With Apologies to Sergio Leone

[Author’s Note: David Foster made a comment about texbook pricing in Zenpundit’s latest post. In response, this is a reposting of a piece I wrote in October 2005 (before I joined the Chicago Boyz) on texbook pricing at the college level. I did a quick check, but if there are any broken links here, please let me know.]

I’ve been kicking around a screed on textbook prices for a while, and it’s mushroomed so that I think I’ve managed to write something that will upset everyone involved in the debate. Which is probably reasonable, give how much blame there is to go around. I have a hunch that an unpopular and lasting social or market phenomenon always has multiple roots, or else social and market forces would sweep it away in short order. I think the rising price of textbooks in the US is a good piece of evidence for that theory.

My college General Chemistry textbook* cost me around $50 or $55 in 1987. I wasn’t happy about paying that much then, since I was taking 6 to 8 classes per quarter. (Yeah, I’m a geek.). That meant that I forked over on average about $600 per year (a lot of classes used one book over the whole year). Students today fork over about $850 per year. For fewer classes. But in the late 80s, I didn’t think that $50 was an order of magnitude, or even two times too much. I just thought it was a little steep, on the order of 20% too much. I looked at the book prices and said: “oh well”. I look at textbooks today, and my first thought is: “what could I use instead of this overpriced crap”? Today, the average Gen Chem textbook is about $150. Sorry, there just ain’t $150 worth of knowledge in any general overview text, I don’t care what the subject. A lot of people other than me are asking just what the Sam Hill is going on, here.

I’ve seen a lot of venom directed at publishing industry, but I tend not to throw around the “price gouging” term a lot. I spent too long in the USSR to stand up and tell people what their level of profit should be. That road to socialism runs through some desolate country. Outside of price gouging in natural disasters, pricing is something that, left to a free market, produces alternatives and lower cost goods than command allocation of resources. You can take that to the bank every time. Sure I could purchase a pair of boots in Moscow in 1989 for about $3 in the state stores, but you know what? Gosplan screwed up (or more likely, got bribed) and there were none to be had in the state stores. I cold get them from my friendly neighborhood Mafioso (and Party member, to boot) for about $25, though**. So no, the publishers should charge whatever the market will bear. In a free market, that is.

And therein lies the rub. Most of my text books in college cost between $45 and $55 dollars. If prices roughly kept pace with inflation, which you’d expect in a free market, what cost me $50 in 1987 should cost about $85 today. Let’s be generous and say $90. A while back, I called a local university bookstore to see what they were using for general chemistry. Silberberg. Never heard of it. Amazon price: $143. That’s 1.7 times the rate of inflation from 1987. To make the bite worse, that bookstore was selling only a prepackaged bundle of book and solution manual for just a hair under $196. At the time, Amazon did the same at just a hair over $193. (I’ll get back to the Campus bookstore / Amazon comparison later on.) Bundling like this does not win the publishing industry any friends, including me, the diehard free market capitalist. Why? Well, because in no stretch of the imagination can this market be called free.

I want to look at the three actors in this sordid drama one by one. My first inspiration was to call this The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, but I don’t see any white hats, here, so I’m going to call this The Bad, The Ugly and The Stupid.

First The Bad. That’s the system of higher education. A student has absolutely no say in which book to purchase, so right there goes a big obstacle to the free exchange of money for goods. At most Universities, the professor, or a committee of professors, selects a book according to the content of the course and the perceived needs of the students. Much of the time in the lower level classes it’s an uninspired, if not downright stupid, choice. What else would you expect from a committee? Usually the last thing on the minds of that committee is value for money. So every prof who wants to whine about the cost of textbooks needs to examine what criteria he or she brought into the selection committee. I have a question for you Chemistry profs. Did you pick an over-priced textbook with pretty pictures to distract the kids while you weed them out of the pre-med or pre-Engineering programs?

Here’s some words from an author of a Geoscience text on this process:

Considering everything I have heard and read about the quality of science education, I thought it might be useful to provide an author’s perspective on why textbooks are the way they are. My experience is best described as ten years of unremitting pressure to dumb down the text, and most of it came, sadly, not from corporate “suits” looking at the bottom line, but from people who style themselves educators.

