Why Do College Textbooks Cost So Much?

Andrew Gelman wonders about the mystery of $150 textbooks.

[I]t’s commonplace for students to pay well over $100 for introductory textbooks.

[…]It just mystifies me that, in all these different fields, it’s considered acceptable to charge $150 for a textbook. I’d think that all you need is one cartel-breaker in each field and all the prices would come tumbling down. But apparently not. I just don’t understand.

First, as Bob Carpenter points out in the commons, most professors don’t even know, much less consider, the price students will pay for books when selecting them for their courses.  (Steven Taylor and I were exceptions to that rule but few of our colleagues much cared about price.)  Therefore, textbooks compete against other textbooks only when profs are choosing them; the students then either buy the book or not.

Second, and more oddly, a given textbook does have to compete, within no time at all, with used copies of itself.  Not only are the free review copies that Gellman and his cohorts receive often sold off to book dealers for resale but, of course, students tend to sell their books back to the store at a ridiculous markdown.   Once a book has been in circulation for a semester, much less a school year, only a small fraction of students (mostly, those getting their books “free” through some sort of scholarship) actually buy it new.   So, the publisher has to make all its money on the first sale in order to make it worthwhile.

UPDATE: Professor Henry Farrell and former college student Kevin Drum weigh in with some interesting thoughts as well.

Photo by Flickr user hoosadork, used under Creative Commons license.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Education, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jay C. says:

    “Once a book has been in circulation for a semester, much less a school year, only a small fraction of students (mostly, those getting their books “free” through some sort of scholarship) actually buy it new. So, the publisher has to make all its money on the first sale in order to make it worthwhile”

    That, or they release a new edition and badger the institution into forcing the new eds unto students. I recall Towson University was allowing students to purchase photocopied chapters of certain books; the receipt included a full disclosure of royalty fees paid to the publisher.

  2. John425 says:

    As the payor of textbooks for two sons, I, too, was particlarly pissed off to find that one edition had replaced another within one year and only the “new” edition was recognized.

  3. Jay C. says:

    John425: the worst part is that the T.A.s, instructors, lecturers, profs, department heads are all to blame in recognizing the new edition. The differences between editions is so miniscule that the people doing the lesson planning can’t (1) tell you the errata and addenda over the previous edition and (2) tell you how the changes in edition have changed the paradigm of their instruction.

    When I did comparative vertebrate anatomy in college we used the 3rd edition of a book first published in 1939. Anatomical discoveries have changed since then, but the University understood that the changes were so small that the info could be disseminated during lectures, or through handouts. Then again my University was careful about gouging students for books so it could have other ways of making money off of us instead.

  4. just me says:

    I think some courses the textbooks update editions because things change.

    Geography has changed a lot-from the time I was in high school to the time I finished college a whole lot changed geographically within a few years.

    But in the courses I took-many of them centered on legal oriented information, they often sold update supplements that could be purchased with the used book and with some of the books they were used in a variety of classes.

    I would imagine some science and other textbooks could be updated for several years with supplements rather than whole new editions-but others not so easily.

  5. Jay C. says:

    Hey Dr J, off-topic: do you use a plugin for that flickr picture-poster thingy that you use for your flavor pics?

  6. James Joyner says:

    do you use a plugin for that flickr picture-poster thingy that you use for your flavor pics?

    I tried one a while back but didn’t like it. I just keep a bunch of frequently used code on a notepad file on my desktop and cut-and-paste.

  7. PD Shaw says:

    My international relations “text book” (more like treatise) appeared to be about 30 years old when I took the college course in the late 80s. The biggest problem was finding a copy with binding that would hold together. Plus, we were expected to buy a subscription to one of three reputable international newspapers, of which I chose the cheapest, the Christian Science Monitor. All and all, a pretty good deal and I thought the Monitor was a fun read.

  8. Drew says:

    Isn’t there a greater issue? – Price inflation in all aspects of education, tuition, books, activities etc etc.

    Has anyone considered simple supply and demand? The amount of money funneled into education over the last few decades (supporting demand) at all levels is tremendous. Would it then be surprising to expect escalating costs in the form of salaries, book costs, housing, higher employment etc in the educational establishment??

    Obama recently decided to cap Wall Street execs salaries at $500K. These guys control billions in capital. Here in Illinois, a recent news article featured the $400K+ school administrator. Education is important, but compared with managing billions….

    I’ve never been part of the educational establishment. Am I off base here, looking at first principles?

  9. PD Shaw says:

    The obvious market solution is to ensure that the person who pays for the textbook is the same person who chooses the textbook. What if Universities raised the salary of their professors by say $10,000, but required each professor to supply all books and supplies for the class?

  10. Dutchgirl says:

    One reason textbooks cost so much is that there are way too many inro level books competing for a relatively small demand, and very specialized books may only have a limited supply. Its not Oprah is going to have introduction to biology on her book club.

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    This isn’t new. My textbook bill routinely amounted to $1,000 a quarter (three quarters per year). In 2009 dollars, of course. That was considerably more than a generation ago.

  12. odograph says:

    I think the classic economic explanation is agency costs. In this case the book-chooser is agent for the book-buyer, with imperfectly aligned goals (as James and many mention above say).

