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Michael Olenick: Textbooks – Predatory Business Practices, by the Book

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By Michael Olenick, creator of NASTIACO, a crowd sourced foreclosure document review system (still in alpha). You can follow him on Twitter at @michael_olenick or read his blog, Seeing Through Data

Textbooks are the latest abuse in predatory consumer business. As the economy remains mired, both young people and middle-aged workers have returned to school in record numbers. What they find, in the form of textbook pricing, is enough to shock a subprime mortgage broker.

Let’s start with utilitarian textbooks: basic workplace skill training. Microsoft Office 2010 Introductory, a “textbook” by Cengage Learning, costs $132.06 at Amazon. In contrast, Microsoft Office 2010, Plain & Simple, by Microsoft Press – the same Microsoft that created the software – costs $16.73 on Amazon. Granted, the Cengage textbook is 1,176 pages whereas Plain & Simple comes in at a svelte 448 pages. Assuming institutions of higher education require that much more to learn to use a word processor Microsoft Press also offers the 960 page tome Microsoft Office 2010 Inside Out for $30.68 in paperback or $25.07 on the Kindle. I doubt the extra 216 pages justifies the $101.38, 430% price difference. Cengage is not unique. Pearson publishes Go with Microsoft Office 2010, which lists for $154.20 but sells for $130.32 on Amazon, almost the exact same price as the Cengage book. A coincidence, I’m sure.

Students can buy the book published by the creator of the software, plus a Kindle to read it on, paying $94.07 total. They’d end up with a backpack that is 4.9 pounds lighter, $37.99 fewer crippling dollars of student loan debt, and no need to purchase another Kindle for future textbooks. Cengage or Pearson may argue that their books include interactive study software but their argument is nonsense because Microsoft offers free high-quality interactive training for all versions of Office online.

Let’s look at another example, from a textbook author writing in a field where he knows the pernicious effect of overinflated book prices. Microeconomics, by Krugman and Wells, 3rd Ed., is used for introductory microeconomics classes. This 595 page paperback, published by Worth Publishers, lists for $191.25 though is discounted at Amazon to $162.18. There are older editions of Krugman’s first edition Microeconomics textbook, published eight years ago, on sale at Amazon for $.50 plus $3.99 shipping. Students who rely on private student loans, at 6.43% interest, an average rate, will owe $208.09 after they graduate for Krugman’s book. If they pay back the loan over a ten-year period, at the same interest rate, Prof. Krugman’s book will cost $282.65, total, if purchased from Amazon or $333.32 if purchased at list price from the college bookstore.

Less than two months after publishing the third edition of his textbook, which prevents students from purchasing the inexpensive used editions, Krugman bemoaned the burden student loan debt has on the economy. “Household debt is the big ball and chain on this economy, and student debt is a big part of it,” Prof. Krugman told PBS Newshour. Maybe the Nobel Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winning, New York Times columnist can explain exactly what changed so much, in eight years, in introductory microeconomics, that justifies three book revisions. As a bonus he could even elaborate on the micro and macroeconomic effects needless revisions of overpriced textbooks have on the students forced to take loans and government grants that could fund more scholarships.

As an alternative to Prof. Krugman’s $162 book there is Principles of Microeconomics, v. 1.0, by a publisher called Flat World Knowledge. Students can read that text online for free, buy a downloadable e-reader /tablet version that includes additional study aids for $34.95, purchase a black & white version for $39.95, or buy a color one for $129.95. Given that the charts are available in color online I think that it’s safe to assert this book costs $122.23 less than Krugman’s text.

This fall, 3,600 classrooms use Flat World’s peer-reviewed textbooks, according to co-founder and CEO Jeff Shelstad. “When faculty become aware of our solution and give it a pilot, we perform great,” said Shelsted. “[Faculty] like it, students like it, and administrators like it: it works quite well.” Shelsted clarified high quality texts demand time and that the Flat World business model compensates authors. “We have a compensation model for our authors that we think is very fair and potentially very lucrative,” Shelsted continued. “Our authors write not only as a social cause but also for economic reasons; they believe in our model.”

