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Monday, September 16, 2013

On the High Price of Textbooks

Once again we have a relatively uninformed journalist writing about the high cost of college textbooks ['Required reading': As textbook prices soar, students try to cope].

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.

I addressed this issue a few years ago in: 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.”

“I think part of it is the consolidation… There’s less competition now,” Perry said.
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.

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.


  1. Your textbook is £134.99 for the hardbook version in the UK. Seems like an awfully steep asking price to ne.

    The paperback version is £54.99, which is not too bad I guess.

    1. Seems like an awfully steep asking price to me.

      And to me. However, I doubt very much that anyone is ripping you off.

      The paperback version is £54.99, which is not too bad I guess.

      I didn't know there was a paperback version. What does it look like?

    2. It was just the page I looked at. The paperback (I call 'em "softcover" since they are usually about the same size as the hardcover, just with a softer cover) is called the "Pearson New International Edition".

    3. ""I didn't know there was a paperback version. What does it look like?""

      It's the version I have. The cover looks ugly, but otherwise it's the same book. It's the International Version, something that many companies do for sales outside the US/Canada.

      I find it hard to believe that puting an hardcover costs an extra 80£...

      Although I agree with Moran that these books don't come cheap to produce, many books sold here in Europe cost many times HALF the price (or even less) of their cost in the US and many times the book is excately the same, harcover and all. I pretty much doubt the publisher is loosing money, so there has to be something worng here. Those margins, at least in many cases, have to be substantially higher than you think.

  2. This is indeed food for thought. Like PZ, I too would rant about the high costs of textbooks. But it seems right that one has to take into account the increase in the overhead costs of publishers. This includes an upward spiraling competition for quality, building and administering their external web sites which support student learning, and the continuous research they must do for marketing and selection of book content. I can see how these things add to the costs of texts today.
    The problem remains, though, that on the student end the increase in text cost has not been matched by an increase in the wealth of students and their parents.

    1. Yes, but you're overlooking the fact that with more than 30 years of advances in printing and publishing technologies, the default expectation is that prices should go down (even a little bit). That hasn't been happening, and this is partly why people feel that they are being ripped off by publishing companies. The increased management overhead that you speak of can be a factor, but to me it's not very convincing.

      Larry totally omits the fact that editing and publishing a high quality book or document these days is much much easier, cheaper, and more efficient that it has ever been. I could easily put together a book like Larry's Principles of Biochemistry with the amateur tools that I have in less than half the time, the cost, and the energy that would have been required back in the 60s, 70s, 80s, or even 90s. Therefore, his calculation is way off the board, and it ignores the most essential factor in the equation. That's not what I call 'critical thinking'.

      I'm a student, and I know very well how useless modern textbooks are becoming. With all the freely available resources online, people rarely consult their textbooks except for doing a required reading or a required homework. And even in those cases, a lot of students are turning their attention to pirated textbooks that you can pretty much download from anywhere these days. (Larry, just do a quick Google search on your own textbook: Principles of Biochemistry Moran pdf).

    2. Great point ShadiZ1. Of course, I wonder why you (or someone like you) are not becoming a multi-millionaire easily putting together textbooks like Larry's. What you call critical thinking, I call talking out of your ass.

      Funny second point. One has to wonder if using pirated copies drives up the costs to non-thieves.

    3. Even though textbook costs have increased 2- or 3Xs over the past decades, students are not using their texts 2 or 3Xs more (how can they)? This is obviously why text costs have increased beyond their operational value to students. Although the cost of putting together a great looking product to paper has certainly gone way down, there are other costs that have been only going up. Take one overlooked detail for example. Publishers generally maintain a beautifully crafted web site with animations and quizzes and online virtual labs for their science texts. These must be developed by skilled programmers and animators who work with academics, but these enormous projects only kick in after extensive research into the wants and needs of the current market. All of these individuals are paid, and the large staff of programmers, animators, and other personnel need a place to work and they need benefits. Developing these online products on schedule requires outsourcing to other companies, and those companies will likely outsource parts of their project to still other companies. This sucks up future profit. The publisher must also train and pay for a team of people to field queries from students who contact them for online help. Naturally, the added costs are passed on to the end user (the student). Finally, because of fierce competition and changes in expectations from professors, publishers often feel obliged to completely rebuild their online product every 2 or 3 years. So the costs have gone up, but the operational value (what students actually use) has not gone up nearly as much.

