We’re a couple weeks into the semester and the ever-popular subject of the cost of textbooks has raised its head. Along with my students, I often wonder why they shell out so much for these works. I think there are several things at play here, but first a little background: I’ve been teaching at the college level for over 25 years and I’ve written a few textbooks myself, for two different publishers: West and Delmar/Thomson Learning (including the ever-exciting Op Amps and Linear Integrated Circuits mentioned on the sidebar, complete with color-coordinated matching laboratory manual). The thoughts that follow are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my publishers, my college, or college bookstore.
First off, I am speaking of books in the area of engineering, technology, and science. Texts often exceed $100. The introductory electric circuits text we use is pushing $120 as is our electronic devices text. My own Linear IC text is in that same ballpark. I still have my original circuits text from when I was a student and it cost me a whopping $10.85 (the sticker is still on it). Sure, inflation has taken its toll, but is that all there is? Strangely enough, I have a vivid memory of buying raisin bran at the grocery store near our apartment for about 97 cents at that time. (I realize that the cost of a box of raisin bran is not a proper unit for the measurement of inflation, but I think you can see what I’m getting at, namely relative prices from the student’s viewpoint.) Consider the following:
These are not popular books. As much as I enjoy the topic I will grant you that there aren’t a lot of people queuing up to read about linear integrated circuits. It’s not exactly summer beach reading, so I can understand that these titles do not have a nice economy of scale. That alone will push up their price. Thirty years ago, linear integrated circuit books were pretty much non-existent.
I have discovered that many students are under the false impression that the authors are making a killing on these titles. In fact, I have had many students inform me post-course that they thought half of their purchase price went directly to me. Far from it! Contracts vary depending on the subject, publisher, author and so forth, but a fairly typical contract would net the average author something like 10% of wholesale. Thus, if a college bookstore purchased a $100 book for $60, the author would see just $6 out of the $100 that the student forks over. (In fact, I discovered some time ago that my “take” on these ventures has me working for less than minimum wage so I’m not likely to write any more texts, but I should add that I never got into it thinking I’d get rich. It was more a matter of not liking the presentation available in the titles already available.)
Then there’s the used book trade. It used to be a time-honored tradition that you’d check all of the campus bulletin boards looking for people selling their texts from last semester before you headed off to the bookstore. Now I have used book reps looking to buy my old desk copies or unused evaluation copies, and they do likewise with the students. I rarely see flyers for students selling their books anymore. Used books have become a sizable business. In fact, some students have told me that they could only get used copies of certain titles at our bookstore. I have nothing against a student wishing to save a few bucks by buying used books but there are some not-so-nice side effects. To begin with, there are some books that I don’t think students should sell off. Titles dealing with the fundamentals (say, a calculus text, physics text, or electrical circuits text) should be the core of the student’s own reference library. But hey, I understand that if you’re strapped for cash, it’s sell the books or eat Ramen Noodles for a couple months. The problem with a large, institutionalized used book market is that it completely cuts out the publisher and the author. That is, when the bookstore purchases a title from a used book reseller and then sells it to a student, the bookstore and reseller both make a profit, but the publisher and author make nothing. In fact, they lose the profit that they would have made had the bookstore sold a new text. (And ultimately, I think the student seller gets the shaft because they typically receive far less from the reseller than the book is worth to another student.)
OK, so you’re thinking that I’m gripping because I’m losing a couple bucks, right? No. Here’s the problem: In order to mitigate the lost revenue, the publisher produces a new edition of the text. As most courses stipulate “the most recent edition”, this cuts off the flow of used books. Unfortunately, it only takes a few years for the used book market to build back up and revenue drops once again. The solution is to produce yet another edition, even if the content does not need revision. Thus, the life of an edition may be only a few years when it could’ve been a half dozen or more. The production costs are now spread over a shorter time and fewer units, and therefore the price has to rise in order to make any profit.
As an example, I point to the excellent electric circuit analysis text that we use. It is now in its 11th edition. I started teaching out of the sixth edition in the 1990s. Sorry, but the text didn’t have so many errors and the field hasn’t changed so much (sorry for the pun) that there had to be a half dozen editions over this period.
More on this in a bit.