Sunday, September 11, 2005

Who ordered that?

If it is a college textbook, the professor. Textbook prices have more than doubled in the past 15 years but few professors care, or have even noticed. The US has a North Korean textbook market: those who order the things (the professors) get them free, and the ones who buy them (the students) are captive.

The GAO (I simply cannot bring myself to call the Government Accounting Office by its new newspeak moniker) has a report on the college textbook market requested by David Wu (R) Representative from Oregon. Three cheers for him!!! A worthwhile read for faculty and those sent to the poorhouse after buying books.

Still, they fail at the bottom line. Textbooks cost a whole lot less elsewhere because in the US textbooks are specified by the instructor. I can get any chemistry textbook hand delivered complete with slobbering publishers rep the next day at no cost. They will cheerfully pile the supplementary material they carefully designed to kill the used book market (more on that in a later post. GAO has nailed that issue) up to my ceiling.

I exaggerate, but if the General Chem program at Really Large State U, can get slobbering reps and more. The economics are simple. At RLSU the GChem course might have ~5000 students or more. At $140 for the book (more if the students are offered the "package") that is ~ 0.7M$, about 75% of which goes to the publisher and the rest to the bookstore. At our smaller place we are down by an order of magnitude, but the business is steady enough that we can get a decent lunch brought in every couple of years when we consider new texts and all the free copies we want. English and math are the 1000 pound gorillas in the textbook business, but chem ain't bad.

As you might suspect I am a trice uncomfortable about this. The situation is negatively affecting higher education in the US as students seek to escape economic thrall by not buying books, and selling them back as soon as they can. When I graduated I had a library built up across many fields which even today stands me in good stead. To assuage my conscience I don't accept desk copies. If a publisher sends one to me, I call them up and tell them to take it back. If they don't come within a couple of weeks I give it to a student. More later, but you might ask your favorite US academic bloggers what they do about desk copies.


Kevin said...


In response to your question over at Tim Lambert's site (my apologies for posting here, but you don't show an email address), the Clinton quote about "We can't be so fixated..." is attributed to USAToday, 3/11/93. The "rein in the rights" quote is attributed to an MTV interview. The "fairly radical Constitution" quote was from MTV's "Enough is Enough" show also from 1993. I saw that one myself.

I can't find these anywhere but on rightwing sites myself, but I have found them on sites I trust. Otherwise these seem to have disappeared down the memory hole. Does MTV have transcripts of its interviews?

Anonymous said...

Dr. Rabett:

It is great to see you start a blog. I have noticed your posts on some other sites.

On the issue of textbooks, I have solved that problem for some of my classes by writting one and then selling them in the bookstore for $25 or less (of course the subjects are very specalized). However I agree with your point of view and I take great care in selecting books.

Are we going to see any posts on climate? I recall a post that you did (on Deltoid maybe) discussing the saturation of CO2 IR absorption which I found to be very informative. In my opinion this would be a good place to start.

Anyway, best to you and your blog.


EliRabett said...

Self publishing is certainly one way out. We have adopted a mid way for our laboratory courses, using thinned down versions of the publishers lab book or actually writing our own and having them published. This drops the price to ~$35.

Still, there is a real resistance among the younger students to ad hoc texts in introductory courses.

John, I hope to use this blog to deal with climate issues that have not been considered elsewhere, or not considered in great detail. In other words, a place for my hobby horses:) like textbooks.

Kevin, thanks for your message, I will post any result that I get over at Deltoid to preserve context.

Thanks to both

Anonymous said...

It is very noble and humbling a professor is standing up for the students. I have spent well lover $700 a few semesters on my books. This was a good portion of my summer earnings! Well, rather just complain about the situation I finally got smart. I found buying books online saved me a lot of money. Specifically using a book price comparison search engine I ended up save over $400 on my books. The I like the most is They are great finding discount books for college students. I appreciate they, like the professor, try to help students find the lowest price book possible. My personal feelings are if enough people shop smartly online then college bookstores will be forced to lower their prices.

Chapichupandra said...
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Anonymous said...

The thing is, professor shouldn't require students to buy a book for their own benefit. Buying a textbook wasn't that easy for student as they don't have the budget. But still, they need this one as a guide on their study