    4. Lorax,

      I think that my point wasn't to inflate my abilities or to show that I understand everything there's to understand. I meant to illustrate the fact that cheap text editing and graphics design software tools that are available to the public these days can do a much better job than even the state-of-the-art software and hardware tools that might have been available back in the days. They have become simpler, easier to use, cheaper, and more automated. And I'm sure that the software and hardware that publishing companies use today is even more advanced than anything one could have dreamed of a few decades back. Would you like to dispute this fact, Mr. Lorax?

      These advances should at least allow a publishing company like the one that manages editing and printing Larry's textbook to produce the same book, with the same or even better quality, but with a fraction of the cost. But we haven't been seeing that. The trend is just going upwards.

      People like me aren't interested in profiting of people's desire to learn and acquire knowledge. If I ever write or publish something, it's going to be open access and freely available to the public. I'm personally lucky to be a student of computer science. For the most part, some courses in my university don't require an accompanying textbook. And if they did, a good number of computer science textbook authors put a link to a freely available PDF version of the book on their own websites. (It's usually the same version that has been edited by the publishing company, and not their own editing).

      As for the effect of pirating on rising textbook costs, again it can be a factor. But it's mainly the effect, rather than the cause, of the unreasonably high prices that publishing companies ask for.

    5. People like me aren't interested in profiting of people's desire to learn and acquire knowledge. If I ever write or publish something, it's going to be open access and freely available to the public.

      Ahhhh ... I remember those days when I was a young and incredibly naive student.

      Don't worry. You'll eventually get wiser about how the world works. Enjoy the moment.

      As for the effect of pirating on rising textbook costs, again it can be a factor. But it's mainly the effect, rather than the cause, of the unreasonably high prices that publishing companies ask for.

      You would earn a lot more respect if you would pay attention to what I'm saying and justify your claim that publishers are asking "unreasonably high prices" for their products.

    6. Ahhh... Ok Larry, I'm always told that when I express my ideas about how things should be. But my perceived naievity and simplistic manner aside, I don't see why you feel that my ideas aren't realistic, given the fact that a growing number of journals are adopting some sort of open access policies. That's not to mention the amazing work done by journals such as the PLOS, which is now considered to be one of the largest scientific journals in the world. The same could be said about the world of software. The best operating systems, the most secure, and the most robust are almost all open source. One of the best 3D graphics software is open source. One of the best mobile operating systems is open source. The most popular encyclopedia in the world is open source (in terms of code) and open access (in terms of content). The best universities in the world are now opening up their classes online and for free. And the list goes on and on.

      I paid attention to what you said, Larry, and pointed it out to you that you're ignoring one of the most important factors in the equation. The advances in hardware and software technology should have, one would've expected, brought the prices down, or at least kept them almost constant over time. But that's not what we're seeing. Therefore, to compare your own textbook with the textbook that you used way back when you were a student, while ignoring the technological advances that allow for making the high-quality textbooks we have today, doesn't really prove anything.

    7. The advances in hardware and software technology should have, one would've expected, brought the prices down, or at least kept them almost constant over time. But that's not what we're seeing.

      Exactly. That didn't happen.

      Therefore, there must be something wrong with your argument. I tried to explain it to you but you aren't listening.

    8. A simple price comparison between the UK and the US for a general biochemistry book like 7th edition Stryer's at Amazon:

      US: 162.49 USD

      UK: 75.06 USD (46.99£)

      Both are hardcover, by the way. That's a 87.43 USD price difference. The publisher can't be loosing money on this, since this is a pretty common price difference in text books in the US and Europe, so how can we explain this? The only explanation that occurs to me is that many publishers have to be making pretty big profit margins. And by the way, these books are printed in the same country, so it can't be because books for Europe are printed in China vs and books for US are printed in the US.

    9. The only explanation that occurs to me is that many publishers have to be making pretty big profit margins.

      The wholesale price of these textbooks is around $100. That's what the publisher gets. (And that's what royalties are based on.) Amazon UK normally sells the book for £55.99 (it's currently on sale for less). That's $89.39 (US). It's the international edition.

      The price seems a bit low.