And the editors and publishers are acutely sensitive to the push to dumb down the texts, after all they have a business to run, so they keep track of their customers:

The paranoia I encountered over perceptions of difficulty often was ludicrous. I had a diagram of the crustal abundances of the eight most abundant elements, with a blowup showing the next dozen or so. The blowup was deleted. There was no constructive reason for doing so, except that it made the illustration “simpler” and presumably less threatening to students. Similarly, I lost a battle to include a box listing the modern soil orders. The box would have been marginal material to be included or not as the instructor chose, but it created too much perception of difficulty.

Surely the most bizarre incident came as I was writing the preface. I noted that many students collect disconnected tidbits of fact like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Modern Major General. That reference caused ripples of concern among the editors that it might go over students’ heads. I argued that students do not read prefaces, and even instructors rarely do. I wouldn’t have been reading the Preface myself if I hadn’t been writing it. I held one last argument in reserve. There is a cartoon show called Animaniacs that does a parody called I am the Very Model of a Cartoon Individual. We were perilously close to going on public record as demanding a lower level of literacy than Saturday morning cartoons. Fortunately, the preface stood as written.

Emphasis mine. Need I say more? We, the Ph.D.s who teach and administer (especially the latter) higher education in this country, stand guilty of watering down the curriculum. And watering down costs money. Perfectly good books of decades past are deemed useless because we want to pander to the students. The Moebius Stripper has noted how the math texts of today don’t measure up to those of previous generations. And I believe her. So take the “improved pedagogy” argument for new editions of books for subjects such as calculus and stick it where the sun don’t shine. The textbook authors of the 60s were no less creative than those of today, and the content for the basics in science and math has not really changed, with the exception of biology. Looking at the results of all this study of pedagogy over the last few decades, I’m inclined to assert that the Emperor has no clothes. At least in Chemistry, I’m aware of no great breakthrough in teaching theory over the past 30 years that allows us to get the basics into kids’ heads more efficiently. The only pedagogical outcome I see in Chemistry is books that take longer to say less than my AP Chemistry text from high school. I’m going to come back to this observation again and again, but our students seem to be paying more to learn less.

After selecting an over-priced, watered-down textbook, the Universities and Community Colleges that employ adjuncts to teach service courses are hitting up the textbook companies for instructional materials either because they are tired of students with a prof who actually has standards whining that the other section had an easier prof, and so want standardized lectures and tests, or because they’re hiring adjuncts with uncertain teaching backgrounds. Take a look at one of the comments on the Inside Higher Ed article from someone allegedly on the inside of the industry:

Schools and professors currently expect publishers to supply support packages for every teacher that uses a textbook which has been adopted. Depending on the textbook subject, the packages these teachers demand can be extensive; videos, computerized test banks that can generate algorithmic tests, course manuals, full PowerPoint lectures for professors to use in class, not to mention cartridges of digitized content that can be loaded into a myriad of different online teaching platforms in use at the school(s). Extensive packages for Chemistry, Math, Accounting, Modern Languages, Psychology, Biology (to name only a few) can cost a publisher millions of dollars to develop. Again, professors and schools EXPECT these materials and packages for free. Of course part of what fuels this expectation and desire from the schools is the fact that many of these course sections are taught by adjuncts hired at the last minute who have little time to prepare their own lectures, tests, etc… particularly at the community college level where many of these introductory level courses with large support packages are demanded by the teachers who select the textbooks. This may be why student textbook costs at the 2-year college level are more expensive than the costs reported for 4-year colleges and universities where more upper-level courses with smaller support packages taught by tenured professors are typically found.

