Friday, November 11, 2005

Why are college textbooks expensive and high school textbooks cheap?

Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research has a paper Are Copyrights A Textbook Scam? Alternatives to Financing Textbook Production in the 21st Century. He argues that

The reason that textbooks are costly is that the government grants textbook publishers copyright monopolies. Copyright monopolies allow the publishers to prevent anyone from competing with them in the market. They are the only ones that can sell a copyrighted textbook in whole or in part. This prevents individuals from freely reproducing a textbook or making it available over the Internet.
He is wrong. You could have all the copyright protection you wanted, but if the textbooks were sold into a competitive market, rather than being specified by professors and bought by students, prices would fall, inexpensive paperback versions would appear and the little cute tricks like new editions every other year would be held in check. For details see our earlier post, Who ordered that?

If you think that I am wrong, ask yourself why high school texts, which are both specified and bought by Boards of Education are really cheap.

The good news is that people are starting to wake up. Baker nails it when he says:
Textbook costs have consistently outpaced the overall rate of inflation, presenting a large and rapidly growing burden to millions of college students. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), textbook prices have been rising about 6 percent annually, or twice as fast as the overall rate of inflation, since the 1987/1988 academic year. The GAO estimates that the average first-year student at a four-year public university spent $898 on textbooks and supplies in the 2003/2004 academic year.1 This means that a student working at a minimum wage job would have to put in nearly 170 hours of work each year, just to pay for her textbooks.


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Copyrights are the operative reason textbooks are expensive. Without copyrights, anyone could copy textbooks instead of purchasing them -- perhaps even scan and then distribute them electronically, at essentially no cost. So, with copyrights, textbooks cost the exorbitant amount they cost today. Without copyrights, textbooks cost zero to consumers. This is uncontroversial.

What is controversial is how to create incentives for publishing if copyrights are eliminated. Copyrights allow their holders to charge high prices (see above) and make great profits, the incentive for absorbing the large fixed costs of textbook development. Baker's paper suggests an alternative: publicly finance textbook development, and place the results (textbooks) in the public domain.

You argument is that textbooks are costly because professors specify which ones for students to buy. Again, without copyrights, textbooks are free to copy, so whether they're specified by professors is irrelevant to cost. The huge marketing campaign you cite, (extra features, "slobbering reps", etc), which is very real and does increase prices, only exists because of copyrights. With copyrights and hence windfall potential profits, there are huge incentives for all of these marketing devices. Assuming there are no copyrights, why on earth would publishers spend time and money on massive marketing campaigns, if it's the case the professors and students can merely copy textbooks for free?

EliRabett said...

If this is true, why is Linus Paulings "General Chemistry" (it is out of copyright) not used everywhere? (it is a very good book, but also sophisticated

The fact is that WITH copyrights, textbooks are available at much lower prices in other markets (usually in paperback editions). Why? Because the students, who put out the money, choose which texts they will buy, and there is real competition between the different textbooks.

Here is an example, General Chemistry by Ebbing and Gammon, in Germany 46.50 Euro (multiply by ~ 1.25 for $), L34.95 in the UK (hardcover) $145 in the US, the paperback is not available (there are a few gray market imports)

Bluntly put, you are not even wrong.

Anonymous said...

I saw on another blog from Rabett some one suggested using . I checked it out, looks pretty cool. I did not know book price comparison search engines existed! Thanks to whoever posted that.

C W Magee said...

So why don't *You* use Pauling's book, Dr. Bunny? I mean, seriously. I have no idea who the authors of these other textbooks are, but I'm pretty confident that they are no Linus Pauling.

EliRabett said...

If Eli wanted to teach electronegativity, then Pauling is fine. Things have changed a bit in 50 years. The Rabett did play with the idea a few years ago, but sat down, put on his student hat and decided it would not be a good thing.

C W Magee said...

Has anything you learn in first semester intro chem changed?

e.g. How to put out a pre-med student using a fire extinguisher?

EliRabett said...

We did that once, it was very expensive, he sued because he did a procedure we told him not to do too well. Classic case. Our luck was that the guy next to him was a volunteer fireman.

But more seriously a number of things have changed including the periodic table. When Eli was a student the Mendeleev form hung at the front of the lecture hall. Eli is an old bunny.

C W Magee said...

When I was a lemminglet pre-med A set his bench on fire so that his buddy could copy my lab results while I put out the fire.

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Anonymous said...

A friend of mine who teaches a chem course now and again had a lab student who disregarded the rule that you should never bring in anything to eat or drink to the lab. The very unfortunate result was that the student thoughtlessly picked up his flask which had a strong acid in it (instead of his bottle bottle of snapple) and then drank a good fraction of the contents. The man was sent to the ER, and with a great deal of luck may be able to eat solid food.

Even smart people are fully capable of doing stupid things. With some care and the grace of God I will never do something as foolish.

I fully agree with you that costs of textbooks are ghastly. At times they are literally prohibitive.

another anonymouse

Padraig Tomas said...

