Saturday, April 26, 2008


The New York Times comes to grips with expensive textbooks:

College students and their families are rightly outraged about the bankrupting costs of textbooks that have nearly tripled since the 1980s, mainly because of marginally useful CD-ROMs and other supplements. A bill pending in Congress would require publishers to sell “unbundled” versions of the books — minus the pricey add-ons. Even more important, it would require publishers to reveal book prices in marketing material so that professors could choose less-expensive titles.

The bill is a good first step. But colleges and universities will need to embrace new methods of textbook development and distribution if they want to rein in runaway costs. That means using digital textbooks, which can often be presented online free of charge or in hard copies for as little as one-fifth the cost of traditional books. The digital books can also be easily customized and updated.

Right now, textbook publishers are calling the tune. They add as many bells and whistles as they can and pump out new editions as quickly as possible — as a way of making perfectly good textbooks obsolete. Not every book can be cheap. A specialized text that only a few people know how to write and that reaches a small audience will be costly by definition. But there is no reason for an introductory textbook to carry a price tag of, say, $140 in an area like economics where the information changes little from year to year.

Leave aside that Congress telling book publishers how to run their businesses would seem to run afoul of the First Amendment. This analysis of the textbook market is misplaced.

One of the most common mistakes people make in trying to think economically is to suppose that all prices are driven primarily on the supply side. For example, things added to textbooks make them more expensive. But demand is often as important in driving up prices as supply. The primary reason textbooks are expensive is not (at least in a direct sense) "marginally useful CD-ROMs and other supplements," but simply that students willingly (if reluctantly) pay these prices. Why will students pay them? Because they are critical to succeeding in so many classes. Why are they critical to succeeding in so many classes? Because professors build their classes around textbooks. Why do professors build their classes around textbooks? Because publishers make life easy for them by writing canned exams, study guides, web supplements to (even replacements of) traditional lectures, etc. Professors, in turn, have little incentive to care what their students pay, and so publishers can get away with all of this. Publishers also use the new-edition tactic to gut the used-textbook market, which would otherwise eat a lot into sales. The professor is more or less indifferent to whether the new edition adds enough value over the old one to justify its higher cost, and so is comfortable with this tactic.

I teach five classes on a regular basis. In one I use no text at all, and in two others I use standard textbooks but make them optional. In the other two I have mandatory books, but books that are not traditional textbooks but mass-market books that are a lot cheaper but do not have "problem sets," web supplements, etc. But that requires that I create and grade my own tests, not lean on the publishers' add-ons, and otherwise actually aggressively teach my classes. It is old-fashioned, but it surely does keep student costs down. There is some justification for the traditional textbook model in some science and language classes, and other places where repetitive problem-solving and/or drills are important, but the fault otherwise lies at least as much with the professors who select their books as it does with the publishers who offer them.



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