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Well, and as long as Your Humble Blogger is going to blog all day, here’s another little tidbit. The New York Times op-ed page hosted a column called Just What the Professor Ordered, by Ian Ayres. It’s about textbook prices. They are, you see, too high.

Prof. Ayres references a GAO report that examines the trends in textbook costs for college students, and notes that they are unbelievably fucking high. I mean, forget inflation, this shit is crazy. Even viewed in the context of rapidly rising tuition costs, textbooks are out of control. The GAO study concludes that, on the whole, this is because publishers have to spend a lot more money on making texts, what with all the supplemental web-sites and CDs and iPods and other peripheral crap. Prof. Ayres magisterially dismisses the conclusion and all the evidence behind it and declares that the real problem is a lack of competition.

Now, my immediate thought was that Prof. Ayres was just being stereotypical Yale faculty guy; any actual research done outside of New Haven can be ignored. However, I wasted quite some time reading through the GAO report and, honestly, it can be ignored. Well, people interested in rhetoric might enjoy it as a tremendous example of the attempt to seem disinterested (like an umpire!) while actually privileging the views of one group over those of any another. The publishers (through their trade association, I believe, and encompassing as far as I can tell only the major houses rather than small or university presses) are asked a variety of things, and their responses are always transmitted transparently, as if dissimulation were unthinkable. In any matter where the publishers might be at odds with retailers, the retailers’ perspective is given first, and the publishers’ response follows and contradicts it. As for other players, well, there is no research done whatever into the views of instructors or students.

My favorite bit is this: “Publishers understand that when students spend money for course materials that are never used they may perceive the purchase as unnecessary.” Well, students may possibly and I should point out completely irrationally perceive the purchase of access to crap websites or 7th-grade-level multiple-choice chapter reviews on CDR bundled with this year’s fuckteenth edition as unnecessary, but at least they know that publishers understand. Of course, there is no need to do anything, but they understand, and that’s what is important.

Not, let me say, that Prof. Ayres’s vision of a Textbook Affordability Board to which Profs would apply for permission to waste the Corporation’s money on an Art History book with color plates is anything like a solution. Some textbooks are more expensive than others, true, but some are better than others. A Prof trying to base the decision of what text to use on cost is up the proverbial, and if all he’s got for a paddle is the Executive Dean, well, good luck to him.

The truth is that the market has failed here. I know this comes as a shock, but markets can fail. In fact, markets, you know, evolve, and not with any sort of intelligence behind the design, either. The whole thing makes no sense, and the nice little graphic in the GAO report with arrows and percentages only clarifies the lack of sense. The system is built on textbooks being sold back as soon as the final is over, as if they are assumed to have no lasting value. It’s based on a bizarre farrago of retailers, wholesalers and publishers (not to mention libraries and copy shops), each of which have incentives that work counter to the market.

On the other hand, complaining about the cost of textbooks is kind of like Kembrew McLeod complaining about how intellectual property law prevents law-abiding hip-hop artists from making recordings he likes at a price he can afford. Boo freaking hoo. I like monumental sculpture, but nobody’s making granite subsidies and cheap labor available so artists can make some in my price range. If the market for college textbooks is failing, well, too bad. Use the library. Share. Steal. Drop out.

Or, maybe, are we unwilling to just take what the market hands us? Is it possible that there’s a different way? I don’t know, but I suspect that the socialist tipping point for Americans just isn’t college textbooks.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,


in the econ class this spring we had to read a pretty good book, called human geography: theories and their applications, which i particularly liked because its cover is bright orange with turquoise highlights.

p.108, "factors affecting freight weights":

what the traffic will bear is another principle that influences transport charges. this implies that a tonne of gold can more readily withstand a higher transport cost than a tonne of iron ore. for the gold, transport costs will clearly be a small part of the total costs, and it can therefore sustain a higher freight rate. this often means that finished products, in general, pay higher freight weights than component parts or raw materials.

related to this principle is one of charging more to customers with an inelastic demand than to customers with an elastic demand. demand is said to be elastic (inelastic) if a slight rise or fall in transport costs produces a considerable change (no appreciable change) in the demand for the use of the transport system. ... with the combined influence of these factors, a very complex set of tariff structures could result. to avoid this, commodities are usually assigned to one of a limited number of classes with a single set of rates applying to each class.

paperbacks: a little more than you think it should be
quality paperbacks: because you're worth it
hardcover: who knows? maybe borders has it for a nickel
textbook: it's not like it's YOUR credit card

There used to be (maybe still is) a lengthy article about textbook publishing, from one of the Harper's-like magazines, posted on a wall at McIntyre & Moore. (This was pre-move, so who knows where the article is now, if anywhere.) Anyway, it mostly discussed the other half of the textbook-publishing problem:

... how "new editions" are published every couple years which are often just a new cover, a few new problem sets, and maybe some rearranged chapters. The whole idea is that the publishers convince professors to require the new editions through giving the profs free copies; this leads to students being compelled to buy the new books, because their profs require it. Because otherwise, used textbooks would be bought and sold a lot more, and the publishers would suffer.

