Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Who ordered that II

Back at the beginning of time, well, to be honest Rabett Run, but did anything exist before, Eli had two excellent rants (Rant I and Rant II) about textbook prices and the machinations of the publishers. With the new term, the new students, and the new higher prices, it is time to revisit the problem. As you may have noticed in the US when your kid goes to college, the price of General Chemistry textbooks new is threatening the $200 barrier.

Our text, Brown, LeMay and a couple of other authors added later, Chemistry: the Central Science, is OK. A good, middle of the road textbook. As a reformed physicist, Eli would prefer an atoms first approach but there are also chemists teaching the course. Recommended retail cost $194. You can do about $150 at Amazon. If you sell it in very good condition after taking the course, you get about $80 back. If a student buys it new at the college bookstore their net cost is $110, buy it at Amazon and the net cost is $70. Keep those numbers in mind. At this point Eli will scream, please put your sunglasses on:

You may take the sunglasses off now. Books on the shelf are a good trusted source of basic information. Having a small library is necessary for any educated person and one's college textbooks provide a wonderful basis. A house without books is a wasteland.

But, dear bunnies, let us look at this from the standpoint of the publisher. The current strategy is to make a maximum profit on each book. Since the people who order the books, the professors, don't buy it (see Rants), their is no restraint on prices. Contrast this with the K-12 market where the schools buy the textbooks. In that case the cost is pushed down to the limit.

On the other hand, in markets where students are free to buy their own books, the price is much lower. For example, the International paperback edition (you can only get the hardcover in the US) costs ~$80 list and you can get it discounted. That means that by selling the paperback in the US Pearson could kill the used book market and double their volume, not have the expense of putting out a new edition every three years or so, and very probably make more money and the students would, even on net, pay less and might keep their books.

At RSU, we have tried to approach this problem by contracting for a special edition which only includes the chapters we use and costs ~2/3 of the full edition. General Chemistry books are kitchen sinks, with every possible chapter because the absence of material near and dear to some professor could kill a sale. This also means that you need to lift weights to carry the thing to class (OK, it weighs 2.75 kg, but no one is going to carry it around). The resale value is not as high, but neither was the cost. We also had it bundled with a cut down lab manual (only the experiments that we do). We wish we could order the international edition for our students but it cannot legally be imported.

Make it so.


C W Magee said...

Wy don't you just buy a book from a less evil publisher.

I mean, if it's the greatest textbook ever, that's one thing, but $200 for an average textbook? I'm surprised they don't lose half their volume by having room-mates share copies...

EliRabett said...

There is this concept called the least bad choice.

Alastair said...

How about using the British book Atkins Physical Chemistry See: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0198700725
The Amazon prices for new and second hand paprback editions are lower than $200.
The other thing to do would be to tell your students that an international edition of your selected book exists, and let them decide whether to get it themselves e.g via amazon.co.uk.

But I thought the US was a free nation. Why not join with other US universities and produce your own paperback chemistry textbook?

mathimice said...

the situation with mathematics
textbooks is equally outrageous.
At my U I've been trying to organize
a revolt to drop the Calculus
phone-book (MaBell size not the
piss-weak modern ones) in favor of
something from Dover together with
our own notes and problems. Even
books for sophomore and higher math
courses have crossed well into the
$150 a pop territory...ridiculous !

C W Magee said...

See also my comment on rant 2...

Anonymous said...

I suspect that the people who write these books are probably getting only a small percentage of the cover price.

In the age of desk top publishing, I'm surprised that these authors have not decided to cut out the middle men (publishers, book stores, etc) entirely and sell the books on line directly to the students.

That way they could actually make more off their own efforts and at the same time save the students a lot of money.

It's really obscene that a chemistry textbook like brown and Lemay would cost nearly $200.

Not that it's not a good textbook, but I used it 30 years ago and i doubt it has really changed all that much.

EliRabett said...

Things shift around a bit, but in general you could survive with the 20 year old version. OTOH what is really impressive is how every textbook covers the same material in the same order.

David B. Benson said...

Locally, the single most expensive item is the required computer, typically a laptop. (Probably not required for all majors yet.)

But then some professors have been providing their course notes online and forgo a required physical text.

Seems to work for at least upper division, more specialized courses. Anyway, the knapsacks students wear on the way to and from classes have shunk noticably this year; not lugging so many monster text books methinks.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

I can buy all three volumes of Weinberg's Quantum Field theory for $120 - three exquisitely produced volumes by the greatest living master of the subject, but a Freshman Chemistry (or physics, or calculus, or economics...)book that is essentially a rehash of the same stuff that's been taught for 50 (or 100) years is $200. I think that active participation in this swindle by the teaching profs is at the heart here.

EliRabett said...

50. No one knew about nuclei or atomic structure 100 years ago. Time flies when you are having fun

Horatio Algeranon said...

Eli says "No one knew about nuclei or atomic structure 100 years ago.'

While that is true, they did know quite a lot of stuff about atomic structure 70-80 years ago.

In fact, Horatio has an introductory QM book written by Linus Pauling and E. Bright Wilson(Introduction to Quantum Mechanics with Applications to Chemistry") that (though updated in 1985) was first published back in the 30's and is quite excellent (and can be had for about 10 bucks new!)

It is actually better than a lot of other intro QM (and chemistry) books that Horatio has looked at over the years.

Lots of other physics classics (eg, by Pauli, Einstein, Bondi, Fermi, Feynman, etc) are available in paperback and can be had for a song.

IHHO, these are FAR better than anything used in most undergraduate courses (better than anything Horatio used 30 years ago, at any rate)

Horatio Algeranon said...

Here are links to the books referred to above
Electrodynamics (Wolfgang Pauli)

Relativity: the special & the general theory, a popular exposition(Albert Einstein)

Relativity and Common Sense (Hermann Bondi)

QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Richard Feynman)

(Enrico Fermi)

Introduction to Quantum Mechanics with Applications to Chemistry(Linus Pauling, E. Bright Wilson)

Here's another that Horatio did not mention above (IHHO, the best introductory optics book available (and Horatio has read a lot of them over the years)
Introduction to Modern Optics(Grant Fowles)

You could fit all of the above paperbacks in a small backpack. But anyone who has taken the time to go through these carefully will come away with a very good understanding of basic (undergrad) physics (better than that obtained at most Universities, Horatio guesses).

Don't misunderstand Horatio. These books are not "watered down physics" and many of the concepts (eg, in QED) are not easy to come to terms with. It will take work.

The reason most of them are fairly short has to do with the fact that their authors (geniuses all) were able to describe the physics with elegance and clarity (and little or no hot air). Excellence in textbook writing is largely a function of knowing what to leave out, at any rate.

The lack of problems in some should not be a real problem. One can find lots and lots of problems (with answers) on the web.

Horatio wishes someone had given him such a list of classics before he wasted countless hours trying to learn undergrad physics from largely useless textbooks that cost an arm and a leg and weighed too much to be supported by most coffee tables (weighed more than most coffee tables, in fact).