While I’m sure many might argue that there is a quality gap. I think the cost differential is best summed up in the Flat World microeconomics book Chapter 14, Imperfectly Competitive Markets for Factors of Production, which allows colleges to require Professors to require specific versions of specific books regardless of cost. Federal guaranteed student loans likely fuel the ability to charge these exorbitant prices, as explained in Ch. 15, Public Finance & Public Choice. Finally, if the federal government wasn’t busy chasing down licensed foreclosure defense lawyers and worrying about Google selling ads for reduced priced imported pharmaceuticals they might instead focus on whether there is price collusion for mainstream text publishers, addressed in Ch. 16 of the Flat World text, Antitrust Policy & Business Regulation. I haven’t read Krugman’s book because my research budget for this piece is about $162 short, though don’t imagine the information is materially different.

In a January, 2005 article Why Are Textbooks So Expensive?, published by the Association for Psychological Science, textbook author Prof. Henry Roediger, III bemoans that college bookstores oftentimes end up with more money than textbook authors. Prof. Roediger points out that on a textbook he co-authored, Experimental Psychology, sells for $73.50, and that the three co-authors split the 15%, $11 royalty. In the intervening years their publisher, Wadsworth Publishing, figured out a clever fix: the latest edition of their book has a list price of $230.95, the price it likely sells for at the college bookstore, and $194.62 at Amazon. In seven years the price of this book tripled, so each author is now presumably paid triple the royalty. Prof. Roediger’s book is apparently a real-life collection of examples of psychological research. I did not find a table of contents online but, for a future revision, I can think of a great example addressing greed and empathy or, more specifically, lack thereof.

“Since the peak in household debt in the third quarter of 2008, student loan debt has increased by $293 billion, while other forms of debt fell a combined $1.53 trillion,” noted the Federal Reserve in a May 31, 2012 report. Student loan debt soaks the life out of students, but also the overall economy because the steep debt burdens divert graduates income from starter homes, new cars, and local businesses to the coffers of the federal government and private lenders. Congress tried addressing the issue in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2010, though the section related to textbook regulation ends “No Regulatory Authority. The Secretary shall not promulgate regulations with respect to this section.” Needless to say, the law did not exactly scare the academic world into compliance.

Textbook authors are paid a royalty of about 15% to 30%, depending on the popularity of a book so you’d think that they’d sell the books directly. Assuming that Prof. Krugman’s economics book addresses disintermediation, and that his personal brand is more familiar than Worth Publishing, he could sell his $162 book for $48.60 directly, the amount he is paid assuming he’s towards the top of the royalty scale, benefitting students at no cost to himself. With permission Amazon and other services will print his book, or any other, on-demand for a small fee for those who prefer paper. Of course thinking, rather than selling, is about the last thing that interests the modern textbook industry.

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  1. psychohistorian

    Thanks for the posting. I have forwarded the link to a friend who made his living on used text books for a while. I expect him to add a story or two.

    Is there an industry that is not infected? I seem to recall being criticized a year or so ago for writing that American business was infected top to bottom, stem to stern.

    This is the society that the global inherited rich with their ongoing accumulation of inherited capitol and property have wrought over the centuries.

    Civilization’s gravestone will read, “Destroyed by the greed and avarice of a few”.

    1. bmeisen

      Almost ditto – I think it’s the culture as a whole and not just business.

      For a while the gouging in the US textbook market had one justification: it allowed independent booksellers who were lucky enough to have a college nearby to offer health insurance to their workers. Since the Walmart/Amazon tsunami began the only reason for gouging is managerial greed. At one time you could argue shareholder value and try to think of your 401k. We know now that it’s just vampire capital sucking our blood.

      Again the shock is that American students take it like a spoonfull of cod liver oil. The 40,000 students at the German university where I teach pay no tuition. Several years ago when the state government introduced a token €500 tuition fee enough of them went into the streets to convince the ruling party that they better change tack or lose the next election. When I get to tell a few of them that many American students bury themselves in debt for an almost worthless BA (e.g. Sacred Heart University graduates) they shake their heads. If I get a chance to use this info they’ll fall off their chairs laughing. The shelves of our library are full of readers’ copies of the standard textbooks. Professors put together readers that can be bought at copy shops for reasonable amounts – a lot of the copying is illegal and a lot of it is authorized and includes a modest licensing fee for publishers.

      Of course the Harvard Coop serves a discriminating clientele who can pay and do pay, rather than take to the street. But what drug are the millions of American university students taking that gets them to cough up Franklin after Franklin for textbooks without twinging.