It's true that some publishers are increasing the frequency of new editions, although not as much as I had thought. On the other hand, sometimes a new edition is a good idea.
Once upon a time (1996 or 1997) I spent a few days working on the update of a math text, which had a bit explaining how to extrapolate from data. They had a chart showing average MLB attendance in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1993, and asked the reader to extrapolate to average attendance in 1994 and 1995...

Oh look, it's one of my hot button issues... I have yet to find any of the added crap that publisher put in with textbooks to have any value whatsoever, except maybe for solutions manuals. I have yet to find any faculty members either at big research schools or small colleges who actually want them. In fact the reaction is usually horror at how awful they are. The universal belief is that they are cynical attempts to drive up the price.

Add in the fact that typesetting costs have gone down over the past couple of decades thanks to computer technology to the point where authors are expected to do a lot of the work themselves, and you've got a real racket.

The problem is that the publishers have formed a nice little cartel and it's almost impossible to get a textbook out there if it's not published by one of the big publishing houses, so the options are really limited, but I do try and avoid the worst of the overpriced books when figuring out what I'm using for my classes.

The problem is that the publishers have formed a nice little cartel and it's almost impossible to get a textbook out there if it's not published by one of the big publishing houses

Unsurprisingly, the view is different from the perspective of the small academic publisher. Professors can see my catalogs and order desk copies and examination copies, bookstores can order my books for students, and I'm happy to publish textbooks.

The obstacle is persuading professors to write textbooks and publish them through my press. Younger professors don't do that because textbooks don't count for tenure (which is a decision made by universities, departments, and tenure committees, not by publishers). Older professors tend to choose larger publishers because they want the larger advertising budget and higher prices which lead to bigger royalty checks. And many professors simply never write textbooks, because they didn't get in the habit when they were younger and closer to the learning side of the classroom.

Textbook publishing, like journal publishing, is dominated by large publishers and high prices because academics want things that way. Academics choose where to publish, what to read, what to cite, what to adopt for courses, what to review for journals, which publishers to volunteer their peer review time to, and what to demand their library purchase. The pressures on academics which affect those particular choices come from other academics. Blaming the publishers is like blaming Burger King for making your kid fat. Sure, your kid had to go to Burger King because all his friends were going there, and it would have been lonely to go to Whole Foods, and it's so much work to cook at home, and Burger King offered that Star Wars watch that all his friends had.

For the fancy textbooks with the color pictures and professional artwork and editorial team and design team and full-time sales force and 6-figure to 7-figure development budget, there's a limited number of publishers because it's an enormous investment. And those publishers make their books fancier and more expensive because that's how they gain (or avoid losing) market share. The market requirements are very different for intro bio vs. intermediate computer science, so they're very hard to compare. It's going to be much harder to displace the big-budget books. But if you want more options for low-budget textbooks, you just need professors to start writing them. A change in tenure review standards would be the biggest help for that.

To nobody's surprise, I agree with everyone, particularly in the bits where they disagree with each other, and would like to add (shall we all say it together) that it's more complicated than that.
There are lots of reasons why an instructor might choose to order a text from one of the cartel houses rather than from a small publisher, quite aside from the quality of the text. Availability (or the presumption thereof), the value of the used text, standardization, the previous prof's choice (which may also have been a text she didn't much like), the existence of a matching text for an advanced class, the perception that the crap websites and CDs will appeal to students, or to the chair, or to the tenure committee...
Students also may feel in some obscure way happier with the useless expensive add-ons. I think students in this internet age are a lot quicker to resent an out-of-date text, even if it is only out-of-date in minor aspects. Also, back in my day I made several nasty remarks about the so-called textbook which was my prof's xeroxed manuscript. As david pointed out, it wasn't my money, although of course it was, at least insofar as money is fungible.
Also, I should point out that while typesetting costs have gone down a lot, the cost of paper has gone up a lot, and the cost of publishing has gone up as well, particularly for small publishers. This is in part because of some consolidation of actual presses, in part because of increased shipping (and fuel) costs, and in part because of more bizarre economics that I can't pretend to understand.
Fortunately, as we (societal we) increase the high-school dropout rate, we'll have fewer college kids unable to afford those expensive texts, and the best part is that we can rig the statistics so they will show that no child is left behind.

