Why Are College Textbooks So Expensive?

I get asked this question a lot, usually by frustrated students who’ve had to plunk down a serious chunk of change for a book they don’t really want to read in the first place.  By way of example, the required text for one of my English classes, Evergreen: A Guide to Writing with Readings, has a list price of $132.95.  Textbooks for hard science subjects like Physics or Chemistry can run twice that much.  Publisher’s reps, when I ask them this same question, invariably give the same tired old answers.  They say that textbooks are a niche market, with smaller print runs than popular novels, which drives up the per unit printing cost.  They also say that they must often pay royalties to not only the editor of a textbook, but to the authors of various essays reprinted within the book, which adds to the cost.

Strangely, the jacket art is white, not green.Both of these excuses–for they are excuses, not reasons–are transparent bullshit.  I buy fiction titles from niche presses all them time.  These are books with severely limited print runs, often no more than 500 copies.  Sure, the per unit cost is higher, but I’ve never paid $133 dollars for one of these titles.  The most expensive work of fiction I own cost $60, and was bound by hand with sewn in signatures.  Besides, with 89% of U.S. high school graduates enrolling in colleges and universities, how small is the textbook market, really?  The second excuse is equally bogus.  I’m sure you’ve all seen multiple-author story anthologies at your local bookstore.  All those writers had to be paid individually, too, but those books don’t cost any more than single-author titles of the same size.

Textbooks are overpriced because textbook publishers cling to outmoded notions of how their books should be produced and sold.  Having worked both as a small press publisher and as a college instructor, I naturally have a few ideas about how this situation can be improved.

Print Textbooks in Standard Trim Sizes on Cheap Paper:

They say this book jacket can't pay the rent...Let’s face it, college textbooks are a disposable item.  Most students can’t wait to get rid of them when the semester is over.  If they cling to them at all, it’s because they want to sell them carefully in order recoup as much of the cover price as possible.  Given these truths, there’s no reason not to print cheap books that can just be tossed in the recycling bin after finals week.  As an example, let’s look at another book I use, They Say / I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing.  This is a small, short, softbound book, with no color printing, but a new copy will still set you back $25.  Why?  Because it’s printed on slick paper with it’s own unique trim size.  There’s simply no excuse for this.  A mass market publisher like Angry Robot could knock out newsprint copies for $8 each and still turn a profit.  That’s less than a third of what my students are asked to pay.  Mass market style textbooks would also mean more new book sales for publishers, since an $8 paperback is scarcely worth reselling.

Stop Printing in Color Unless Absolutely Necessary:

English Composition is not a subject that requires a lot of charts and graphs, yet most of the textbooks I see are printed in color, and styled like commercial websites.  This not only requires a more expensive printing process, but necessitates a higher quality of paper than simple black and white.  So why use color in an English book?  The main reason seems to be that it adds ‘visual interest,’ eye candy intended to lure students into reading the presumably uninviting content.  I’m not against this in theory, but in practice, a lot the ‘visual interest’ items seem pointless or even counter-productive.  Going back to Evergreen for an example, right smack in the middle of a chapter on sentence fragments, there is a half-page full color reproduction of an ad for Tommy Hilfiger clothing.  Yes, it is visually arresting.  Yes, it could reasonably generate a discussion on the psychology of advertising.  But what is it doing in a chapter about basic sentence errors?  Nothing, except distracting my students from the matter at hand, and possibly selling some yachting outfits.  Frankly, I’d rather have plain old black and white, especially if it brings the price of the book down.  In cases that absolutely require full color figures–hard science textbooks again–I suggest the solution adopted long ago by the publishers of true crime books and movie star biographies, print most of the book in black and white, with a signature or two of color in the middle where all the nice photos go.

Ditch the Enhancements:

In the Fall of 2010, a video made the rounds on YouTube in which Management Professor Richard A. Quinn of the University of Central Florida accused most of his class of cheating on a midterm exam.  The test in question had been assembled from a database of potential questions provided by the publisher of his textbook.  Though Quinn seemed sincerely outraged, I was shocked by his naivete.  Really, what did he expect to happen?  Any sizable student population is bound contain a few individuals with Mad Hacker Skillz.  It’s a given that this not-terribly-secure database would be cracked by someone who would then pass on the the questions and their answers, either for profit or out of a misplaced sense of altruism.  No professor worth his tenure–especially one with multiple grad students to use as slave labor–uses canned test questions for precisely this reason.  Yet, this is exactly the sort of ‘bonus content’ that publishers waste time and money producing.  Other typical ‘enhancements’ include publisher hosted blogs and social media sites keyed to specific textbooks.  These too become fertile fields for cheaters and short-cut artists, this time in the form of term papers plagiarized from other students who have posted their legitimate work to these sites.  Frankly, I’ve even grow leery of using textbooks batched with readings.  Once they’ve been in circulation a while, corresponding essays start to appear on the internet, either posted to personal sites by proud students, or for sale as ‘research tools.’  Either way, these present even more opportunities for plagiarism.  Publishers should stop providing these crutches for lazy professors.  They increase the cost of textbooks without improving their intrinsic qualities, and ultimately cause more classroom problems than they solve.

Embrace Student-Friendly Technologies and Sales Points:

There are hopeful signs in this area.  The webpage of Cengage, the publisher of Evergreen, offers an electronic version of the book for $46.49.  This is a rental, a bit like a library ebook, which will vanish from students’ computers at the end of the semester.  Weirdly, it’s actually cheaper to rent the physical book, which comes with a postage paid return.  Clearly, Cengage isn’t pushing its electronic content very hard, despite the obvious cost savings.  But how many students will even find this page without assistance?  Over at Amazon, where most ebook purchasers wash up, a Kindle-ready copy of Evergreen will set you back $92.49.  Hardly an alluring price tag, especially when you consider that you can buy a used copy for half that much from These Sellers.  Evergreen isn’t even for sale at Smashwords, where all the cool kids hang out.  This situation is fairly typical for electronic textbooks.  They’re often too expensive relative to the cost of the print book.  Students and even instructors may be unaware of them because they’re not sold in the usual places, and campus bookstores have an obvious motive to deny their very existence.  But these problems can be overcome.  Publishers can strike deals with popular ebook providers, or at least promote their own sales points more effectively.  A sane and consistent pricing policy, one that bears in mind the easy availability of used print books, can be found.  After all, publishers earn nothing from used book sales, a clear reason to make electronic books cheaper.  In the end, both textbook publishers and their customers–the students–will benefit.  Isn’t that what good business is all about?

Dave Hurwitz

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2 Responses to “Why Are College Textbooks So Expensive?”

  1. My book, which serves as a textbook of sorts, lists for $35. Not too bad. But I heard that a portion was reprinted in an anthology. I was excited and wanted to buy a copy. Cost: $125. Not thanks.

    I wonder if Apple’s ibook creation software will smash this industry apart.

    • Previously existing ebook formats are already well on their way to doing so. For example, I’ll be teaching a literature survey class this coming fall. Back when we were in college, something like The Norton Anthology of English Literature made perfect sense as a textbook. Now I’m not even using one. Nearly everything I want to teach is free online via Project Gutenberg or similar sites. Why put my student’s to expense. I may ask them to by a couple of contemporary novels, but that’s peanuts compared to the cost of lit anthology.

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