      1. Susan the other

        And also this bmeisen: Not only is price inflated, so is the content of American textbooks. They dance around a subject in supercilious ways. Making the subject seem more complex than it could possibly be. When I read a German textbook on the same subject I saw the difference. It is very annoying that our students are paying a premium for fatuousness.

        1. Stan Musical

          As middle-agers it’s easy to forget how naive and malleable we are as young “adults” in college. We’re convinced as teenagers we need college to “succeed” as it’s defined, then loaded-up on debt to get that done.

          This is why, I’m convinced, student-loan debt remains non-dischargeable. Young folks are the best last fool in the room.

          Over-priced books, paying $30,000 a year (!!!) to listen along with with 500 other students to some professor drone on. The Uni’s collecting $1000s of dollars for that hour of “instruction.” BTDT and now I and many others are loaded up with punishing debt we can NEVER get out from under.

          But if at age 35, or 55, I get a Hummer and drop $60k on one with all the goodies, or an over-sized McMansion, and then realize I can’t afford it after all, I can get out from under that.

          What a great lesson we so-called adults in the Union of Spoiled Adults are teaching our children.

          1. Kevin

            Come on, the reason student loan debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy is simple — if it was, nearly EVERY student would declare bankruptcy immediately upon graduating. If you’re the kind of student who had to rack up debt to go to college, then you likely don’t have rich parents or any assets of your own. So, you graduate OWING, say, $100-200K and OWNING nothing. With liabilities exceeding assets, you declare bankruptcy. If we allowed this to happen, there would be no such thing as student loans. No lender would take on that risk. The Hummer and house examples are not on point — in that situation, the lender at least gets to take the Hummer or the house. Student loans are not secured, so if we want there to be a market for them, we need a different set of rules than for a house or a Hummer.

        2. They didn't leave me a choice

          Oh wow, I thought it was just me. Yes, textbooks that originate from USA are incredibly obtuse, especially compared to the locally produced course materials that we enjoy here. I’d say some of that retardation has seeped into wikipedia too. For some reason the people who write articles there seem to think that the more formal and confusing the sentence structure is, the more “encyclopediaic” it is. To the point that many speciality articles in physics and mathematics are more or less indecipherable to someone not already familiar with the material. This of course makes the material entirely pointless, because someone who already knows the subject will likely have no reason to go to wikipedia in the first place. Perhaps all of this retardation has a common source after all? Text books are inflated in length and style and this then becomes the standard for what is percieved as formal enough on wikipedia and similar sources. A completely unsupported hypothesis of course, but makes one think…

    2. still thinking

      This is not industry, this is government. Most colleges are government institutions. Why do people think government can save us from the high cost of healthcare, when government can’t even control costs in its own relatively minor institutions like these?

    3. Wrathchild

      The way this worked in the 80′s was that textbooks got marked up only 20% at the U bookstores where trade books got marked up 40%. The author’s cut was of the wholesale price most often. Just like I worked for ‘experience’ when I was 16, the professors work mostly for prestige. But unless they have had a bag over their head they might realize that they are on a treadmill of rewriting their tome every other year or three. This so the publisher will not have to compete with their used editions. But is like torture, to dig and fill holes over and over. That is why the second author. The bigger the market, the faster the ‘new’ edition…. it has nothing to do with the field of ‘knowledge’. It gives the view that there is nothing classic.

      “Euclid gave me confidence in thought”__ A. Einstein.

      No, the principles of calculus are not changing that quickly, As psychohistorian says… it is pure greed, and believing the %#@# economics textbook that says supply and demand cross and make a stasis, and other universally believed counterfactuals. As if the more one has the more one wants is not a human experience. See: It is right there in the graph. Supply and Demand meet an you are satisfied. Ahhhh

      It is sick to profit off the sick and equally so to profit off the young trying to better themselves. Oops, I just crossed that line and spoke of ethics, instead of values. Value is an economic term so that is OK. Ethics is somewhere over in philosophy….. that is another department. But I digress.

  2. spooz

    Overpriced textbooks are the price we pay for an opportunity to score in the meritocracy.
    Up until recently buying or renting used books could save you a few bucks, but costly online components that are included with new textbooks are often required and the license is only good for one user. So, buying the costly license separately negates most of the savings.

