Concerted Action Needed to Lower the High Cost of College Textbooks

Two years ago I published an article on legislative efforts at the state and federal levels to rein in the high price of college textbooks (“Legislating Relief for the High Cost of College Textbooks: a Brief Analysis of the Current Law and its Implication for Students, Faculty and the Publishing Industry” Journal of Legal Studies in Business, Vol. 15 (2009)). These legislative efforts largely require information to be provided to students on a timely basis on textbook adoptions so that they can find lesser expensive sources for procuring the textbooks they need for class. They also generally attempt to regulate direct and indirect payments and incentives that publishers can make to adopters and prospective adopters of their textbooks. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of these measures in mitigating the nearly $1,000 per year average cost to students for textbooks at undergraduate institutions.

Although I strongly support these efforts to bring greater transparency to the textbook adoption process and to provide students with timely information about book adoptions whenever possible so that they can find the best price for their textbooks at new and used retailers online and elsewhere if they are willing to forego the convenience of purchasing their books at their campus store, I don’t believe that these measures by themselves will significantly impact the price of college textbooks in the long term since none address the heart of the problem. For a complete discussion of the issue, please read my article. The core of the problem is that textbook production under the traditional model of production and distribution relied upon by the remaining four major publishers of college textbooks (Thomson, McGraw-Hill, Wiley, and Pearson) is an expensive proposition. The push model of textbook distribution is a very expensive proposition for publishers who rely upon armies of sales representatives to market their books by keeping in constant personal, email and phone contact with prospective and current adopters. Add to this the fact that any textbook edition has approximately a three-year window of profitability for publishers before the used book market (from which neither publishers nor authors receive any compensation) effectively chokes off their new book sales. With only three years in which to reap significant profits for new books, publishers push for new editions every three years like clockwork—whether changes in the subject matter merit a new edition or not—just to kill off sales of used textbooks and maximize new book sales profits.

Lest I be misunderstood, I so not blame publishers alone for the high cost of college textbooks, though they are an easy target and as such are often unfairly maligned—often by the very people who profit the most from the current paradigm. According to a recent independent report, for each dollar of textbook sales, the publisher makes seven cents profit and spends 32.2 cents for printing and editorial costs, 10 cents for administrative costs, and 15.4 cents for marketing costs. The net percentage of profit to the publisher is 10.8 percent on the sale of textbooks. College bookstores make 40 percent of their revenue from new book sales and 17 percent of their revenue from used book sales, with the remainder coming from other sources such as clothing and supplies.

Decreased competition in the industry is another reason that impacts not only on the price but on the availability of alternative editions from the diminished pool of publishers. When I was shopping around for a publisher for my first business law textbook (Business Law: an Introduction 1e) as a young and as yet unproven textbook author in the late 1980’s with only one unrelated trade book publication to his credit, I had three publishers sufficiently interested in the book to fly to New York to meet with me in person (West, Houghton Mifflin and Irwin). After meeting with me and seeing a textbook proposal without even sample chapters at the time, two of those were interested enough in the project to pursue the matter further until I signed with Irwin/Mirror Press. Two of those publishers no longer exist (Houghton Mifflin and Irwin) as independent publishers. With the consolidation of publishers, competing titles and niche publications are not welcomed as they adversely impact the bottom line. Even though my first textbook was used by universities, colleges and trade schools in at least 37 states, I adopters requests for updates and my own went unheeded for more than a decade and it competed directly with more profitable titles until it finally was allowed to go out of print. Once the book was no longer in print, the copyright reverted to me and I was able to publish a sorely needed major revision and expansion through my new publisher, Textbook Media, earlier this year, But my new publisher does not use the push model and there is no army of sales reps trying to sell the book to prospective adopters. Consequently, even though the book sells starting at less than $10 in eBook versions and approximately $35 for eBook and soft-bound versions, adoptions will be slow to come and profitability for both my publisher and for me will be miniscule in relation to the approximate $160 it would retail for in hard cover at my original publisher. For me, the possibility of making the book available once again to past loyal adopters is much more important than its profitability or the royalties I may glean for my three years of effort to bring the new edition to market. I believe in this new model so much, in fact, that I released not one but two textbooks through Textbook Media: Business Law and the Legal Environment of Business 2e (2010) and Business Law: an Introduction 2e (2011). These books were previously published by Prentice Hall and Irwin/McGraw Hill respectively in their first editions and are now both available at a very small fraction of their original cost in expanded and updated editions. Whether they will once again find their markets is a different question. My publisher and I are betting that they will, but it is hard to compete with the push model and this grand experiment may well prove to be an economic failure.