      The North American edition sells for $162.49. It has 70 more pages but that doesn't justify the price difference. I don't know why (USA) has such a high mark-up.

      On the other hand, I DO understand why university bookstores have to price their books much higher than the wholesale price they pay to the publisher.

    10. If the wholesale price is around 100 USD how comes the price in the UK is 75 USD? Notice that this book is not an exception. It is actually quite common to have these books selling for 75 USD in the UK while in the US you pay 150 USD or more. International version means little, since many times it's just a cover saying "international" while it's still hardcover and everything else is the same. Page count is many times wrong, so don't rely on that. The biggest difference I've found was when I bought "Molecular Genetics of Bacteria", the 2007 version, some years ago. I bought it for about 25£ in Amazon UK. The version is exactely the same as in the US (there was no softcover version or international version). The US version was about 100 USD. Thats an even bigger difference.

      Anyway, I think your explanation concerning wholesale prices goes a long way in explaning these price differences, but still the difference is a bit too much for that to be the only reason. If these texbooks cost around 100 USD wholesale there can't be any way you would sell those constantly for around 75-90 USD outside of the US, otherwise the publisher would be selling them bellow production price or at no profit. I can show many examples of such price differences for many of the books I bought.

      """Amazon UK normally sells the book for £55.99 (it's currently on sale for less). That's $89.39 (US)."""

      That's wrong. The price of £55.99 is the "recommended retail price" for the book. Amazon never sold the book for that price. That's just there for comparison so that Amazon can tell you that you're making good business by buying from them.

    11. Actually, the recomended retail prices are set by the publishers themselves as far as I know (it's stated in the back of the book covers). If that's correct, than these publishers are intentionaly selling the books cheaper outside of the US than the wholesale prices they use in the US. If thats the case then their profit margins have to be bigger.

    12. If that's correct, than these publishers are intentionaly selling the books cheaper outside of the US than the wholesale prices they use in the US.

      That's one conclusions. Another is that my estimate of the wholesale price is wrong for Stryer 7/e. For all I know the overhead costs (administration, shipping, storage) may be cheaper in the UK allowing companies to sell for a lower price than in North America.

      What I do know is that textbook publishing companies are struggling and many of them are not very profitable.

  3. Back when I was a student, people were already complaining about the high costs of textbooks. But what generally set off the complaints was the utterly useless system used to make them available, in which the school conspired. My school (which shall remain nameless, but was medium-prestigious) had a deal with one of the big bookstore chains (I think Barnes and Noble) requiring all professors to send lists of textbooks to the big-bookstore-chain-run college bookstore, and only to them, and that store (a) charged a premium compared to the independent academic bookstore about 8 blocks west (even compared to "special order" prices), (b) made no difference in listings between books which were required and books which were optional so that students who tried to get their books early ended up automatically buying optional books, (c) often ordered far fewer copies of required texts than there were students registered for a class, (d) had a book buy-back program which involved almost never buying used books (and only paying a fraction of what the used textbook store about 10 blocks to the southwest would pay), and (e) having staff who never knew anything whatsoever about the books they were selling. The professors were just as angry about this as the students, but usually it was difficult to do anything about it.

    (The school had a similar deal about food services on campus, too -- some big donor alumni was a big shareholder in Big Cheap Restaurant Corporation, and so all the food services were provided via Big Cheap Restaurant Corporation's various brands and subsidiaries, and all students living in housing were required to purchase a meal program even though the quality of the food was such that many of them would only eat on-campus in desperation, such as during snowstorms.)

    1. Sounds like the university in which I work. I work at Medium Sized Regional University of the Midwest. Go sports team!

  4. the textbook I use for my Comparative Anatomy class (Liem et al.) has not been revised for 12 years -- yet the publishers hike the price 10% or more every year --- last year they hiked it 20%. It's still the best textbook for my students, but it's extortionate.

    Meanwhile, the text that I write myself, while not as high priced, which has had 4 editions since 2001 --- I figure that (as someone who writes ~ 40% of the text) I get less than 1% of the cost of the book.

    1. the textbook I use for my Comparative Anatomy class (Liem et al.) has not been revised for 12 years

      I guess comparative anatomy isn't changing very much.