  13. just me says:

    What if Universities raised the salary of their professors by say $10,000, but required each professor to supply all books and supplies for the class?

    One thing I liked about college vs middle and high school was that I could write and make notes in my own textbook. I am not so sure I would want a situation where college books were all loaner books from the professor.

    I am not certain this would be best but I do think something somewhere needs to change.

    I do know when my husband was in college/grad school he often found better deals on used textbooks through amazon than the used textbook stores in town-and definitely cheaper than new.

  14. Rick Almeida says:

    First, as Bob Carpenter points out in the commons, most professors don’t even know, much less consider, the price students will pay for books when selecting them for their courses.

    Outside of elite institutions, I do not think this is true at all. At the 2 lower-tier institutions where I’ve worked, book cost is definitely a factor, particularly for intro classes.

    Where I am now, our bookstore even has a spot on the textbook order form that asks if used copies are preferred to new, and they do a very good job of acquiring used books.

    My intro to American gov text costs $52 used, $65 new, and the 3 books I assigned for my Southern Politics books cost about $75 total.

    In the places where most of us teach, faculty are indeed concerned about textbook costs and try to keep them down.

  15. ggr says:

    In some of the physical sciences (chemistry and physics) and mathematics, there have been very little changes in half a century in what has been taught to first years … and in physics this is true even in most fourth year courses (Maxwell’s equations from the 19th century, the Dirac Equation in quantum mechanics from the 1940’s etc).

    But the textbooks are changed almost every year, and even excellent texts are quickly out of print, despite the interest of professors who were quite happy with them, to be replaced with another (and often less clear) way of explaining the same material. What’s driving the rapid change in textbooks, at least in these fields, isn’t new material to be covered.

  16. sam says:

    Kevin’s picked up on this, too. Here’s what he calls a “data point”:

    I only have one of my college textbooks still in my possession, but I just got it off the shelf to see if it had a price in it. It did: $17.25. That was in 1976, and adjusted for inflation it comes to $64 in today’s dollars. So what does it currently cost on Amazon? Answer: $132. It is, as near as I can tell, the exact same book. Same binding, same number of pages, same charming lack of color. In fact, browsing through it, it looks as if it’s being printed from the same plates as it was in 1976.

    I’ll shorten his next comment: WTF!

  17. Tracy says:

    Myself, my husband and several other people I know are all back in school, and we’re all floored by book prices. Most of us have been in school before, but even being prepared for it doesn’t make it any less painful. For my last math class, though, I experimented with using the previous edition of the required book. When I was able to compare it with a new one, the only changes were a few added lines and a few areas where things were reworded. Honestly, how much have statistics and matrices changed in the past 5 years to justify three new editions?

  18. Grewgills says:

    There don’t appear to be to be inexpensive choices unless you create materials yourself or rely on other non-textbook sources. I had a few professors that created their own materials and made them available for the cost of photocopying and packaging at a local Kinko’s when I was an undergraduate. Most did not have the time or inclination to go that extra several miles when a good text was available. All were fine with me using a previous edition if I could not find the current edition used though.
    When I got my MSc (outside the US) only one text was required for the program and it was about $150 ($120 used previous edition). Other than that text no class materials cost me over $20 and most was free (journal articles etc.).
    Now I am adjunct faculty in the US. I don’t get to choose the text I use and was quite surprised by the prices. The lab book is paperback, less than 400 pages, and over $100. I looked around online and all of the lab manuals I could find were between $90 and $120 so there is no inexpensive choice other than one of the science faculty building a lab manual. That is quite a project and not something I am willing to tackle without some compensation.

    Happy Darwin Day!

  19. steve s says:

    Agreed, Happy Darwin Day! It’s especially nice to celebrate since the hostile-to-science party has been kicked to the curb!

    About the textbook thing, there’s some kind of huge market inefficiency thing going on. I don’t know where the blame lies, but it def needs to be fixed. Back when I was a poor physics undergrad I couldn’t afford my Stat&Prob 370 textbook. I don’t mean it would have required sacrifice, I mean, I had $16 in the bank, was behind on the rent, and had no support from anybody. The textbook was $120. So I went to the library on a succession of days and gradually photocopied the 7 relevant chapters a bit at a time over two weeks, for a total of $11. Seriously, in the year 2008 (Well it was 2003 at the time) there’s no reason any book about the basic student t distribution, standard dev, kurtosis, etc, should cost the student anything. This shit has been known for a century. McGraw Hill etc aren’t adding any value whatsoever.

    I’m very supportive of universities getting together and writing their own textbooks for the basics and providing them as free pdfs.

  20. steve s says:

    I would also be in favor of an agreement, say, between several hundred universities, to announce that, for instance, for freshman physics they would all use Halliday & Resnick version x for the next 10 years, and that each university had bought 10 extra copies that they would gradually put on the market as classes expanded and books wore out. That way the books would keep a decent resale value for previous students, and the publisher wouldn’t be able to bone everyone by altering a few sentences and putting out version whatever+1 two years later.

    ‘course, I also went to a university that studies how students learn, and came up with their own totally badass Intro Physics textbook, and I like that too.