I was already aware of the comped copies of the text sent to professors and TAs. When I was a TA ,we each got a copy of the crappy text that Big U was using. Four profs and over 30 TAs, plus office copies, etc, is a lot of free books. But that’s peanuts compared to the cost of developing the lecture course in addition to the book. I’m still reeling from the comment above. If it is even remotely close to describing reality, it goes a long way towards describing the disaster in higher education I see all around me. As bad as the profs teaching my lectures for my 1992 recitation and lab sections were, at least they wrote their own tests. What’s happened in the intervening decade? Computerized test banks? The hell? Why exactly do we need a prof, then? Just use a TA or videotaped lectures. That would be cheaper. Not that the profs I TAed for were great: I could teach better than most of the bozos at Big U who were so politically inept or bereft of grant money that they got stuck with frosh chem. In all fairness, that’s not a great reflection on my teaching ability: a capuchin monkey would not have been much worse than some of them. But even those guys were live and in person. I can’t imagine how bad canned lectures and videos are for getting across complex concepts. A professor who knows the material yet still believes that these things really add value has probably been imported from the bearded Spock universe.

Inept teachers aren’t the only bad actors, here, though. Some of the bad actions stem from laziness. I do not see on the professorial side, especially from profs in the technical disciplines, a consideration of students on the order of another of the commenters in the Inside Higher Ed Article:

On a more positive note, I have taken several steps to work with my students on holding the line on textbook prices. First, I’ve sought out low cost editions for a World Civ course I teach. I replaced a $90 book for one that retails for 29.95 new and $22.50 used. There were no substantial differences between the old and new text. I’m planning on doing the same for Western Civ. Second, I also take the time to search the field for texts and now make sure I know what one costs before assigning it. My Modern European Military History course is using two of Jeremy Black’s books this semester, which Indiana University Press offered us for $10 each new instead of a D.C. Heath pair of books that retailed for nearly $100 each. It took a little time, but it also allowed me to assign a few other books that students interested in the subject are likely to keep in their libraries.

— Tim Saxon, Liberty University

I rag on the humanities departments a lot on the ‘ol blog, and deservedly so. But this is one area where they’ve got the technical disciplines beat, hands down. Most of my graduate Slavic Literature and Slavic Linguistics classes took fair use selections from old books and bound them at the University Copy Center. I usually had four or five books per class, only about one or two of which were traditionally published books, and most of the new texts came from Slavica, and were pretty reasonably priced, even new. The first person who comments that there aren’t good technical books in that price range is going to get whacked upside the head with my Dover editions of Fourier Transforms, Quantum Mechanics, Introduction to Modern Optics, and Problems and Solutions in Quantum Chemistry and Physics. None of which cost me over $20. And how many of you techie profs have bugged your University Press to publish a lower-level basic science text instead of one more volume of the crap spewed by the post-modernists in your humanities departments? Willing to take some time to write that text? No? Why not? Oh, yeah, I forgot, you were hired to do research, not teach.

Then there are the results of laziness that put pressure on students to buy the new, higher-priced texts. How many profs at big state universities just assign problem numbers from the texts in lower level classes, not bothering to write their own sets? How much pressure does that put on students to buy the current edition? Problem sets are the first things changed in a new edition for just this reason. And how many profs or committees don’t release the title or edition of the text to the students until just before classes begin? So students like a friend of mine in part-time b-school bite their nails waiting for Amazon to check their stock and deliver a used book because they couldn’t order the book until the week before classes begin.

Before a prof earns the right to complain about text prices to me, I want to know how much effort he or she has put into making this purchase decision a bit closer to a free market exercise for the student. So much for The Bad.

Now to The Ugly. That’s the publishing industry. They make a big deal about the tragedy of the commons associated with used book sales. More on that in The Stupid, but if the comment I cited above is correct, there’s a bit of the tragedy of the commons with respect to publishers providing all that free content to Community Colleges and State Universities, all the while passing the cost onto the student, who is allegedly already paying the University good money to provide an ept instructor. Any push back from the Industry? Or is that free content a nice bribe for adopting the text?

The GAO report on this issue cites the industry line that they are providing additional value in the accessory CD ROMs and other excess garbage bundled with text books. Speaking as am ex-teacher, this crap adds little value, and may actually subtract value by distracting students from traditional study time that is more effective in helping to master the material. It’s certainly not worth inflating textbook prices at 1.5 times (or higher) the rate of inflation on other goods. That’s a smokescreen, and it’s insulting my intelligence to put that forward as a reason for high prices.