First of all, apologies to Michael, my remarks this morning were a bit intemperate. Also I readily admit that I could be accused of being a wee bit hypocritical given that royalties from a textbook paid a non-trivial chunk of my college tuition. However I am going to argue with some things.

First off, I was to a certain degree conflating two different things so I want to try and pull those apart. The point about color plates in books in a good one and it applies to one of the two areas, but it's also where the supplements issue is the strongest. In particular I'm thinking of calculus textbooks. In grad school I sat in on a meeting where a lot of faculty members were seeing a presentation for the new edition of the book we were currently using. The publisher's rep was going on and on about a CD-ROM that was bundled with the book, and every mathematician in the room was horrified by it because it was absolutely awful. Eventually someone asked about the list price of the book and noted that it was up substantially from the previous edition. The response was that it was due to the CD-ROM and similar materials being bundled with the book. The immediate follow-up question was whether it was possible to just order the book without the add-ons and we were told no. It was (and still is) a good book but the extras add nothing. That's now par for the course with it being just about impossible to get a calculus text without the worthless extras. Furthermore the ideas for these things often come from the publishers not the authors. (At least in the case where I've seen the author's side of things up close, that was the case.) If the authors don't want them and the faculty using the textbook don't want them and say so I have a hard time not finding blame with the publishers for the fact that they're there.

The other half I was mixing together was about books for upper level courses. In particular I'm thinking of one of the standard books for abstract algebra courses. The book does not have color in it at all while the paper and binding seems to me to be similar to a standard hardback novel. There are some diagrams and figures there, but that's where the point about typesetting comes in. Given that the book appears to be done in some flavor of TeX, I strongly suspect the figures were done by the author and included. I realize that there is a smaller print run than novels and there are fixed costs that will therefore be a larger cost for each book, but I still have a hard time accepting the $100 price tag on the book. I've looked at other books, but they're all in the same price range or worse.

That book is also a good example of the new edition phenominon. They just put out a new edition this past year (with a 2006 copyright even though it was published in December 2004) which is a joke. Virtually all of the text is identical to the previous edition with only a few minor changes and some changed exercises. There was no significant change in approach to presenting the material or significant additions, which would be reasonable reasons for a new edition. Instead this screamed that the only reason it was out there was to thwart the used book market.

I think I had more, but this is long enough already.

I've encountered the "thwart the used book market" issue in two specific instances, both of them with large color glossy hardback intro texts (one chemistry, one psychology). In each case, comparing the editions (Zumdahl's chemistry, 2nd to 3rd; Gleitman's psychology, 5th to 6th) there were no substantial content changes: same chapters, same text in many sampled sections, same figures and photos. There was a slightly different section order in the chemistry book, and there were some different exercises. That was it. Yet professors in both classes insisted the new edition be used (for whatever reason, presumably publisher incentive or departmental pressure), necessitating students buy new $100 texts when perfectly good equivalent previous editions could otherwise be had for far less. If this isn't outright money-grubbing on the part of the publishers, I don't know what to call it.

i'm shocked, shocked to find there is money-grubbing going on in america!

Full Disclosure: I work for one of the 4 remaining large high school publishers.

Why exactly shouldn't publishers be trying to outwit the used market? We do live in a profit driven world. Publishers aren't in it for the "public good" as a certain academically-affiliated financial group likes to advertise that they are.

Let's see:

If the sales of a product decrease substantially, then there's no reason to keep it available. US tax law has made it expensive for publishers to keep a warehouse full of books, so if it's not going to sell this year, you don't print it. So, when sales drop, the publisher has the choice of dropping the text, replacing it with a new product, or doing a copyright update. If the book has sold well because users like it, the best thing for the publisher (and the users) is to do a copyright update. Copyright updates (new editions) vary in the amount of change. More substantial change comes as a result of feedback from users (and from those who chose competing texts) about what doesn't work. In the college market, I believe that this feedback comes primarily through the sales force. If everyone thinks the book is perfect, the only reason to change it is to keep it in print.