  3. JIm A

    In many cases the professors have no idea what the cost of the book will be when they issue the requirements for their class.
    nb. the microsoft example may not be the best one since it isn’t completely unreasonable to imagine that the book by microsoft press may be printed as a loss-leader to help sell the software. Or at least upgrades to those who have earlier versions.

    1. Stan Musical

      So, got a clear point to make, or just trying to muddle the waters? Ignorance is an excuse, is that it? Or, two wrongs make a right?

    2. evodevo

      At the community college level, the textbook is chosen by a committee of poobahs at a higher pay grade, and most of the instructors have NO say in which text will be selected. The texts are often unsuitable, in addition to being too expensive, and they pick a new one every semester, even though it’s obvious that the info hasn’t changed.

      Personal experience.

  4. MacCruiskeen

    “Prof. Roediger points out that on a textbook he co-authored, Experimental Psychology, sells for $73.50, and that the three co-authors split the 15%, $11 royalty.”

    It might be less than that. It used to be (I presume it still is) common for textbook royalties to be based on net receipts rather than retail price (I.e., they get a cut of the wholesale price).

    “Textbook authors are paid a royalty of about 15% to 30%, depending on the popularity of a book so you’d think that they’d sell the books directly.”

    Most publishing contracts have a noncompete clause–you’re not allowed to buy books at the author’s discount (usually 40 percent) and resell them for profit. Also, do you really think Paul Krugman wants to spend his days doing order fulfillment? Maybe he could get his grad students to do this for him “at no cost to himself.”

    There are certainly issues in the textbook publishing world (I’ve mostly managed to avoid it, thank FSM, except for a couple of temp gigs), but it might be more helpful if you had posts from someone who actually had a clue how the business worked.

    1. bmeisen

      FSM – the Flying Spaghetti Monster – has helped me too. But what, beyond the fact that your customers are compelled by fear of far-reaching penalties to buy your product and only your product within a limited amount of time, are the clues to how the business works? That in addition there is effectively only one sales point where you can get the product?

    2. Michael Olenick

      I think Jeff from Flat World understands the textbook market and model well; he’s CEO of a publisher who seems to be gaining traction quickly. Flat World is a for-profit book publisher. You can read their textbooks online and a cursory glance at their Microecon book looked top-notch.

      I understand the frustration of struggling graduates who are sometimes able to get book gig’s that supplement their income. I can also see where books in niche areas that change frequently would be more expensive. But the intro to anything courses tend to change at a glacial pace, and the material in the various books shouldn’t be materially different.

      Basic math, science, and most social sciences have well-established foundations that don’t change, at the fundamental level for these introductory texts, to justify the price or the revisions. Ironically those fields that do rapidly change, like Computer Science, tend to use the same books used by practitioner’s, which are priced much lower.

  5. Middle Seaman

    The main reason textbooks are expensive is the relatively low sale volume. While NYT Best Seller List books sell in the millions, textbooks sale at best at low six figures.

    As one who was approached many times to write a textbook by several publishers, it’s clear to me that it’s hard work for low pay. Krugman may be an exception.

    Trade textbooks are a dime a dozen, e.g. Microsoft Word version X; one can alway find a cheap new or used book. School textbooks should be subsidized as should tuition. Otherwise, we will slowly get to education for the rich system.

    1. MacCruiskeen

      The low-sales-figures thing is only partly right. Some textbooks sell quite large numbers, but there is generally a higher production cost than most trade books. I worked for 14 months as a copyeditor on a high-school biology book, with a total production budget of $10 million. More specialized books, of course, sell less. Books that require complicated math or illustrations are more expensive. (Speaking of offshoring–a lot of the page composition work is done in the Phillipines or India, and the printing is frequently in China. More than a few US printers I worked with back in the 80s and 90s have gone away). (Some of the more complex and specialized books are printed from proofs generated by the author with tools such as LaTex.)

    2. bmeisen

      Low 6-figure run, text cobbled together by struggling adjuncts, layout done by Indians working from Manila, printed in China (where inks are cheap – wink wink) and shipped on a Liberian flagged container ship manned by Bengalis – you can’t charge less than $130 for that thing!

