I am a textbook author so I'm not totally impartial. However, it's worth pointing out that I don't defend textbooks because I'm a textbook author. Instead, I became a textbook author because I value textbooks. I still have all my college textbooks and I still refer to them from time-to-time. The oldest ones were purchased 50 years ago.
Let's look at what Martha C. White has to say.
Already grappling with skyrocketing tuition and fees, college students also must contend with triple-digit inflation on the price of textbooks. With the average student shelling out $1,200 a year just on books, students, professors and policy groups are searching for ways to circumvent the high cost of traditional textbooks.It may be true that the average student has to spend $1200 per year on required textbooks but the NBC News Business website didn't do themselves any favors by showing a photo of 21-year-old Priya Shivraj with a stack of textbooks that she presumably had to buy in a single year. She is supposed to be a combined major in biology, Spanish and pre-med and one would guess from her age that she's in her third or fourth year of university.
Here are some of the books in her stack: Introductory Biology, Introductory Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Introductory Biochemistry, and Immunobiology. Is it possible that a student at NYU would take all those courses in a single year?
But let's not quibble. Many science textbooks cost about $150 and I can easily imagine that a student might have to purchase as many as six of them in a single year.
The College Board found that the average student at a four-year public college spends $1,200 on “books and supplies,” or nearly $1,250 if they go to a private school. On the public policy blog of the American Enterprise Institute, where he is a fellow, University of Michigan-Flint economics professor Mark J. Perry highlighted a chart showing an 812 percent increase in the cost of college textbooks since 1978, a jump even higher than the percentage growth in the cost of health care.This paragraph says that the "average" includes supplies and it appears to cover four years. What does that mean?
Let's use our critical thinking skills to examine the claim that textbook prices have increased by 812% since 1978. According the the US Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Counter there should be a 358% increase in price due to inflation alone. Thus, the real cost has about doubled in 35 years.
PZ Rants About Science Textbooks. Here's an updated version of what I said in 2007 ...
So let's understand and agree that the original price of a textbook is not unreasonable. My biochemistry textbook in 1965 was Conn & Stumpf and it cost $9.95. This works out to $73.79 in 2013 dollars using the handy-dandy inflation calculator on the US Dept. of Labor website. The 1965 textbook was much smaller, covered less material, and had no color figures. Modern biochemistry textbooks cost about $150 and they are very much better than the books published 50 years ago.So the price of biochemistry textbooks has doubled in constant dollars but there's a huge increase in the amount and quality of the material in modern textbooks.
Martha White continues ....
“Students are, in essence, a captive market,” said Ethan Senack, higher education associate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “The publishing industry is dominated by five companies that dominate upwards of 85 percent of the market.”This sort of complaint comes up quite often. It suggests that publishers are conspiring to keep the cost of textbooks at least twice as high as they were decades ago. It also assumes that publishers are making outrageous profits at the expense of university students. Let's use our critical thinking skills to ask whether large public companies in the publishing industry are making huge profits. Since these are public companies whose stock is trading on the stock market, it should be possible to test this idea. One of the quickest ways is to simply look at the stock prices, they should be going through the roof if the assumption is correct. They aren't. The textbook publishing industry is making a profit but it's not much different than the profits made by most other companies.
“I think part of it is the consolidation… There’s less competition now,” Perry said.
There may be lots of things wrong with making students buy textbooks but it's ridiculous to pretend that the major publishing companies are ripping off students. It's also ridiculous to pretend that the retail price paid by students at their bookstore goes directly to the publisher. The wholesale price of a $150 textbook may be only $100. The bookstores have to make money too. You can buy my book for about $110 on Amazon.
See also: Free/Cheap Textbooks for Students.