I know the high school market better than the college market, but I suspect some of the same factors drive the technology product at both levels. Customers like the idea of tech. It's exciting. They believe that students will be excited by it. And if they are choosing between two products that they see as being essentially the same, they buy based on the technology and ancillary materials that come with the textbook. So once one publisher offers a new tech or ancillary product that makes a sales difference, the competing publishers in that market have to follow suit or lose market share. Unfortunately, textbooks buyers rarely evaluate a program based on a careful, informed consideration of how the book helps teach the content. All too often the buyers are not the users. The committee that chooses which textbook to assign may not include any teachers or students who will use the book.

So, too bad. If you want textbooks available, someone is going to make money on them. It's a market where the people deciding what to use don't have to spend any money at all and the people actually plunking down the money for the book may not understand their options. As V. says, students can use the library, or share a book, or take a chance on a previous edition, or not take the course. Or the professors can choose not to assign a text at all. Of course that means a lot more work on their part, and that students will complain that they are guinea pigs for the profs new book, but at least they won't be lining the pockets of a publisher or author.

Or I suppose that the state could subsidize the industry. But that would mean that we had more respect for education than for the free market.

Why exactly shouldn't publishers be trying to outwit the used market? - because it creates a barrier to knowledge.

We do live in a profit driven world. - no we don't. we live in a world where most work is done for less than its value and much of the rest is used as a class subsidy.

Publishers aren't in it for the "public good" - in quotations, because individual profitability is a legitimate and broad public benefit of its own?

If the sales of a product decrease substantially, then there's no reason to keep it available. - right - from a modern business point of view, the biggest problem with the book business is that it's the book business. i don't feel bad for a big publisher that is unhappy with the unpredictability of publishing. stabilizing the market for accounting purposes by pressuring advisory boards into buying new product is a way to deal with this, but that doesn't mean it's an admirable practice. it's a misapplication of general business practice to an important social function.

If everyone thinks the book is perfect, the only reason to change it is to keep it in print. - "general chemistry: the director's cut"

If you want textbooks available, someone is going to make money on them. - i think the feeling is against profiteering, not a basic money-making model. capitalism doesn't require maximizing, that's a choice that a producer makes.

I suppose that the state could subsidize the industry. the state subsidizes the industry enormously. at the high school level, the state buys all the books. at the college level, separating the cost of the books and the cost of the remainder of the school costs is arbitrary. the weight of required texts is absolutely used when considering class pricing and most college students are attending public colleges.

from a modern business point of view, the biggest problem with the book business is that it's the book business
I think this is right on the button. The rest is details.
This is, in large measure, connected with the music business, or at least the music recording business. I don't want to chase down this alley too much, but it seems to me that there are very similar issues, prominently that a used copy is pretty damn near as good as a new one. That means that publishers have to take into account that people are selling the stuff to secondhand dealers who are piggybacking on the intellectual property/upfront investment. That may be a business model that is sustainable, but somehow it seems ... wacky.
This is different from used cars, or secondhand clothes, or even houses. I know there are "gently-used" clothing stores where one can unload old clothes, but wearing clothes wears them out, but reading books has (essentially) no effect on the book.
Add to this that our educational system, at the high school and college level, assumes that most people who take Introduction to Stuff, and purchse the Stuff text will not go on to study Stuff or ever want to reread the text. I like that idea, more or less, although ideally I would want my texts to be so good I would hang on to them anyway.
By the way, I think one thing that's fascinating is Lisa's take from the publisher's end, where customers are excited by the idea of tech bundles, and that the publisher is forced to add them to keep market share, contrasted with Jeff's take from the prof's end, where no-one wants the tech bundle, but are forced to order them to get the book. I don't think either is wrong, or is even a bad representation of what's going on. I think the publishers see a very different demand than profs think they are presenting, and because the market has failed (for reasons we've all gone into, and others besides), there is no easy way for the two to be reconciled.

Why exactly shouldn't publishers be trying to outwit the used market? - because it creates a barrier to knowledge.

This is utter doublethink. Publishing new books that professors choose over older books creates a barrier to knowledge? Is this a considered perversion of logic, or just reflexive antipathy to publishers?

Publishers aren't demanding that used books be confiscated and destroyed. They aren't trying to eliminate the first sale doctrine, or create books that disintegrate after six months. They aren't trying to eliminate smaller competitors, or demand British-style retail price protections, or split the market to restrict choice. david, you've really gone off the deep end with that comment.

