups but it’s getting ridiculous. I mean, RIDICULOUS!
    165 PAGE BLACK AND WHITE PAPERBACK – $265.99 this semester.
    The textbook business model is BROKEN, broken, broken.
    Textbooks are obsolete! Textbook companies are holding students back.
    Companies go out of business every single day in this country due to new technologies and innovation. What makes the textbook business any different? How have they got a stranglehold on the entire information delivery system to students? Is this not a monopoly? Are there tons of lobbyist in Washington assuring Congressmen that students wouldn’t know how to cope without the old fashioned paper book? I just don’t understand. Students want digital content and inferior goods. The prices are fixed and quite frankly, it’s robbery.

  27. Joseph Anderson says:

    20 years in the future.,
    My latest textbook for world finance was 75 million dollars! Not one student in the entire country bought one. The textbook company thought they’d just keep up the same old game but it appears it’s finally come to a head. I mean, 75 million for a textbook is just not gonna work. Maybe some of the folks running this business should’ve taken a few business courses themselves.

  28. David Diez says:

    Used books are not the reason. The issue is that the free market cannot function in the realm of textbooks. The end-consumers (students) don’t choose the textbook they get to use — teachers do. And teachers choose the book they like the best but may not offer the best value for students (they also get a few copies for free). Here’s a slightly longer summary of this broken market:

    http://openintro.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/why-the-textbook-marketplace-is-fundamentally-broken/

    The market won’t be fixed until teachers make price a serious consideration in their selection of a textbook. Until then, expensive textbooks will be yet another reason why a good education is out of reach for so many students.

  29. Cory Buckles says:

    The advent of used book resellers did not occur from a vacuum. It was the increase in book prices which created the large secondary market in the first place.

    Your own account of buying used books in your school days shows that it was precisely the reasonable textbook costs that kept people from buying used books–the difference in pricing was too insignificant for people to bother with used copies. The practice of sending out professional buyers to acquire, grade, sort, and prepare used textbooks for resale is incredibly expensive in its own right. Only if at least one of two conditions is true does it make economic sense to resell used goods: A) Secondary sellers can acquire the used goods at a cost significantly below the cost to produce the goods new (motor vehicles being a prime example), or B) The profit margin on those goods is so large that secondary sellers can acquire the goods at prices that exceed the production cost, yet still apply enough of a markup to turn a profit anyway.

    While textbooks cannot reasonably be compared to the razor-thin margins used by booksellers in the fiction market (where mass-market paperbacks sell for a paltry $5-$10, but in enormous quantities), the non-fiction market is a prime example of high-margin, low-volume sales that mirror the academic market.

    The majority of non-fiction books retail in trade softcover format for $25-$40. Such books are often very similar in length and content to their academic brethren, yet are priced at a fraction of the cost. Despite generally experiencing much longer periods between editions than textbooks, these books rarely create strong secondary markets. There simply aren’t enough people willing to pay used book prices when the new editions are so reasonably priced in comparison. This was the case two decades ago with textbooks, but not any more.

  30. Joseph Cartwright says:

    Here is a rap music video about why textbooks are so expensive.

    http://ww.youtube.com/#/watch?v=4SxQhufzBww

  31. Academic Criminals says:

    The exploitation should be ILLEGAL. I don’t care what any college professor or book publisher has to say on the topic: I can’t express how much I don’t care what you have to say. One professor claims to not receive a kickback, but you’re one grain of sand on a beach, and PLENTY of teachers do. This is LEGALIZED CRIME. Textbook prices are not only disrespectful to the students: they’re artificially exploited. First, used books are NEVER available, and how many times have I had a class that only used half the textbook, or maybe the textbook included unnecessary software the class doesn’t even use? These publishers are charging students for crap they don’t need and they know it. I don’t know who is responsible, maybe it’s a mixture of everyone, but somebody needs to be hit in the face with the hardcover books they make. If you think gouging me is like gouging one of your naive, spoiled punks … my retaliation will leave you incredibly detached.

  32. Richard Fry says:

    You really don’t have to pay that much for textbooks nowadays. There’s many forms online where you can search for a book and compare prices pretty easily. I use this one usually: http://www.helpmefindabookplease.com/?a=find-a-book&s=help-me-find-a-book&m=v but there are other good ones too if you use google …

  33. Stephanie Clark says:

    The situation seems fairly broken on all sides. On the one hand, you have teachers that write books because they really want to help students learn the material. On the other hand, you have students that either overpay for books, or if their parents aren’t helping out, they have to choose between being able to afford to be there or being able to afford the textbook. If you don’t believe me, go to your university bookstore the day after change checks are issued- lots of people in my classes have to wait a good 6-8 weeks into the semester to get their hands on a textbook because they don’t have the money. As for me, I don’t receive any aid (I ran out due to family problems), so I would have to make the same choice if it wasn’t for publishers frequently republishing old editions–I just get the newest old edition I can afford and suffer. This has cost me a letter grade or two in a few classes, but for the most part, I’ve been able to do OK.

    It’s clear that there is something fundamentally wrong with our publishing practices, because these publishers sell the same texts at drastically lower prices overseas. My economics book has pictures of random celebrities that no one cares about–and I can’t imagine that the text’s price didn’t include this. I’m sure that the publisher would say that they’re trying to make the book seem more ‘relevant’, but it feels like they’re trying to justify raising the price yet higher. As I compare older textbooks from the 60s and 70s to modern texts, I’m struck by a lot of differences. I’m not so sure modern textbooks are better. Colors, graphics, and photos of random celebrities aren’t what make a textbook good. But they ARE what make it expensive.

    As an author, do you have the power to request that they use low-cost images? That they print on cheaper paper? As a professor, do you ask these questions when choosing a book for the next semester? Keith Devlin recently wrote a book geared toward his MOOC math course, ‘Thinking Mathematically’. It’s a *very* short book (102 pages), and it only costs the end user around $9. You might be able to self-publish something really cheaply, and even get some undergrad to help you work on the typesetting, layout, and general look and feel. I know if I was a graphics design student, I’d be excited to put ‘designed textbook layout for x book’ on my resume.

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