Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Free/Cheap Textbooks for Students

Sean Caroll, the physicist, has a blog called Cosmic Variance on the Discover Magazine website.1

Yesterday Sean posted an article by a guest blogger, Marc Sher, a physicist who teaches introductory physics at the College of William and Mary. Marc Sher is promoting something called the nonprofit textbook movement [Guest Post: Marc Sher on the Nonprofit Textbook Movement].

Here's what he says ...
The textbook publishers’ price-gouging monopoly may be ending.

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.
Now, I usually think of myself as a socialist, so it's a little uncomfortable for me to be defending capitalism, but here goes.

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?


26 comments :

  1. This ends at "so here goes." Is that the end of this article? I'm confused...

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  2. Now I usually think of myself as a socialist so it's a little uncomfortable for me to be defending capitalism, but here goes.

    That is actually very typical of socialists. They are socialists with other peoples' money and capitalists when it comes to their self-interests. Bertolt Brecht is a celebrated example.

    Somewhat related: as far as teaching goes, computers are doing as well as professors.

    http://www.sr.ithaka.org/research-publications/interactive-learning-online-public-universities-evidence-randomized-trials

    It may of course mean that computers are just as bad but at least computers are a lot cheaper.

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  3. OpenStax isn't the only low/no cost textbook attempt out there; wikipedia has a similar initiative to produce free e-textbooks. I cannot speak to the quality of the wikibooks attempt in my own field, as the "book" is essentially an outline at this point, but a minimal reading of a completed book (i.e. human physiology) pints a picture of detailed, but often poorly-written and poorly-illustrated texts.

    Part of me hopes that one of these models may be successful - not because I'm anti-capitalism, but rather because of the limited options in many fields. In my field (Immunology) there are two main options for undergrad texts; both a pricey (although, as Larry points out, probably not over-priced), and both retain the 1980s-esque bias towards the adaptive component of immunity, leaving an instructor trying to teach a balanced view of the immune system (i.e. myself) in a bit of a pickle. At least with wikibooks you can generate a "custom" book containing those sections you want - potentially created a better book for a particular course.

    There is no question that the publishing field is undergoing a lot of change - I hope when things settle that we're in a better place...

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  4. That is actually very typical of socialists. They are socialists with other peoples' money and capitalists when it comes to their self-interests

    Why is that relevant? I'd be delighted if the American government would nationalize a major textbook publishing company and give away all their textbooks for free, provided, of course, that it's my publisher that stays in business! :-)

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    1. Would you be similarly delighted to find out that your publisher stayed in business but decided not to offer remuneration to the authors? (I have not been in your position, so it's only a guess but, personally, I think/hope that I would.)

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    2. No, I wouldn't give up two years of my life and thousands of dollars in expenses unless I got some money for it.

      I use the money that's left over to pay for trips to conferences.

      Why are you asking that question? Is there a point you're trying to make?

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    3. Merely commenting on socialist hypocrisy. The point that you brought up yourself by juxtaposing your socialist beliefs and desire to have the fruits of *your* labor to be valued by the market.

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    4. No, that's not what I meant at all. What I meant was that you have to understand how the system works before you can offer valid criticism.

      Marc Sher demonstrates a remarkable ignorance about how publishing companies work and I thought it was necessary to correct his naive misconceptions even though I'd prefer another system.

      I'd love to live in a society where you, as a taxpayer, gave science writers a decent salary (and expenses) to write free textbooks for students. I'd also like you to pay the salaries of all the workers who contribute to the production of those books and all the workers who distribute them and advertise their existence.

      Judging by the tone of your criticism, you'd be more than willing to pay more taxes to help out the students, right?

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    5. I'd love to live in a society where you, as a taxpayer, gave science writers a decent salary (and expenses) to write free textbooks for students.

      But according to you, you already live in almost such a society! Let's recall (paraphrasing but I can specific quotes if needed):

      - You said that "scholarship" is the most important job of professor (more than teaching, at least; and you implied that this is the way it should be).

      - You said that for your own scholarship, you opted for it to take a form of writing textbooks.

      Ergo - Canadian taxpayers gave you a decent salary to write textbooks. Only thing is, they end up paying twice for them.