Whoah, there Michael. I'm all in favor of disagreement and clash, but off the deep end goes off my own personal deep end for comment threads. Please remember that david is a friend of mine, as is everyone who writes here.
Further, the idea that high prices are a barrier is scarcely a wacky idea, even within the fairly narrow band of American-style mixed econ. That's why we have Pell grants, I believe. Again, please argue that the publishers are not responsible for those high prices, or that the publishers' policy to outwit the used-book market isn't responsible for those high prices, or that the prices aren't actually high enough to form a barrier, or that the publisher doesn't need to be concerned about the barrier, or that the barrier can be permeated other ways, or any of a hundred other ways to disagree. But off the deep end makes me uncomfortable, and I don't want my own Tohu Bohu to read like the comments on political sites that I skip.
Hm. While I'm coming across all schoolteachery, david, your own comments on occasion can seem ... intemperate. I suspect neither of you is actually terribly offended by each other's escalation of rhetoric. However, it's my own damn site, and I want everybody on it to behave as if you like each other. You don't have to actually like each other, of course, but you have to smile and give each other's language the benefit of the doubt. OK?
In general, I hope comments on this Tohu Bohu to be working together to sharpen our thoughts, even when those thoughts disagree, rather than demolishing our errant thoughts. My original point (unclearly stated and vaguely formed) was that the market failure was general, and that neither the GAO or Prof. Ayres appeared to have made much of an attempt to really understand it. I think a lot of points made by Michael, david, Lisa, Jeff and Wayman flesh out how complicated it is, and how different it appears from different points within the system. Although there is some sense in which the various players (publishers, profs and students, all represented here) have differing and exclusive interests, there is another sense in which the whole thing is a system in which you all participate, and you therefore are working together. One problem with the system is that each party feels, with some justification, that one of the other parties is trying to screw them, and the third doesn't care.

Sorry to have offended anyone other than david, whose quoted comment (certainly not person, as he knows) I strongly despise and am sincerely offended by.

I have devoted the last 11 years of my working life (at a salary of exactly zero, by the way, in response to the "money-grubbing" insult from Wayman) to advancing knowledge through publishing academic research, teaching materials, academic software, and, yes, even textbooks. I do not take kindly to being told that my work creates a barrier to knowledge when the basis for that claim is utterly groundless.

If I want to continue publishing, I have to try to make my books more appealing to at least a few people than the massive number of books that are already out there (many of them used). If I succeed, I raise the number of choices in the marketplace, not lower that number.

I welcome explorations of ways to lower textbook prices, or ways to publish teaching materials with or without publishers that might be cheaper or better or of greater lasting value or all three. I'm happy to share advice with anyone who wants to publish on their own, or publish with a smaller press, or negotiate with a publisher as an author on keeping prices lower, or figure out how to teach without a textbook or study without a textbook. Or just go ahead and cry crocodile tears about how textbooks, of all things, are breaking students' budgets. But I absolutely stand by my reply as being accurate, appropriate by my personal standards, and much more measured than I feel.

Whoah, there Michael. I'm all in favor of disagreement and clash, but off the deep end goes off my own personal deep end for comment threads. Please remember that david is a friend of mine, as is everyone who writes here.

I consider david a friend of mine as well, and I replied to him only because of that. I'll point out that you could not possibly be more offended by my comment than I was by his, and yet you choose to express your feeling in terms which you say you do not want used. I don't mind, I'd simply recommend more consistency.

That said, I acknowledge your prerogative to limit dialogue in any way you want -- this is most certainly your site. I will regretfully bow out.

Early on in this thread, David said "It's not like it's YOUR credit card", which I think is also a good point, and is something that I've heard cited as a reason why tuition costs are going up at the rate they are. If buyers don't actually have to pay the costs themselves (or if they're heavily subsidized, in the form of low-interest loans), they're much less sensitive to price; or, conversely, their ability to pay goes up, and publishers naturally ask a price that matches the buyer's actual ability to pay, including all the subsidies. I'm not suggesting that we should eliminate educational subsidies in order to bring down textbook prices, but subsidies do make things more expensive.

probably i was wrong to post that. i hadn't thought it through and was already running for the door as i clicked to submit. even worse, i don't feel like fleshing it out or altering it because i can't know now if i'm presenting what i thought or doing PR. even with this.

suffice to say the barrier to knowledge comment is not the one i thought was irresponsible. it was the shortest though, which is probably bad news for the rest of the world as the easiest conclusion here is that to avoid insulting people carelessly i need to put more words in my emails.

50 words:

the #1 barrier to higher education is rising public tuitions. we accept it because of the widespread perception that many citizens do not deserve public service. rising tuitions draw attention to book costs. still, i've seen many students drop classes because of book cost. the library is underequipped and impractical.

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