Inside Higher Ed News on Textbooks

See “Next Chapter on Textbooks,” published on June 1 in Inside Higher Ed. Basically, it’s a long piece about the high price of textbooks (various investigations, etc.) and the various solutions for dealing with the expense, including legislation. Frankly, I think the idea of the feds stepping in to control the price of textbooks is a little like getting them to step in and control the price of gasoline: it makes for good politics with various constituents, but at the end of the day, the price of gasoline (and textbooks) goes up.

I suppose it depends on what you mean by “expensive,” too. I had a book rep tell me once that the really expensive books in the sciences– ones that typically involve a lot of full-color printing– are more or less “break even” propositions for publishers. So that might not actually be expensive. On the other hand, charging $60 for a warmed-over fifth edition of some composition textbook is a profit source.

Anyway, let’s assume that textbooks cost too much money. Why is that? Here’s an interesting passage that I think tells at least part of the story:

“Turn the Page: Making College Textbooks More Affordable,� is the result of a yearlong study by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, a nonpartisan federal panel that advises Congress on issues of access.

The advisory group adopts a common framing of the issue. The textbook market, it says, is driven by supply rather than demand. Publishers set the price. Bookstores order the products. Students have little, if any, direct influence over the final cost, format and quality of the textbook. The common retort from publishers: Pay more attention to the faculty role. They are free to choose cheaper editions or unbundled material but resoundingly say educational value trumps price in their purchasing decisions.

I like to say that textbooks are a lot like dog food. Dogs don’t pick out their dog food; their owners do. As a result, dog food companies market to their owners. Like dogs, students don’t pick out the textbooks for their classes; their professors do. As a result, textbook companies market them to the professors. There’s one significant difference though: textbook companies rarely tell professors explicitly how much the books they are ordering for students actually cost.

What to do about all this? Well, a lot of the solution in the article revolve around organized online publishing, but it seems to me that this is probably not going to reduce the costs, and it ignores the many reasons for textbooks. And besides, a lot of times, a) a print textbook is the best way to deliver content, and b) the cost of some textbooks is actually worth it. Don’t get me wrong– this is not some kind of apology for the textbook business. There are a lot of really bad textbooks out there. Still, there are also a lot of good ones, too.

It also seems to me that professors can often find alternatives for textbooks if they just look around a bit. For example, I’ve been assigning Joseph Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace for years– the 1995 trade book edition. I’m not sure if it is still in print or not, but students have never had a hard time getting it, and it’s about $12 or so new, $5 or $6 used. On the other hand, Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (now in its ninth edition) is $43.33 from amazon.com. Now, I suppose the textbook version might have some advantages, especially for less than prepared instructors.

And as a slight tangent: that’s another function of textbooks that seems overlooked by this piece. Textbooks– especially in a field like composition studies, where instructors are frequently inexperienced– are often a key part of the “on the job training,” as much of a teaching tool for the graduate assistant or part-timer as it is for the students in the class. I know I learned a ton about teaching writing from the textbooks I was required to use as a new graduate assistant.

Obviously, I have mixed feelings.

Of course, I’m also for the solution of just self-publishing textbooks, like my modest little project, The Process of Research Writing.

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