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    6. Oh, forgot this:

      Judging by the tone of your criticism, you'd be more than willing to pay more taxes to help out the students, right?

      Yes, absolutely. Just not to the students under current system. Also, I am not criticizing you. I see nothing wrong that you've done within the existing system.

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    7. Ergo - Canadian taxpayers gave you a decent salary to write textbooks. Only thing is, they end up paying twice for them.

      The situation is much more complicated than you imagine and I really don't want to get into a discussion about my personal finances. However, it's not true that professors who choose to focus on pedagogy are going to get the same salary and salary increases as those who run research labs.

      Furthermore, there are considerable expenses associated with writing textbooks and the university does not pay for any of those. I need another source of income or the money will come out of my salary. Like every other professor, I need office furniture, computers, printers, supplies, software, journal subscriptions, and trips to conferences and meetings. Usually you can pay for those out of a research grant—the university certainly doesn't cover those expenses.

      But people like me have other expenses as well. For example, I spend more than $1500 per year on textbooks and other books. (One reason why I wish textbooks were cheaper!)

      With rare exceptions, you cannot make a living writing textbooks. Carl Zimmer will confirm this.

      But why pick on me? There are thousands of professors who make tons of money consulting and even owning their own companies. English professors publish best-selling novels, history professors write trade books about history, music professors perform at major concerts. art professors sell things, chemistry professors own lucrative patents. And let's not even think about professors in business schools, or law professors.

      Their extra incomes make my meager royalties look like small change.

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    8. I am not picking on you. I've said it before in comments here and I only repeat it now - all these thousands of professors should not be charging taxpayers twice and trice. The only reason this system exists is because universities are run by professors for the benefit of professors.

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    9. OK, now I get it. You won't listen to anything I have to say because you have a big chip on your shoulder.

      I assume you don't hava a problem with professors at private schools, right?

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    10. Oh no, I listen attentively to what you are saying.

      I would not if they were truly not supported by taxpayers. In reality, they are. Massively. Take out federal and state grants and research at all private universities crumbles instantly.

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  5. Now, I usually think of myself as a socialist, so it's a little uncomfortable for me to be defending capitalism, but here goes.

    I don't think of them as being mutually exclusive.

    It's possible to have a robust capitalist economic system running under the auspices of a democratic government, positioned somewhere between a centrally planned economy and laissez-faire free enterprise.

    Or so I'd like to think ...

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  6. I seem to have engaged in free textbook publication, more or less inadvertently. For many years I have taught a course in theoretical population genetics. Starting in the mid-1970s I distributed my own notes. These got updated and have become a textbook "Theoretical Evolutionary Genetics". The latest version is over 400 pages long, and that is with large-format pages that have lots of stuff per page. I have had offers from publishers, but have put them off as the book is still incomplete. But its PDF can be downloaded for free ("free as in free beer").

    At this stage I am kept from moving to publication by two thoughts: (1) The whole field of theoretical population genetics is so small, so few courses are taught on this worldwide, that a printed book would sell rather few copies per year (I'd guess maybe 50) and the royalties from it would not be much, and (2) I keep in mind the impoverished student in some distant place in the world who can download my book and use it, but might be unable to pay for it as a printed book.

    So I am very noble right now. However for my other book "Inferring Phylogenies" it sells well enough that all thoughts of virtue recede from view -- my family needs the money.

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  7. It's surprising that people seem to think that college textbooks write themselves, so the cost of a textbook should be the cost of printing it. (This is akin to the people who discover that Apple only pays some large fraction of the price of an iPhone for the parts, so the rest must be profit -- because all the people who engineered it, wrote the operating system, assemble it, sell it, provide technical support, liaise with the phone companies, advertise, and otherwise contribute work are magical pixies who do their work for free.)

    If you think about it, a textbook is going to be more expensive than most other books. A novelist can produce a novel entirely out of imagination (and gin, according to some novelists' comments), but a good textbook needs all kinds of research and fact checking, and if the text is going to be relevant, the author had better have some significant experience with the subject matter. Every page of a novel doesn't have to be brilliant, but every page of a textbook had better have at least a certain minimum level of quality. A novelist can write terrible prose, but a textbook writer has to be understood by students and teachers, who can be surprisingly dense (especially the teachers).