    3. YesMaybe

      You’re comparing textbooks to NYT bestsellers. Of course it’s true the textbooks sell less copies and are more expensive. But that’s incidental. Compare textbooks to non-textbook academic books (or even plain non-textbook, non-academic, non-bestseller books). What you’ll find then is that textbooks sell more copies and are more expensive. Even in general introductions (where even non-textbooks might have brisk sales), the price difference is huge. For example, look at and try to spot which ones are textbooks. Note, too, that the Perry and Bratman book has the 3rd and 5th editions listed, the 5th selling for twice the price of the 3rd. I can assure you the only reason for this is students taking a class need to have the new edition for page numbers and in case some readings are missing. Basically, nobody would pay $100 for a book when there are others in the same category which are just as good and sell for less than half, unless it was required for a class so they had no choice.

      1. Stan Musical

        Thanks for saving me the time and effort to show how specious that “textbook vs. NYT best-seller” argument is.

        I reiterate what I said above: College expenses are high because the “customers” (students) are young, naive, not inclined to think long-term (i.e. future crushing debt) and not in a position to do anything but drop out or pay up.

        And, if from a large segment of the population, groomed from a young age to believe that only losers don’t graduate from college.

  6. kevinearick

    Decades ago, we had to take calculus as freshman, regardless of background, and the professors had us buy new textbooks each term, by altering a few applications. if you look, you will see that today’s students are being taught regression, the hard way.

  7. kevinearick

    Decades ago, they made us take calculus as freshman, and buy new books each term. my pop was an industrial electrician and the elevator mechanics wanted to teach me what a phillips head was, for 4 years. today’s students are being taught regression the hard way, through global equal opportunity to compete for dumber and dumber prizes, in exchange for lottery tickets. funny, not, labor, which makes the pie gets 15%? And the robots are arguing about the distribution of the rest, assuming labor has no tools to deal with capital. the middle class might want to wake up any time now, and turn off the empire tv for a while.

    1. kevinearick

      You bought robots and automated cars, you got ‘em, for a push button society, fat, dumb, and suddenly unhappy. now what?

  8. McMike

    The annual revision scam is the giveaway, rendering the used books worthless. That’s Rent Seeking 101.

    One answer is for student (or maybe parents that foot the bill) to push back on professors. Make them take responsibiity for the cost of what they assign. Perhaps publishing a list of professors’ book cost rankings, along with data on how many years of re-use are allowed.

    Of course, the fact that most texts are still published physically at all is ludicrous. It all ought to be on-line. Move the autor’s royalty up to 50% and sell them for $25.

    1. johnson

      At my school, someone (with influence, no doubt) in the economics department is the author of a textbook. Guess which textbook is mandated, department-wide? It’s not just publishers.

  9. ep3

    don’t blame the authors. it’s usually the publishers doing this. i had a professor tell us that he would have been fine with using the “first edition” of the text he wrote except that the publisher pushed him to edit the text just enough to justify calling it a second edition and then the colleges prohibit use of older editions. they make professors use the newest edition.

  10. Fraud Guy- Also

    This problem of inflated textbook prices also infects the K-12 market. I have long thought that an effective solution would be for the federal government or the big states (CA or Texas in particular) to simply buy the copyright on leading texts and put them in the public domain. It seems to me that this would be vastly cheaper than the feds/states continuing to pay per book and would also have enormous public benefits. Of course, it runs totally counter to the perverted version of “free market” ideology that dominates our society, so I don’t expect it to happen.

    1. Joyce

      Maybe copyright law plays a bigger role than believed.

      From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
      Jump to: navigation, search
      Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act Great Seal of the United States.
      Full title To amend the provisions of title 17, United States Code, with respect to the duration of copyright, and for other purposes.
      Acronym CTEA
      Enacted by the 105th United States Congress
      Effective October 27, 1998
      Public Law Pub.L. 105-298
      Stat. 112 Stat. 2827
      Title(s) amended 17 (Copyrights)
      U.S.C. section(s) amended 17 U.S.C. §§ 108, 203(a)(2), 301(c), 302, 303, 304(c)(2)
      Legislative history

      Introduced in the Senate as S. 505 by Orrin Hatch on March 20, 1997
      Passed the Senate on October 7, 1998 (unanimous consent)
      Passed the House on October 7, 1998 (voice vote)
      Signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 27, 1998

      United States Supreme Court cases
      Eldred v. Ashcroft


      Expansion of U.S. copyright law (assuming authors create their works 35 years prior to their death)

      The Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA) of 1998 extended copyright terms in the United States by 20 years. Since the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright would last for the life of the author plus 50 years, or 75 years for a work of corporate authorship. The Act extended these terms to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever endpoint is earlier.[1] Copyright protection for works published prior to January 1, 1978, was increased by 20 years to a total of 95 years from their publication date.

