In a World Where Anyone Can Publish a Book Inexpensively, Why Does Your College Textbook Still Cost $200?

Despite legislation at the federal level and in a growing number of states aimed at lowering the high cost of college textbooks, costs remain largely unaffected and students are still paying about $1,000 per year on average for their textbooks. Before continuing, I need to note that the reasons for the high cost of textbooks are numerous and fixing the problem is complicated for reasons that I will not delve into here. (For a thorough discussion of the issue, see my article “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)). Rather, I will concentrate on what I consider to be the main factor: the marketing-driven push-model  of textbook distribution that dominates the industry today.

As the author of five law-related college textbooks who has been an academic for almost all of his professional career, this is an industry I have grown to know well. Common misconceptions to the contrary notwithstanding, neither publishers nor textbook authors are profiteering at the expense of students as most of the revenue from textbooks goes to expenses for their creation and distribution (including retailers’ profits). The care and feeding of the masses of marketing reps required to push textbooks on faculty through constant contact that includes periodic office visits to college faculty to keep them abreast of new features, upcoming revisions, and new textbooks in their fields of interest is massively expensive. (And frankly more than a little annoying to those of us who do not welcome those frequent, uninvited intrusions into our office hours.)

The textbook marketing model is very similar to the way life insurance is marketed–especially the really profitable type–whole life and universal life–where one-on-one, in-person marketing is the rule. (Although I sincerely doubt the sales reps rake in the 55% commissions on first-year premiums that insurance salespeople have traditionally made on the sale of whole-life life insurance from the major companies.)

Sales reps have become incredibly adept at the care and feeding of the university faculty that they depend upon to adopt their books. As a faculty member, you need only ask and you shall receive large numbers of expensive textbooks for review and as desk copies once a title is adopted. This is just part of the cost of doing business. Some publishers go out of their way to involve faculty members at schools with large prospective or current adoptions in ongoing reviews of their current or upcoming titles for which faculty receive normally a small honorarium of $100 or so. Others are more aggressive and sponsor junkets to popular destinations like Las Vegas for “training sessions” on the use of their products to faculty members at institutions with large textbook adoptions. This particular practice was targeted by recent federal legislation as well as legislation in some states aimed at reducing the cost of textbooks, but it has not yet been completely eradicated. And faculty who are busy with their class preparation duties, their research agendas and their university and departmental service loads are usually only too happy to look only at the titles suggested/pushed by the sales representatives of the handful remaining major textbook publishers.

The result is that most college faculty–including those who are truly interested in lowering the burden of the high cost of textbooks for their students–most often find themselves choosing among very expensive textbooks from at most two or three publishers happily provided for them by sales representatives who highlight the competing features and demonstrate the latest and greatest software, web-based features and video ancillaries intended to entice faculty to adopt their titles–and sometimes specifically intended to lock them in to the titles by offering proprietary software for homework management, grade keeping, and online classroom supplementation that is available only as long as the faculty member keeps adopting the publisher’s titles. Other viable options exist, but the vast  majority of faculty are not aware of them as there are no armies of solicitous salespeople pushing these on them on a constant basis.

Lest I be misunderstood, I genuinely like the publishers’ representatives with whom I deal on a regular basis (like it or not). They are helpful, competent, and they make my life easier when I am actually looking to change textbooks in the classes I teach. They are very good at doing their job. Unfortunately, doing their job requires the cost of textbooks to remain as high as it is in no small part because of the inherent expense of marketing textbooks under the traditional model.

Alternatives do exist today, but they cannot thrive under the shadow of the massive marketing forces marshaled by the traditional publishers. I’ll offer my own textbooks as a limited case study because I think they help prove my point. My first textbook, Business Law: an Introduction, was published in 1992 (with a 1993 copyright) by Irwin/Mirror Press. When Irwin was acquired by McGraw-Hill, the book was published by the new imprint for a number of years, even though it directly competed with one of its well-established titles, no doubt in part because of  loyal adopters who simply refused to switch to the new titles pushed by the new sales reps. The book was adopted by more than 100 colleges in 37 states in the three years that it was actively marketed by Irwin/Mirror Press. It did relatively well and developed a loyal following. This year, a new updated and expanded version of the book was released by my new publisher, Textbook Media (http://www.textbookmedia.com). My new publisher markets its textbooks in a very different manner through direct mail and perhaps some email marketing. Despite the fact that the book is better than the original and its soft-cover version sells for about one-fourth the price of the original hard cover retail price in today’s dollars (and is also available for as little as $9.95 in iPhone, online versions eBook versions), adopters are not beating a path to my publisher’s door for one very simple reason: the vast majority of past adopters and prospective new adopters have no idea that the book is once again available in print. The exact same thing is true of my “Business Law and the Legal Environment of Business 2e” released last year which is very slowly finding its market. A $200 business law book can support armies of sales people to push it; a $35 book simply cannot. That price point is dependent upon word of mouth and a limited direct mail campaign that cannot compete with the constant, direct, one-on-one marketing that the few remaining textbook publishing houses continue to employ to market their very expensive titles.

If we really want less expensive college textbooks, we all have to be more open to looking at non traditional sources, be they open textbooks where available, or textbooks from non-traditional publishers. The advent of inexpensive sources for self-publishing textbooks should also be explored, and universities and accrediting agencies need to be more open to the value that these sources can represent not only in terms of cheaper, more accessible textbooks for students but just as importantly a less restricted and more open avenue for content experts to share their expertise unbridled from the constraints of what will meet the norms of the traditional publishers (read: must not compete with current leading titles by that publisher and must provide the potential for very significant new sales to justify the development costs and risk of a new textbook launch). A faculty member may not be willing to spend three to five years to research, write, and revise a 45 chapter textbook, but 45 content experts from various universities would be much more likely to sign on to write one or more chapters in a collaborative venture. No publisher will coordinate this; it is up to us, the faculty, to do so. But universities and the government (both state and federal) could help by providing seed money, research grants or resources to both facilitate and promote such projects.

And students should also get involved in the process. Faculty select books, but that does not mean that students cannot make their concerns known about their cost known to their professors and the administrations of the colleges and universities they attend.

Finally, we need to recognize that low price alone is never a good measure of good value, let alone of quality. But neither is high price. As a faculty member, administrator or student, you can help lower the overall costs of college textbooks by focusing on the issue and making sure that your voice is heard. And as a faculty member or student, if you find a good product at a low-cost, make sure that others know about it. Publicize sites that offer new and used textbooks at the lowest cost; let others know if you find a good textbook exchange program for used books at your university so that it can be duplicated elsewhere; insist that your university provide you with a complete list of textbooks for all of your classes with enough lead time so that you can find the lowest cost options, new and used, on your own. And ask your professors when a new edition of a book comes out whether you can still use the old edition. Sometimes new editions contain only cosmetic changes–your professor will know if that is the case, and being able to use a prior edition of a book can save you a lot of money. But be careful: old editions are useless if a professor won’t allow you to use it–or if it contains dated, incorrect information. With textbooks as will all products, be a good consumer. You will be happier–and wealthier (or at least less poor)–for it, and it is a lesson that translates well to life and work in general.

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