The publishing industry makes a lot of noise in its own defense, but I get the feeling that there are some things they are not telling us. Take, for example, the graphic that the industry put out to explain the economics of this market. They published it here. According to this graphic, only 57.7 cents on the dollar is publisher’s cost and 7 cents is profit, giving about an 11% profit margin. That margin’s a little low, and I suspect this graphic was averaged across all texts and not weighted for volume. But that’s a minor quibble. My major quibble is the money that allegedly goes to the campus bookstore. I’m sure it does, but I really want to know if there are kickbacks or differential pricing used with non-university bookstore outlets. I ask this because the prices for books at Amazon do not differ appreciably from campus bookstore prices. Amazon has a lean business model, much leaner than the campus bookstores. How is it that they can regularly offer 10 – 15% discounts on other books, but the discount on the Silberberg chemistry text I called my local Uni about was only ~$2.50 on a $196 bundle? Sounds like Amazon’s acquisition costs on texts are higher than for other books. Why?

To be fair, the allegations of extreme price gouging are not borne out by the financial numbers. I picked McGraw Hill as an example, and checked out their annual report. You can find it in pdf form here. The educational segment of the company has shown a pretty flat profit margins over the last 3 years, holding steady at 14%. That’s more than the 11% you get from the industry graphic, but maybe McGraw Hill is just a more efficient publisher. According to Business Week, the average profit margin for non-financial corporations in 2004 was 12-13%. I certainly don’t call a 1-2 % lead over the average return an excessive profit, especially when the financial publishing unit of McGraw Hill (under the Standard and Poors brand) showed a 40% profit margin. Push the profit margins on the educational sector down too far, and the Suits in corporate are going to want to get out of the sector entirely. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing in the long run, but it’ll hurt in the short term, especially community college students. So much for The Ugly.

Now for The Stupid. The conventional argument is that high new book prices are a result of the tragedy of the commons – students sell their books and undercut the new book market, so new book process go up to make back the investment in the first semester or two before used books eat up the market. That boggles my mind, because I’ve still got every college textbook I ever bought, minus one or two I lost in a flood. Who the hell is selling back so many books? And why are they taking classes that require books that won’t be used as a reference later? Well, the blame for some of that goes back to The Bad – college administrators who have pre-reqs that are pretty useless to the later field of study. But that’s only a small part of the problem. Most of it is that students don’t value their own education, and sell back nearly all of their books. So in many ways, including this one, they pay more to learn poorly. See, there’s my leitmotif again.

Now both the anonymous commenter at Inside Higher Ed and Prof. Dutch both cited the requirement to make up the cost of the book in a semester or two. Ernie wondered in his comments about the veracity of that statement, and the lack of data to support it. I’m not surprised about the lack of data – most industries don’t give out a lot of supporting data for their pricing regimes, for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. Among the not-so-obvious is that third parties often compile and sell market research, and demand that the purchasers of that data not share it publicly. So industry insiders and textbook authors may be privy to information like this that they can not share. Guess what? There’s a company that does just this kind of work for the college textbook industry, MIR.

Right now MIR has a sample 2003 academic year national report up for Chemistry, but about a month ago the sample report covered Advanced Accounting, so I can’t guarantee what you’ll see when you click over. The Chemistry report is interesting, though, so I’ll excerpt some of it for posterity. First off, the books in the sample report do not cover real College Chemistry, but a rather are reviews of high school chemistry. These are books to be used to teach kids what they should have learned in high school. So every dollar spent on these is spent because students were either too unmotivated to pursue their high school studies properly, or because the students were under-served by their high school programs. I taught out of one of these books (Ebbing***) for a few semesters, and in my experience, there was about a 50/50 split of poor preparation and poor motivation in the student body. So they had to retake high school chemistry and pay for their own books this time around. Once again, paying more to learn less. At least less than I did in high school.

