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.