Guest Post: Marc Sher on the Nonprofit Textbook Movement].
Here's what he says ...
The textbook publishers’ price-gouging monopoly may be ending.Now, I usually think of myself as a socialist, so it's a little uncomfortable for me to be defending capitalism, but here goes.
For decades, college students have been exploited by publishers of introductory textbooks. The publishers charge about $200 for a textbook, and then every 3-4 years they make some minor cosmetic changes, reorder some of the problems, add a few new problems, and call it a “new edition”. They then take the previous edition out of print. The purpose, of course, is to destroy the used book market and to continue charging students exorbitant amounts of money.
Large textbooks publishing companies are usually listed on the major stock exchanges so their balance sheets are readily available to those who want to look. The industry is competitive. The profit margins are almost certainly within the range you might expect for such companies. Some of these companies lose money and some have gone bankrupt or been bought up by competitors. It's unreasonable to assume that textbook publishing companies are making huge excess profits by gouging students. It's unreasonable to assume that they are charging "exorbitant" amounts of money. It's downright stupid to imply that any company has a monopoly of introductory physics textbooks, or introductory biochemistry textbooks.
My textbook is on a five year cycle (approximately). The publisher (Pearson/Prentice Hall) has never pressured me to produce a new edition—it's always been the author's call. The last edition of my book (5th) was published last August and I worked on it for two years devoting about 50% of my time to that task. The changes in the new edition were not just "minor cosmetic changes" and adding new problems was not a motive.2
The changes in my book were necessary because of new information and new technologies that have to be incorporated and new perspectives on fundamental principles and concepts that need to be taken into account. Some material was deleted. I also took note of new ways of presenting information and tried to make the book more appealing to students.
Yes, it's true that I will make more money on royalties with a new edition and it's true that the publisher will make a few percent profit on new sales. That's a nice side benefit but the main motivation for authors is to make a better textbook, something that I can continue to be proud of.
Let's think about the cost of a textbook. My book sells on Amazon.com for $140.56. It's probably more expensive in university bookstores but I can't confirm that because my university bookstore doesn't carry my book.
You can find copies of my book online at other bookstores for about $100 plus shipping and handling. That gives you a clue about the wholesale price—the price charged by the publishers. Let's assume that it's $100. The difference between this wholesale price and the retail price is money that goes to the retailers, not the publishers. This is just common sense. Anyone who understands how the capitalist system works should be able to figure this out.3
Let's assume that a typical high quality textbook for an introductory course sells for $100 when you buy it wholesale from the publisher. Let's assume that the publisher makes about 5% profit—probably too high, but it will do for my purpose. That means that it costs about $95 to produce the textbook and pay royalties to the authors.
How are you going to make cheaper textbooks for students? This is where a nonprofit group called OpenStax College enters the picture. This organization is distributing free high quality textbooks online. If you want to buy a copy, they will only charge what it costs to produce it (about $40). What about the other costs that make up the difference between the production costs of a major for-profit company and OpenStax College (95 - 40 = $55)? Who pays for that if it's not the students?
Bill & Melinda Gates, William & Flora Hewlett, and several others pay for it, according to the OpenStax College website.
Are you asking yourself, “Hey, what’s the catch?” There is actually no catch. We are a nonprofit organization supported by a bunch of really big foundations that are tired of the status quo for textbooks in higher education. These foundations, with the support of a dedicated team of professionals and community folks just like you, have come together to make a suite of really great, very free textbooks.Isn't that cool? A bunch of nonprofit foundations are going to cover the cost of textbooks. Presumably, all the people responsible for producing the book (authors, artists, editors, scientific reviewers, proofreaders, administrators, permission researchers, website developers, systems managers etc.) are still going to be paid decent wages. The only losers are the students who work in the bookstores, the truck drivers, and a few shareholders.
What could possibly go wrong? As Marc Sher says, ...
The monopoly may be ending, and students could save billions of dollars. For decades, the outrageous practices of textbook publishers have not been challenged by serious competition. This is serious competition. OpenStax College as a nonprofit and foundation supported entity does not have a sales force, so word of mouth is the way to go: Tell everyone!
1. It's worth keeping in mind that the parent company of Discover is a for-profit company.
2. I spend hours and hours on the problem & solutions but, quite frankly, I never use them when I'm teaching and neither do most of my colleagues.
3. Are you surprised that your university bookstore has such a mark-up? Why? Did you think that all those people working in the bookstore were volunteers? Did you think that the electricity companies and gas companies donated free electricity and gas to the bookstore? Did you think that all the repairs and maintenance to the bookstore were done by public-spirited workers who donated their time in the evenings and on weekends? Did you think that university bookstores don't have to pay taxes? And what about the truck drivers who delivered the textbooks? Did you think they were independently wealthy men and women who were just doing this as a hobby and didn't have to worry about supporting their families?