The top three sellers in this high-school Chemistry review market by new book volume sold 3204 (Peters****), 2499 (Stoker), and 2100 (Russo) new copies, respectively. Their publication dates were 1998, 2002, and 2002 respectively (remember this is 2003 academic year data). Interestingly enough, the MIR data also tracks used book sales, although I suspect they miss some channels such as student co-ops and direct sales from student to student. Looking at the two 2002 books, the used book market share was 47% and 42%. So within a year of publication, almost half of sales disappear to used books. The 2003 academic year number two seller in terms of dollars was Corwin’s 2001 book. It sold 548 new copies in 2003, but 3041 used copies were tracked by MIR. That’s an 85% used book market share within 2 years. 548 copies won’t even cover the cost of a production run. So, while I don’t have any privy insider information to share, I’d say that the information that is publicly available tends to favor the industry line: most sales are made in the first semester of release, and within two years there aren’t enough sales to cover costs to issue a reprint of an old edition. So student behavior is responsible for a lot of the inflation in textbook prices.

This makes me want to ream students out on the order of my Letter From A TA. Permit me to address any students reading this directly:

You know what? Every time you complain to professors such as Becky Hirta or the Moebius Stripper that the problem on the test was not just like the ones you did in the chapter examples, you are adding to the cost of your books. Publishers are only too happy to re-issue a new edition with even smaller spoonfuls to pander to your whining. Every time you want a chapter explaining how to plug an equation into your graphing calculator, you are asking TI to add a couple of bucks in royalties to the cost of your book. Either you digest the material yourself, or you pay for someone else to digest it. What are you, a bird? I’m not your Pop with a pre-digested caterpillar, I’m your Chemistry teacher. Think for yourself, damn it, and use the text as it should be used: as a springboard to learning. Each time we water down the textbooks, it’s another layer of revision costs the publishers are going to pass on to you. And you deserve to take the hit.

So, $850 per year in texts, huh? That’s a hardship to build your professional library? Really? Sell back the useless non-major texts, and it’s probably down to a $750 outlay, but still, that works out to a little under $27 per week of two fourteen-week semesters. How much do you spend per week on beer and pizza? Oh, but you say you bounced around in college for six years with three different, completely unrelated, majors, so you’ve either collected a lot of useless books or sold them at a huge loss. Sorry dude, stupidity’s supposed to be painful. You know what we called fifth year students at my institution? Super seniors. Said with scorn. And I only knew two of them out of over 1300 students – one got sick and missed half his sophomore year, and one blew out his knee jumping out of a chopper in summer ROTC training. Want to find yourself? Join the Marines or the Peace Corps. Come to college when you’re serious about your studies and those texts will be the foundation of your personal, professional library. Otherwise, you are pissing in the pot by reselling your books. Like Ernie said to me in his comments:

Oh, right. I forgot. Most students don’t find books useful.

That’s depressing.

OK. Enough of The Stupid.

One of the lines I’ve seen repeated in the media is that we in the US pay twice as much as students in the UK for the same book, because the market is freer there. This is supposedly due to the influence of lots of little publishers offering substitutes. So let’s look some popular general texts in the US, and see how the prices of the UK editions compare. Starting with Brown, LeMay and Bursten, which retails at Amazon for $148, I found that Amazon.uk retails the hardcover for £89.99, which, at today’s exchange rate is $168. McMurray and Fay is a classic text, which retails at $141 US; available in the UK as a paperback for £49.93, or $92. Raymond Chang writes a popular text, but the editions don’t match in the US and UK: a fourth edition hardback goes for $106 in the US, and an eighth edition paperback ISE edition goes for £39.99 (~$74 USD). Ebbing’s book, which is the worst general chemistry textbook on the face of the earth (barring some old Soviet ones), goes for an astronomical $138 at the US Amazon site, and £34.95 in the UK (~$63.79 US). Ebbing was the only text I could find with a 50% difference between US and UK prices, and it’s a rip-off even at the UK price. I’d pay you money to take my (hardback) edition away.

Student groups make a big deal out of this US / UK price disparity.

Textbook publishers charge American students more than students overseas for the same textbooks.

· The average textbook surveyed costs 20 percent more in the United States than it does in the United Kingdom.

But I don’t see any serious economic analysis, when this issue comes up, especially considering the fact that analyses are generally comparing hardbacks to paperbacks in most of the examples. Every global company in the world adjusts its local prices and product mix to the local earning power. Earnings are lower in the UK than the US. The median income in the UK is approximately $32,000, and the median income in the US is approximately $44,500. That’s a big difference (more than the 20% average difference in textbook cost) that may partially for the price discrepancy.