    And, also if you think of it, a textbook has a restricted audience (specialized textbooks extremely so), and the more specialized and high-level the book, the fewer people will have any use for it. So not only will the total cost be high, but each purchaser will represent a bigger chunk of the cost.

    Why are people upset about these prices again?

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    1. Why are people upset about these prices again?

      It's mostly because they think that textbook publishers are making enormous profits AND because they don't think textbooks are providing value for their money. Schools are "making" students buy textbooks and they would rather spend that money on something else that's more fun.

      In the case of iPods, iPhones and iPads, they probably think that Apple is making huge profits but they are still happy to buy the products because they're very useful.

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  8. Are you surprised that your university bookstore has such a mark-up? ...

    Well yeah, of course there's a lot of costs in producing and selling textbooks. But lots of things have a lot of costs and are sold at a loss nevertheless.

    Do you think the bookstores would be able to charge a high markup if they had competition? Pricing is not (entirely) about covering costs.

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    1. Suppose close competition trimmed margins a lot. Your book's publisher said to you that bookstores were hesitant to stock your book because of its high cost to them, so your publisher had to lower the cost of the book. Your publisher then said sorry, that means $3 per book royalty instead of $10 per book.

      Would that reduce your willingness to write it in the first place?

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    2. I can't speak for Mr. Moran, but depending on the subject, I'd say yes -- and, furthermore, that the loss would probably be society-in-general's, not the author's.

      You are coming across as though you think textbook authors live a life of leisure and the royalties from the textbooks go into a fund which they use to tip the cabana boys who bring them drinks as they lounge around pools at tropical resorts, or at least towards similarly frivolous purposes.

      There are some subjects where that may be true. I had a math professor in college -- a very nice guy, actually -- who had a side job as an actuarial consultant to insurance companies. He said it paid wonderfully. All the texts we used in that class were spiral-bound materials he wrote himself and had published at a local print shop. If he got any royalties from the texts -- which is doubtful, because they were cheap -- he certainly didn't need them, and it's not like he had to write new editions ever again (unless he wanted to add extra topics).

      A medical or biological textbook, on the other hand, needs to be written by someone who understands the subject. That means they're doing a lot of reading and probably engaged in research themselves. The salary of a professor of biology tends not to be as high as you might like to think -- the average is certainly lower than that of (say) a surgeon. The royalties not only keep the author alive but allow them to keep up with research. Cutting the royalties means discouraging the authors from writing an up-to-date book.

      Or would you prefer that doctors and researchers get trained using out-of-date materials? That's where the cost to society shows up.

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    3. Oh, and at the risk of seeming to monopolize the thread, a reply to Anonymous as well:

      "Well yeah, of course there's a lot of costs in producing and selling textbooks. But lots of things have a lot of costs and are sold at a loss nevertheless."

      Except for print-on-demand (which is always more expensive), the cost of creating a book is inversely related to the size of the print run. (That is, the costs of writing the book and advertising it and so forth are basically fixed and get divided across the whole run, while the price for materials and printing and assembly are basically fixed per copy.) Textbooks tend to be printed in much smaller runs than mass-market books, so the price is going to be higher than a novel.

      And who are you asking to take a loss?

      The authors, who probably use that money to live on while they keep up with the subject so that the book can be kept up to date? If they're supposed to take a loss, it's going to mean most textbooks are very badly written and may contain faulty information.

      The publishers, who are likely to discontinue their textbook arm entirely if it isn't profitable enough? They could switch over to fiction without losing their investment and lose practically nothing, or switch to non-book printing and still keep most of their machinery. (And, as pointed out in the post, the profits on textbook publishing for the publishers are substantially smaller than for many industries. I'm told that newspapers are considered to be failing if they don't turn at least a 10% profit.)

      Or the college bookstores, which would generally translate into worse service, fewer student jobs on campus, and a generally worse situation for students?

      "Do you think the bookstores would be able to charge a high markup if they had competition? Pricing is not (entirely) about covering costs."

      Bookstores do have competition. Or do you think the publishers deliberately keep their academic stuff off Amazon? (If so, you're reaching into delusional conspiracy theory territory.)