      1. Wrathchild

        Without engaging in the Jefferson’s copyright snarl, to protect inventors so they could invent…. the humans, not the corporations…. The pathology began in textbooks due to a tax case in 1979 where it was judged that a publisher had to pay taxes on unsold inventory. That resulted in our own ‘cultural revolution’ which changed the business model of publishing. It used to be that money was made by big print runs, reducing the price of production. Since 1979 that has changed to gamble for a year, and if you have any books left at end of year you will pay a penalty.

        Really Stupid policy, coming from a tax court killing the genre of midlist books.

  11. Fraud Guy- Also

    In medicine, when prescribing doctors steer patients toward expensive brand names when cheap generics are available, often there is some kind of inducement that the brand-name pharmaceutical company is offering to the physician. Does anybody know whether there are inducements, either hard or soft, offered to university faculty by publishers that are intended to affect their textbook decisions?

  12. be'emet

    who needs textbooks? who needs professors? a small number of well indexed and illustrated DVD lectures on common introductory subjects could rid us of the whole bloomin mess.

  13. avg John

    Is there a chapter in the economics textbooks devoted to the benefits of “free” markets to society. You know, how the invisible hand,free markets and competition lead to the best value (best quality, lowest price) and the widest variety of choices for the customer?

    And then we have advertising bombarding are minds on tv, the radio, the internet, magazines and everywhere else we focus our attention, to lie and mislead us. They rarely address the value of their product over a competitors, they just try to sell it by making it sexy, or baby cute, or celebrity endorsed. “Gee whiz, Shaq the basketball star drives one of these, I gotta get me one”. It must work, because they pay him millions of dollars to say it.

  14. Jesse

    Believe it or not, I was thinking about this topic today as it is one that simply enrages me, I’m glad to see someone writing about it.

    When I first went to school many years ago, I’d often use 1 edition previous to save money since it was about 99% the same. Imagine my shock when I returned recently to find many of the professors were requiring us to buy expensive (and utterly worthless) software packages so that we could take assessments. It’s really an outrage.

  15. Jesse

    Hey everyone,

    What if we all emailed Professor Krugman a copy of this article and asked him to consider directly selling his book in electronic form?

    I’d advise everyone to point out that he wouldn’t lose any royalties on the deal.

    1. Michael Olenick

      I’m in. I usually focus on housing, and I’ve been out of school for decades, but this issue really bugs me too. I doubt he’d listen but who knows. If Krugman started selling directly — or co-authored an open source book w/ Flat World if he legally can’t — it’d send a strong message to both the academic and business communities. For the commentator above, Krugman’s book isn’t a NYT bestseller — though he has those too (priced a lot lower) — it’s an introductory economics textbook.

      1. Jesse

        Thanks for the reply.

        “If Krugman started selling directly — or co-authored an open source book w/ Flat World if he legally can’t — it’d send a strong message to both the academic and business communities.”

        This is one of the points I wanted to lay out, but in the excitement of the moment, I hit submit before I’d had time to fully lay out the the advantages of talking to Krugman specifically.

        Anyone have an email address for Krugman that might actually have a chance at being read? There’s also going to be spam guards to get around…

  16. Gordon Brooks

    Two points: First, printing an extremely large book using print-on-demand is not practical. CreateSpace (an service), for example, limits each book to 440 pages. Now, personally, I think that anything longer than that on any but the most complex subjects is just excess verbiage, but that seems to be the way of textbooks. On the other hand, the Kindle option lifts that restriction completely.

    Second, textbooks are much too expensive, but so is college in general, for what a student gets out of it. My wife spent more than $13,000 on a two-year degree that has so far netted her a $16/hr job in a big box store. As with houses and cars, easy credit that hides the true cost of both the product and the final cost, has led to prices that far outstrip value.


    I guess I’m kind of insulated, but I don’t think my granddaughter has any textbooks. Every kid n the school has a new laptop, and they download their homework. I guess I figured if our school district did this everyone did because we are rural, and really low income.