But income differences are not the whole story. We in the US often wind up subsidizing costs in the rest of the world, and I found that this market is no different. I ran across an interesting acronym here when comparing Raymond Chang’s Chemistry (8th edition), which sells for $129.44 hardback in the US vs. $72.99 softback in the UK as an ISE edition. Just what the heck is an ISE? :

Jones and Bartlett is proud to support students worldwide with our International Student Edition (ISE) Program, a program of low-cost textbooks for students and professionals in overseas markets. Special ISE pricing is available on many of our titles.


So we US students are subsidizing wankers in the UK and Western Europe who are buying these low-cost ISE textbooks. Since when is the UK a third world country (except maybe in healthcare)? An ISE in India makes sense, but in the UK?

I also went to one of the sites of a “small” UK publisher that competes with the McGraw Hills of the world: Oxford University Press. They print Oxford Professor Peter Atkins’s Physical Chemistry, the text I used as an undergrad. They sell the paperback eighth edition at £39.99 ($74 US), while the hardback goes for $113 in the US. They also print another big seller in P-Chem, Berry, Rice and Ross’s Physical Chemistry, at £65 in hardback, or $120 US. Amazon does not carry this book, but OUP USA will sell it to you for $124. So I take some issue with the assertion that smaller houses are the main reason that texts are so cheap in the UK. Hardbacks from them seem to be at the same or higher prices.

One issue I have not seen discussed is that there seems to be a culture in the UK that accepts paperbacks. Paperback editions anywhere in the world tend to be much cheaper than their hardback counterparts. I don’t know if this reflects true materials, printing, and shipping costs, or if it’s a psychological artifact in the marketplace. I never minded buying paperbacks as an undergrad. A few of my most cherished reference books are paperbacks. Every chemist I know has a paperback copy of Greenwood and Earnshaw’s “Chemistry of the Elements”. It is 1543 pages of rich, heavy, metallic (and heavy metallic) goodness, which cost me about $60 or $70 in 1989. Today’s price? Exactly $99.95 at Amazon. Even if it only cost me $60 (I seem to remember it cost more than that, though), the price has just about kept pace with inflation ($60 1989 dollars is $94 2005 dollars). I’d say that $100 is a hell of a bargain for all the information in this text.

There are four factors that seem to be in play with this book: one, it is paperback; two, the paper is not as thick and heavy as normal US textbooks; three there are no, count them zip, nada color illustrations; four, there have only been two editions, one in 1984 (my book), and the second edition in 1997. The troubling thing to me was that Elsevier’s website shows a price that agrees exactly with Amazon’s. So once again, I doubt that little graphic the industry puts out. Why can’t Amazon acquire and sell for less than campus bookstores? Might it be because textbook publishers refuse to give them the volume discounts that publishers of other books do?

But in reading the GAO report a little more closely, I found another little quote that seems to have been missed by a lot of the pontificators who opine on the US / UK price disparity:

… publishers told us that even though average income levels are high in the United Kingdom, textbooks tend to sell for lower prices than in the United States because the demand for textbooks is lower. Specifically, they said that instructors in the United Kingdom are more likely to recommend several textbooks for students to consider, rather than requiring a specific textbook. Additionally, publishers told us that there is less demand for electronic and print supplements to support teaching and learning in non-U.S. markets.

Emphasis mine. What a concept! No required books. Just suggestions. That’s a nice way to bring this purchase decision closer to the free market ideal. But then professors couldn’t just point a student to page 59 for an explanation or sample problem, they’d have to do a bit more work. And no more problem sets composed of problem numbers from the end-of-chapter exercises.

So, as I stated at the outset, this problem has multiple roots, and a solution will require multiple remedies. First, publishers can come clean about their pricing and offer Amazon a discount or make a clear explanation as to why their pricing practices are not propping up the traditional campus bookstore system. They can demand that Universities pay for computerized lessons and test banks, rather than using the extra materials as a bribe for text adoption and passing that cost onto the student through the book price. The student is paying good money for an adequate instructor, and publishers are aiding and abetting in the unethical practices of diploma mills. And students at non-diploma mills are subsidizing their lesser-prepared counterparts. The Publishing Industry can also stop bundling extraneous crap with the books if they want some friends in Academia.