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    4. Not to mention there is an opportunity cost for the author. The time spent on writing a textbook could be time spent writing a gran for summer salary or time with family/friends or advocating for higher pay for professors. Wanting to make sure the author(a worker) is paid is not antisocialism.

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  9. What I see elevating the cost for many textbooks is the inclusion of online course materials that require an access code. So for instance, "Pearson" has the "mastering biology" website and sells new biology textbooks with an access code to this website. When you purchase a used biology textbook, or even rent a textbook online you also have to buy a new access code.

    So from a capitalist standpoint, this is a brilliant move because it is a great source of reoccurring revenue. From a used textbook standpoint, its a bummer because it keeps the textbook price elevated. BTW, I run a used textbook price comparison website, finderscheapers.com, and track these things rather closely.

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  10. Would your position on open distribution change if your University's infrastructure actively encouraged textbook authorship, through the form of salary increase or other amenities to deal with the workload of composing the material?

    I mean, from a mathematics point of view:

    The intellectual labor costs must be some finite number, decided upon prior to providing the service.

    By definition, that means that the fixed cost to the publisher (of obtaining the scholar's work) cannot factor in the actual amount of books sold over the "product lifetime".

    Assuming we talk about "ebooks", once the initial cost of digitizing is fulfilled, the cost of distribution is vanishingly small, so there are no terms dependent on the number of books actually sold.

    This leaves at least one free variable:

    How much do you think an author should be paid for the digital re-distribution of their work, on a per-book basis? Does this number change with other variables, and, if so, what are they?

    Of course, this is all an economic argument, and as such, we run the risk of repeating such pseudo-pragmatism as the kind you outlined recently in "Advice for High School Graduates".

    Education can't be summed up easily in a basic cost-benefit scheme, not should it be, which brings me to my next question:

    Supposing your institution provided equivalent financial compensation as your publisher, and gave access to a digitizing process that allowed you to create a virtual textbook for "friction-less sharing", at what price per unit (if non-zero) would you be comfortable distributing the text in such an infrastructure?

    ----------------------------------------

    Also, if the problem sets aren't being utilized by professors in the classroom, why do you continue to include them? Are they designed to reach non-academic demographics?

    [This isn't supposed to read like an inquisition; but your openness to public discourse on the matter invites questions that normally go unanswered in the larger debate. It's also somewhat difficult to define tone in a limited medium]

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    1. Would your position on open distribution change if your University's infrastructure actively encouraged textbook authorship, through the form of salary increase or other amenities to deal with the workload of composing the material?

      Yes, definitely. But it doesn't have to be the university who pays. As we see with OpenStax College, it's also possible to get rich people to pay. (Is that stable funding?) Problem is, we need several such nonprofits with competing textbooks on the same subject because no single physics textbook is going to satisfy all teachers.

      Supposing your institution provided equivalent financial compensation as your publisher, and gave access to a digitizing process that allowed you to create a virtual textbook for "friction-less sharing", at what price per unit (if non-zero) would you be comfortable distributing the text in such an infrastructure?

      This is not an easy question to answer. Let's assume that the latest edition of my textbook cost me $400,000 to produce a digital version that was ready for the printer. (I'd have to pay people for editing, figures, drawings, photographs, layout/composition, scientific reviews and administrative assistance over a two year period. That comes to about $300,000 and supplies and other expenses come to about $100,000.) Let's assume that the ongoing price of maintaining the servers and the websites and the accounting were about $500,000 over next five years. Let's assume that you still have to have sales people to promote the book and make presentations to textbook adoption committees all over the world. You still have to pay for advertising or nobody will even know you wrote a book. That part is difficult to estimate but let's peg it at $500,000 over five years.

      The total comes to $1,400,000 per edition but that's probably a lowball estimate. If you could sell 50,000 copies then you'd have to charge $28 for each electronic version just to break even.

      Also, if the problem sets aren't being utilized by professors in the classroom, why do you continue to include them? Are they designed to reach non-academic demographics?

      I don't use them but there are many other professors who use them. It's one of those things that you can't change because so many teachers expect to see them in the book even if they only use them for inspiration.

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