Dear Eli,

I am in a general chemistry course, and I must buy the book which the professor has placed on the course syllabus because it has an online component which includes graded assignments. So, you buy the book or you fail homework assignments. The micro-economics course I am taking also has online graded work. The online study questions are helpfull. They are actually more helpfull then I had thought they would be, but the required expense is a burden. Being a student who does not live at home, and who is paying out of pocket every added expense pushes forward the question of how to save more money (Eat less food? I could lose ten pounds, but I can't lose onehundred.)

I have a a copy of Linus Paulings general chemistry text. Would you be willing to comment on what sections would be worth while to read?


Mark said...

Dear Patrick Mouse, I teach a general chemistry course. I worry about the linking of online homework to textbooks and about the ever-rising cost of textbooks. However, for the textbook we use for our course, students can buy access to the online homework separately. It is possible for a student to buy the textbook less expensively at an online source and still buy the homework access. (I don't know if you can do that, but I thought I'd mention it.)

I don't have my copy of Pauling's General Chemistry with me, but I'd say that all the chapters are worth reading. Knowing too much is not a bad thing.

Padraig Tomas said...

Dear Mark,

Thanks for the comment. I ended up getting the book with free express shipping from an online bookseller. For the future I am going to make use of all the usual dodges, and get an earlier start on looking for a less expensive ways to get what I need to learn all that is expected and get the grade (and the knowledge) that I want.

I think that you are right about Linus Pauling's book, General Chemistry. Last night as I was working thru the naming of chemicals given a formula and vice versa. In the problem set was the question, "how do we name CaCN?", which gave me the impetus to read Linus' index of which has all sorts of interesting "links" to information on cyanide compounds, including a section on the processes used in mining silver and gold. Having read about how gold and silver mining is practiced I am greatfull that there is no silver or gold mining near my home.


willard said...

My favorite crawling bot is - but not for textbooks, as textbooks are mainly there for teachers not to do their job. In any case, I see no reason not to put everything online with the MIT license.


Speaking of:

> Having read about how gold and silver mining is practiced I am greatfull that there is no silver or gold mining near my home.

That reminds me of this:

ilikepie said...

Patrick Mouse,

First, just a friendly word of advice. With homework access you invariably purchase an online version of the book. This online version of the book, in order to avoid the publisher having to field post-point-of-sale complaints from your professor, allows you to view in your web browser every single page in the book. However, for reasons that defy rational thought, you will lose access to this textbook at the end of the semester.

So kindly do yourself a favor. Please set aside 10 minutes (really, don't believe it when you tell yourself otherwise) to view every page in the textbook, hit ctrl+p, and chose "print to file" when the option comes up. You may optionally hit the "print screen" button on your keyboard and paste the image into an image editor, but this process takes longer and you end up with lower fidelity images. If you have a link to a "print version", you want that.

If you're a smart kid and good with computers besides, you can glue all the pdfs you create this way together with a program called "ghostscript". I'll save you the googling for the command line you'll use (please ignore the gobbledygook that follows if it is useless to you),

gs -DNOPAUSE -DBATCH -sDEVICE=pdfwrite -sOutputFile=whole_book.pdf *.pdf

Your future self will thank you for capturing the reference material you paid for. Yes, there is better out there, but this is what you learned from. The shakiest foundation can always be shored up later. Please do this even if you have a paper copy of the book. Your future self will be conditioned to work with one media at a time, and there simply isn't room on his desk for his keyboard, mouse, open textbook, pen, and a tablet of paper. Keep your paper book for paper work.

Second, as a veteran of the fight you're just entering into myself, I empathize. But, and I'm saying this with compassion, you need to analyze your own thought process here. I'll give you the reader's digest version, but you should see this site for a better description:

Basically, you chose the lesser of two evils buying a textbook so you could do your homework and pass the class. You knew it wouldn't be worth it, but had to make that investment anyway. You also have two goal conditions here: learning Chemistry and passing your class with a good grade. Naturally, you'd like your investment to help with your problem. It's not completely irrational, our line of reasoning here; add the cost of a better textbook to the one we've already purchased, and compare it to the utility with respect to our goals, and boy howdy do those numbers look better.

Don't do it.

First, you are in an introductory level class. Theory is very important. Theory will get you A after A after A in your junior and senior level classes. Theory is worth the C you'll get in your introductory level class if you ignore the assigned homework and focus on the concepts you are having trouble with and ignoring the ones you're comfortable with while the rest of the class breezes past you.

But that C will play havoc with your primitive reward center. Because remember, you and I are operating on pointy haired boss cost-benefit logic here.

What I'm saying, is that if you buy another book for this class, you will never read it, and you will hate chemistry, because every waking moment you spend away from the text assigned to an introductory level class, potentially learning correct but incorrect-in-context answers that will cause you to freeze and sweat during tests, is a wasted minute. That book is an investment; higher grades later, in exchange for lower grades now.

And right now, bless you, but you're being weeded out. If you want there to be a later, buy better books when you have time to read them. On your time. For the love of all that is good in the world, don't do it while you're being graded.

And good luck to you.