As always, with the advent of a new academic year there has been a raft of articles lately in different publications about the ever-increasing prices of college textbooks and what, if anything, might be done about it at either the individual or industry levels. For example, in this recent article from The New York Times, Michelle Slatella discusses different ways of buying textbooks at prices cheaper than the local campus bookstore, ranging from Amazon.com to Bookfinder.com and others.
Certainly, there is no doubt that textbook prices are on the rise. I recall reading a while back that over the last 25-30 years textbook prices have increased at double the rate of inflation. For example, Grace, our graphics specialist, is taking four classes at McLennan Community College this fall for which she bought five books with a grand total of about $500. In comparison, when I first started college twenty-five years ago I could sign up for eighteen hours as well as buy all my books for somewhere between $400-$500.
But, used books are only a stop-gap solution as Dr. Michael Granof of the University of Texas at Austin noted in yet another recent NY Times article:
“Today the used-book market is exceedingly well organized and efficient. Campus bookstores buy back not only the books that will be used at their university the next semester but also those that will not. Those that are no longer on their lists of required books they resell to national wholesalers, which in turn sell them to college bookstores on campuses where they will be required. This means that even if a text is being adopted for the first time at a particular college, there is almost certain to be an ample supply of used copies.
“As a result, publishers have the chance to sell a book to only one of the multiple students who eventually use it. Hence, publishers must cover their costs and make their profit in the first semester their books are sold — before used copies swamp the market. That’s why the prices are so high.
“As might be expected, publishers do what they can to undermine the used-book market, principally by coming out with new editions every three or four years. To be sure, in rapidly changing fields like biology and physics, the new editions may be academically defensible. But in areas like algebra and calculus, they are nothing more than a transparent attempt to ensure premature textbook obsolescence. Publishers also try to discourage students from buying used books by bundling the text with extra materials like workbooks and CDs that are not reusable and therefore cannot be passed from one student to another.”
The question is, what is there to be done about all this?
One idea, proposed in the same article by Dr. Granof is for publishers to offer “site licenses” for books in the same way that software licenses may be purchased. Or, in the case of colleges with multiple campuses, their bookstores can make combined bulk purchases to try and get a better discount rate. Or, on a wider scale, a group in California (sorry . . . I can’t locate the link now) is trying to put together a statewide consortium—a la massive bulk prescription drug orders/sales—to buy textbooks at a reduced rate.
Then again, I wonder what would happen if low-cost but high-quality series of textbooks on different subjects were made available at a uniform price for, say, $35 each. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been plowing along through Penguin Special: The Story of Allen Lane, the Founder of Penguin Books and the Man Who Changed Publishing Forever and when Lane was first getting Penguin Books off the ground in the mid-‘30s there was great fear in the industry that low-price paperbacks would ruin it . . . killing hardback sales to individuals as well as private lending libraries. Instead, by being in the right place at the right time, he managed to tap into a market that no one really knew existed: a burgeoning class of readers at all social levels with a desire for both accessible (price-wise) fiction and non-fiction.
Instead of offering textbooks that have an increasing amount of bells and whistles—high-priced companion software, high-cost USA Today four-color layout and design, deceptive bundling of books and supplemental materials—why not just put together a well-written book with a requisite amount of ancillary materials in both a well-designed instructor’s guide and a companion Web site with sections for both instructors and students . . . and do it at a price reasonable enough that the difference between a used and new book just couldn’t be that great?
Traditional textbook publishers want, of course, to raise prices exponentially while doing everything they can to kill resale value at the same time. (And, hey, it’s a nice racket while it lasts!) But, at some point it all has to fall apart because books have certain life spans in both the front list and backlist no matter what efforts publishers go through to keep books perpetually in the front list. And, while traditionally both instructors and students have not worried that much about pricing—instructors typically want the book they want without regard to price and students see the sting of pricing tempered somewhat in the short term by the ease of having their cost deducted from student loans awarded—the relative increase higher education overall means that somebody somewhere is going to come in and revolutionize the textbook market by undercutting current textbook producers by $40-$80 (or more) a book.
Of course, this is all easy for me to say because our goal here at TSTC Publishing is to work along this model: produce high-quality textbooks that work well for both instructors and students while maintaining a mid-range price. Our dilemma is that we just haven’t (yet!) reached the kind of massive scale necessary to impact the textbook market overall. And who knows, really, if it will be us. But it will be someone . . . you can only have this kind of bloat in pricing in any area before a maverick comes in with a production/distribution model that waylays the entrenched old guard, whatever the product may be.