Second, you professors can reveal the required texts well in advance of the semester start so that students can shop around. You can also demand softback books before a commitment is made to purchase a text. Those books are already printed for the ex-US market. If the big houses balk, you can pressure the University Presses of the world to compete. Failing that, I have a suggestion in Chemistry. Dover publishes a lovely “little” General Chemistry text (992 pages) by a Nobel Laureate, Linus Pauling. Now I realize that Linus probably actually expected his readers to know a little math, so expect some bitching from your less numerate students (in many cases that means all of them). There might even be a fact or two that needs updating, but I doubt it. All those biochemistry sections in the new books just take away space that could be devoted to the basics. If you want to enrich the text, well, that is why they invented the Internet. But the text costs $19.95. Less than twenty bucks to learn from a Nobel Laureate. Your students would be getting a bargain. But your administration would have to grow a pair and back you up, too, because that text is not for whiners. Or, if you are a good teacher and don’t completely base your course content around a specific textbook, you could ask your administration to grow an even bigger pair and go with the “suggested books” model of the UK. Heck, what do you have tenure for? Go ask.

Third, you students need to look long and hard at your behavior. How much has not valuing your own education (in the form of re-selling potentially useful reference books, especially because you are taking the easiest elective, rather than the most useful one) contributed to your own predicament? And how much have you whined that the texts didn’t explain how to do every problem in the course of the chapter text, leading to more and more watered down revisions? Pandering costs money, guys: money for new editions to water down the material, money for fancy color photographs and ancillary online skill builders that do nothing for you if you haven’t spent some time with good old pencil and paper. Pay up in dollars or pay up in skull sweat.

* My college general chemistry text sucked, I much preferred my High School AP text. I only used the damn Gen Chem text for two quarters of Honors before taking Analytical, so I thought the $50 bucks was a rip-off at the time. Hah. What did I know?

** I wound up just using my sneakers on the SSO and buying a pair of Army officer’s boots from him instead. Actually, I bought the whole uniform, and damn is that greatcoat warm.

*** This is the absolute worst book I have ever come in contact with for General Chemistry. I can’t believe that Amazon is charging $138 for that piece of junk. I fully concur with the lone reviewer:

As a physical science major, I consider the book to be worst than mediocre. It is way too “general”, basically giving worded explanations rather than applied concepts and clear diagrams. Some of the topics are very vague and you are left more confused than ever. I supplement my studying with a McMurray and Fay textbook which is 10 years old and I acquired for 25 cents, and it is even better than this trash of a book.

Yep. That’s good old Ebbing. Students went to the clue booth with $80 (in 1998) and came back with no money and no clues. So some faculty committee somewhere in California came to the conclusion that his drivel is worth spending $138 on? Well, it’s not their money, is it? They got comped a book. I got comped an Ebbing book because I was TAing a class that used his book. No way I would have wasted my stipend money on that crap.

**** The Peters book was interesting. Despite a 1998 publication date, it had a 0.2% used book market share. Why? It’s a “Flexitext”, meaning it’s not bound. All the pages come loose and 3-hole punched, and the book itself is a 3 ring binder. Ostensibly that’s to give the professors the option of moving the chapters around to meet their own preferred order of topics. I suspect in reality it’s a clever way of keeping down used book sales: how does a bookstore know if a student reselling the book has lost a few pages? Are they going to check each book? Probably not, so I suspect a lot of campus bookstores refused to buy this one back.

2 thoughts on “With Apologies to Sergio Leone”

  1. I enjoyed your post. Problems in the humanities are different, but ways in which the textbooks have been increasingly dumbed down and the prices have risen is similar.

  2. John Jay,

    I want to thank you for this (as I said above) and make some less scholarly observations.

    A) I’ve been too lazy to do much lately but that is because we have been organizing a conference. I might point out that that is one nice thing textbook people do – they pay for coffee break goodies, pay for putting up tables on which they can sell their wares, and in general help make such conferences work. Of course, I have doubts that this conference is necessary nor that our students should have to pay for it.