  18. Stefan

    I am fairly familiar with the development of arts and humanities textbooks. A couple of points:
    1. The textbook business is highly competitive, so publishers are constantly pressing to innovate, just to keep up.
    2. This leads to revisions on a three year cycle.
    3. Titles that miss their revision deadlines tend to languish and dwindle in the marketplace, replaced by fresher books.
    4. Painstaking work by a lot of people, including the author, editors, design, production, and sales people, goes into this pace of revision.
    5. An art history textbook I’m familiar with has about 1100 pages, with perhaps as many images, in 32 chapters intended for a two-semester course. This textbook retails for $200 ($160 on Amazon). That’s about 18 cents per page (15 cents on Amazon). Is this a fair price? If not, how much would be fair?
    6. (BTW, this book is much, much richer in coverage, content, scholarship, and depth than the art history textbooks of 30 years ago.)
    7. New federal regulations warn publishers that revised editions must be at least 25% different from the previous edition. These rules are intended to prevent revision “churning.”
    8. In many courses, professors depend upon the textbook to provide a “program” for the course to follow. So these books must aim to be more than simply a book. What is that service worth?
    9. In recent years, textbooks publishers have been frantic to establish a web presence for their books in print. This process (constantly updated to meet electronic expectations) is remarkably expensive, especially considering that it simply represents an extra expense beyond merely producing the book. Providing an ebook version, test banks, and enriched multimedia on line is simply becoming another required feature for the sales of a book.
    10. Publishers also spend an inordinate amount of effort to create customized versions of texts for individual purchasers, as well as a variety of print and ebook formats.
    Is all this to say that textbooks are fairly priced? I don’t know the answer to that. Just, these are important factors to consider in trying to weigh the matter.

    1. Jesse

      Hmmm, sounds like someone works in the textbook industry.

      7. New federal regulations warn publishers that revised editions must be at least 25% different from the previous edition. These rules are intended to prevent revision “churning.”


      1. Michael Olenick

        I cited the new law in the original piece but, unless there’s an even newer law, there is no enforcement mechanism.

        More to the point what could an art history book change enough in three years to justify 25% of the content? At least there was enough chaos in the economics field recently that some updates might be necessary — though I’m not sure they affect the basics — it’s hard to see that’s the case with art history.

        To make an eBook buy a copy of Adobe Acrobat ($449 list price), add some redistribution rules if you want, then press Print. Repeat for each book at no additional charge. Give up on the interactive material: you’ll never match material like Microsoft’s interactive training for their products or Wolfram-Alpha’s teaching tools, which explain step-by-step any imaginable formula, for math and the physical sciences.

        1. Stefan

          I’m an artist, not a lawyer, so I can’t quote chapter and verse on regulations and case law, but publishers I’m familiar with are strongly admonishing their authors to this effect. That I know as fact.

          Actually art history is constantly being updated by new ideas, scholarship, discoveries, excavations, etc., not to mention new artwork and new theories of the activity as a whole. The updating process also includes corrections and refinements in text and improved choices in images. These refinements are also driven by new directions in education, such as the desire to intelligently cover the art of the whole world, not just of the West. As Heraclitus sez: “All is change.”

          The three year revision cycle is driven by competition. Three years is a long time, about 4% of an average lifetime. Also, since the revision process itself takes about two years, even a fresh edition already seems a year or two old. You don’t want your edition to look stale if your competitor just released a new update. Hey– competition is tough!

          But, you never addressed the question of what a fair price would be. (For instance, at Amazon Yves Smith’s ECONNED is $19.80 in hardcover, with 368 pages. That’s over 5 cents a page. So is a textbook with 1100 copyright color photo images a rip-off at 15 cents a page? I’m not sure.) Keep in mind, many instructors (teaching fairly expensive courses) depend on the textbook to structure their courses.

          Textbook publishers offer ebook versions at about half the price, but students soon discover the benefits of having a hard text (in the arts anyway), and most end up ordering that after a few weeks.

          Textbook publishers are very keen on the electronic platform, e.g., today’s interest in The Atavist. Some traditional publishers, who love the book format for its own sake, are pulling their hair out over change in this direction. (Not to mention the extra costs.)

          I’m not trying to justify all this, I’m just trying to offer perspective on the way it is.

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