Which finally brings me to the real point of this article. The traditional textbook model that gives us in my field (legal studies/business law/legal environment) leading textbooks that are generally priced at close to $200 each (with even custom-published, paperback versions of these costing more than $100 for students) is not going to be displaced any time soon by lower-cost models on any wide scale. This means that the $200 textbook (with its $150 used counterparts) will be with us for the foreseeable future unless a better way can be found through cooperative efforts among government, universities and faculty. Here are some quick thoughts on these that could have a real impact on both lowering the cost and increasing choices for college professors and students alike:

1    If the federal government and state governments are serious about lowering the cost of college textbooks, they should study ways of directly supporting lower cost options through grants. Content experts could be enticed to write textbooks to be released into the public domain and made available as cost-free options for adopters in colleges and universities. This would not supplant but rather supplement existing textbooks, but the availability of grant-subsidized textbooks free of charge would pressure traditional publishers to be more competitive in their pricing strategies and offer more low-cost options than their current meager offerings.

2.      Universities should explore the option of providing either release time or significant grants to faculty members who are willing to undertake either individual or collaborative textbook publishers with colleagues at their home institutions or elsewhere. These textbooks could be published in-house and made available to students at the possible lowest cost. The unfortunate reality at present is that there is no real incentive for faculty to undertake the arduous and demanding process of textbook writing as textbook publication is generally seen as less desirable than scholarly article publications in refereed journals. It takes generally three to five years to research, write, edit and publish a textbook. In my personal experience, the amount of time that I need to devote to a single textbook or major revision is about the same required to publish five to ten peer-reviewed articles. Yet most institutions will give no greater weight to a textbook publication than to a refereed article. That leaves absolutely no incentive (other than the prospect of royalties) for faculty to pursue textbook projects as such projects will not stand up well to a reasonable risk/benefit analysis.

3.      Faculty members need to become more sensitive to the cost of textbooks for their students and carefully consider the ancillary materials that they require publishers to provide which can add significantly to the cost of each textbook sold. Class management tools, homework or assignment management software, full-color illustrations in textbooks, expansive test banks, Videos, expansive instructor’s manuals, and the myriad other ancillary materials that many faculty members tell publishers they want (but I suspect most never actually use) add to the overall cost of a textbook that is passed on to students. Overuse of pedagogical devices such as glossaries, sidebars, case studies, cases, charts, illustrations and anything else that the sometimes overactive minds of textbook writers can throw in to make their titles “stand out” from the rest (or simply keep up with the rest) also add to the cost of textbooks, giving us thousand-plus page monstrosities that often distract students far more than they instruct them. Frankly, faculty members also need to be more proactive in seeking out the available alternatives rather than waiting for the recommendations of their sales reps. We need to go beyond looking at review copies of the latest textbooks that the traditional publishers send us periodically and also need to ask the question that every sales rep hates to answer: “What is the price of this textbook to the bookstore?” (Add 25% to whatever they say to know what it will cost our students); “Is the book available in a low-cost custom edition (and what is the price to the bookstore if it is)?” Is the book available directly to students (and what is the price)?” “Do you offer a book rental option (and what is the price and limitations for students—e.g., how long do they have to access the book and is the license transferable by them)?”

The reasons for the high cost of textbook are many and varied. There is no single solution that will address them all. But if we continue to seek creative solutions to the problem, we will see meaningful results in a reasonably short period of time. The simple fact is that the status quo is not sustainable, especially during tough economic times when the students with the greatest need to continue their education may find the high cost of textbooks an insurmountable obstacle in the way of completing their studies and moving forward on the path to a better life.
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