    B) Our college is small and low level – so, we teach several classes, have adjunct teachers, etc. That means we want relatively accessible texts & do common course adoption. That makes us a real plum and, having been on textbook committees a few times lately, it also means some good restaurant meals & cute little trinkets. But I think all of us would trade those steak meals for not having to man those committees so often.

    C) Because of the nature of our school, we look for the longest dates between publication that a publisher can guarantee. These seem to be getting shorter and shorter.

    Part of the reason we do B&C is ease for the teacher, but another reason is that we hope that will keep costs down (more used books, of course, but also more flexibility when they add late, etc. and, we hope, we can leverage a better deal in general costs.) It would seem that there would be less wasted time & effort by the publishers if they kept those old editions. But it is hard not to suspect that the reason we have these committees so often is because the textbook publishers would prefer to have new ones for the sake of new ones. It isn’t like World Lit or pre-Romantic Brit lit or pre-Reconstruction American lit is going to change all that much. (Okay, Edward Taylor was a new find in the last decades, but he could still have been fairly easily accommodated with a new edition every decade or two.) The most trendy ones are full of the most crap – and aren’t very secure in their choices. Those are the ones that are quite different every few years. The handbooks to lit are similar – like iambic pentameter is going to need a different definition every five years?

    The most trendy and least rigorous texts are those for rhetoric and comp. They also are the most useless. In the end, they are not always all that helpful at teaching people to write. I was on the committee that chose a classic anthology of really great creative non-fiction. (I posted about it a while ago.) This was exchanged for one that has mainly editorials from newspapers. The writing isn’t terrible, but it certainly isn’t great. Sure, it is easier for our students to read and may be closer to their level to imitate, but it seems to me counterproductive – the students don’t see the best, they aren’t moved as much. I know, your experience in chemistry is different and the liberal arts & sciences are different, but I suspect there are similar pressures at work – and many of them are not to make for better educated students.

    Another problem:
    This is one with which I’ve had some unfortunate experience in my copy shop and my husband is now on the faculty senate committee which is supposed to come up with some policing: that is the assigning of one’s own textbooks in class, the assigning of one’s notes at a copy shop (and requesting from that copy shop a remuneration). Actually, in my case, a couple of the accounting profs. cut up the tax code, required their students to buy their cut and paste version, and wanted a pretty healthy reimbursement per copy sold. I actually turned down the job after we’d done it a couple of times and I saw what was going on. On the other hand, surely people should not be required to use some other textbook than their own because they would get royalties. (Around here some people provided that the royalties go into scholarships from those sold on this campus; they got the full profit, of course, from those sold on other’s.) I don’t know how you feel about this, but it is a pretty murky area.

    Finally, clear off the subject: When I began college, we had two semesters of freshman English in which we read great literature and wrote regular – almost weekly – papers; liberal arts majors then needed to take another two courses. The two flagship research universities in our state have lowered that requirement: a large percentage of those who can get in to these schools place out of freshman English and never have to take an English class. Both of my daughters, with multiple liberal arts degrees never took an English class – and I can assure you that they have become, though through the reading a liberal arts student does, they have become better writers, they weren’t when they placed out of freshman English.

    Our students, who want to go to those schools, and are even less prepared do not want to take freshman comp. They still have to do so, but more of them are opting out of the second freshman writing course which is also an introduction to literature. Our school is expanding and the number of sections of lit is declining. And our students go out into the real world and the first thing that employers say is that they don’t read closely and they don’t write well.

    This whole thing is going to have to come to a stop some time, but I’m not sure when. English departments resist what they call “service” courses – the big surveys but especially the freshman writing ones. It is true, it is harder to get a book out every couple of years and teach many freshmen sections (not that many do).

    Well, I have dragged these comments over to liberal arts and away from the more tightly focused and reasoned work you did on texts. Of course, beyond the lower level courses I teach and at schools without common course adoption, you can find some relatively inexpensive course book selections – some really great lit is in Dover $1.00 editions. Actually, I suspect the books get cheaper the farther up your classes are. In that way we are really different from you guys. (I remember when I still ran my business the costs of some of my worker’s books – for instance, the grad level entomology books. I sure was glad my kids were going into the liberal arts.)

Comments are closed.