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Weiye Loh

Skepticblog » Why are textbooks so expensive? - 0 views

  • In some cases, the costs are driven up because the market has gotten highly competitive with more and expensive features, like pricey full color throughout, and lots of ancillaries (website for the book, CD-ROM of Powerpoints or images, study guide for students, instructor’s guide, test banks, and many other extras). In the high-volume markets, like the introductory courses taken by hundreds of non-majors, these silly extras seem to make a big difference in enticing faculty to change their preferences and adopt a different book, so publishers must pull out all the stops on these expensive frills or lose in a highly competitive market. And, like any other market, the cost per unit is a function of how many you sell. In the huge introductory markets, there are tens of thousands of copies sold, and they can afford to keep their prices competitive but still must add every possible bell and whistle to lure instructors to adopt them. But in the upper-level undergraduate or the graduate courses, where there may only be a few hundred or a few thousand copies sold each year, they cannot afford expensive color, and each copy must be priced to match the anticipated sales. Low volume = higher individual cost per unit. It’s simple economics.
  • the real culprit is something most students don’t suspect: used book recyclers, and students’ own preferences for used books that are cheaper and already marked with someone else’s highlighter marker!
  • As an author, I’ve seen how the sales histories of textbooks work. Typically they have a big spike of sales for the first 1-2 years after they are introduced, and that’s when most the new copies are sold and most of the publisher’s money is made. But by year 3  (and sometimes sooner), the sales plunge and within another year or two, the sales are miniscule. The publishers have only a few options in a situation like this. One option: they can price the book so that the first two years’ worth of sales will pay their costs back before the used copies wipe out their market, which is the major reason new copies cost so much. Another option (especially with high-volume introductory textbooks) is to revise it within 2-3 years after the previous edition, so the new edition will drive all the used copies off the shelves for another two years or so. This is also a common strategy. For my most popular books, the publisher expected me to be working on a new edition almost as soon as the previous edition came out, and 2-3 years later, the new edition (with a distinctive new cover, and sometimes with significant new content as well) starts the sales curve cycle all over again. One of my books is in its eighth edition, but there are introductory textbooks that are in the 15th or 20th edition.
  • ...2 more annotations...
      • For over 20 years now, I’ve heard all sorts of prophets saying that paper textbooks are dead, and predicting that all textbooks would be electronic within a few years. Year after year, I  hear this prediction—and paper textbooks continue to sell just fine, thank you.  Certainly, electronic editions of mass market best-sellers, novels and mysteries (usually cheaply produced with few illustrations) seem to do fine as Kindle editions or eBooks, and that market is well established. But electronic textbooks have never taken off, at least in science textbooks, despite numerous attempts to make them work. Watching students study, I have a few thoughts as to why this is:

        • Students seem to feel that they haven’t “studied” unless they’ve covered their textbook with yellow highlighter markings. Although there are electronic equivalents of the highlighter marker pen, most of today’s students seem to prefer physically marking on a real paper book.
        • Textbooks (especially science books) are heavy with color photographs and other images that don’t often look good on a tiny screen, don’t print out on ordinary paper well, but raise the price of the book. Even an eBook is going to be a lot more expensive with lots of images compared to a mass-market book with no art whatsoever.
        • I’ve watched my students study, and they like the flexibility of being able to use their book just about anywhere—in bright light outdoors away from a power supply especially. Although eBooks are getting better, most still have screens that are hard to read in bright light, and eventually their battery will run out, whether you’re near a power supply or not.
        • Finally, if  you drop your eBook or get it wet, you have a disaster. A textbook won’t even be dented by hard usage, and unless it’s totally soaked and cannot be dried, it does a lot better when wet than any electronic book.
  • A recent study found that digital textbooks were no panacea after all. Only one-third of the students said they were comfortable reading e-textbooks, and three-fourths preferred a paper textbook to an e-textbook if the costs were equal. And the costs have hidden jokers in the deck: e-textbooks may seem cheaper, but they tend to have built-in expiration dates and cannot be resold, so they may be priced below paper textbooks but end up costing about the same. E-textbooks are not that much cheaper for publishers, either, since the writing, editing, art manuscript, promotion, etc., all cost the publisher the same whether the final book is in paper or electronic. The only cost difference is printing and binding and shipping and storage vs. creating the electronic version.
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    But in the 1980s and 1990s, the market changed drastically with the expansion of used book recyclers. They set up shop at the bookstore door near the end of the semester and bought students' new copies for pennies on the dollar. They would show up in my office uninvited and ask if I want to sell any of the free adopter's copies that I get from publishers trying to entice me. If you walk through any campus bookstore, nearly all the new copies have been replaced by used copies, usually very tattered and with broken spines. The students naturally gravitate to the cheaper used books (and some prefer them because they like it if a previous owner has highlighted the important stuff). In many bookstores, there are no new copies at all, or just a few that go unsold.
    What these bargain hunters don't realize is that every used copy purchased means a new copy unsold. Used copies pay nothing to the publisher (or the author, either), so to recoup their costs, publishers must price their new copies to offset the loss of sales by used copies. And so the vicious circle begins-publisher raises the price on the book again, more students buy used copies, so a new copy keeps climbing in price.
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