      My textbook has been through two revisions (2006 and 2012) since the 2002 edition. Several topics have been completely revamped in light of knew knowledge and several topics have been introduced for the first time. Some topics have been eliminated because they were no longer relevant to modern biochemistry.

      The focus of my book has shifted more and more toward an evolutionary approach to biochemistry as I learn how to do that effectively. I've also shifted the emphasis on several important concepts as more data became available to support them.

      I sad, really, that the best approach to teaching comparative anatomy hasn't changed in 12 years. Maybe the Liern et al textbook was way ahead of its time in 2001?

      I figure that (as someone who writes ~ 40% of the text) I get less than 1% of the cost of the book.

      Typical royalties are 10% of the wholesale cost. You should be getting 4%.

    2. Maybe I miscalculated the amount --- it was a while ago. And I'm looking at the retail cost, not the wholesale cost. However, I was surprised at the low level.

      There aren't a lot of good books out there for Comparative Anatomy. The phylogenies and much of the evolutionary stuff certainly does need updating, but the basic diagrams and descriptions are the best for the background information in my course (which is taught in a very different way from the textbook -- with an evolutionary approach rather than a comparative one). There's also an excellent book by Kardong (which is cheaper, and does get updated regularly), but it doesn't work so well with my students.

    3. It's interesting that you say "it doesn't work so well with my students." There seems to be a general assumption among my readers that any biochemistry Professor could slap together a textbook and give it away for free.

      I've been in this business for 27 years and I'm still learning what works best for students.

  5. Boo Hoo about students paying a lot for university etc. they are expecting to gain above average positions and salaries over the rest of us. Its their invbestment in their lives. They must be pushing other people out of university as I understand its competitive.
    Why do these kids deserve the world made by those who came before and didn't get to go to university and get the money!
    The common people must pay for everything and must pay for these universities. How many times do they tell the people its good for us to see these kids get university and the rewards. so we must pay up!
    there is a important injustice in the whole thing.
    don't want to pay then move over for those who will and be more gratful for starting their lives off at a advantage.
    As usual the common people get interfered with and get screwed around.

  6. Here's a fine example of a text book:

    You can pay for the hardcopy (I own one, and it gets frequent use), or download the pdf for free. You can also download the accompanying lecture series. All perfectly legal.

    What I don't understand is why more text book authors don't do this. It's not as if you write it for the royalties.

    1. What I don't understand is why more text book authors don't do this.

      Really? You really don't understand why people like me don't just write up everything I know about the entire field of biochemistry and publish it in black-and-white using crude drawings and graphs?

      It's not as if you write it for the royalties.

      Right. Of course the royalties are important. For some textbook authors it's their only source of income. Why not ask Carl Zimmer why he doesn't give away his textbook for free? Better yet, ask his family.

    2. Did you write it in your spare time? Otherwise, your employer arguably paid for it and should own the copyright and the royalties.

    3. You don't know how to make a colour pdf? And I'm not sure Cambridge University Press would agree with you about "crude".

    4. Oh, and +1 on Draken's point. As academics we already get paid to write. We don't expect a second round of payment when we write research articles, why should we expect it when we write text books? Zimmer's case is different, since he's not an academic.

  7. You avoid the problem all together, please hear from me as a recent college grad. I will HAPPILY pay the $150 for the textbook, happily.

    Now please adress the issue of creating a new edition with hardly any important updated information every year rendering my $150 dollar copy worthless trash. That is unfair.

  8. The operative word is value. I went through a Liberal Arts education (Art History) late in life and worked in the high technology sector for years before that. I remember buying some RF textbooks between $300 - $500 and Art History sets for $200. During my recent tenure, wise students keep the ones with value to refer to them in later classes, and sell the ones from nearly every history and humanities course :^) Language courses are notoriously expensive, my German course consisted of text, lab/workbook, and CD's. and it was expensive for 2 years, and I couldn't resell it afterward.
    That said, I recently within past two years bought a textbook set Digital Imaging Processing, and Digital Imaging Processing with Matlab. I paid full price ($200+) for the latter because it comes with a CD and other assistance a registered copy receives (downloads and updates). For the former, a used US copy was perfect. The international copy is a quarter of the price of the US version, less substantial in quality of paper and printing, but also useful.
    Computer books (O'Reilly, Apress) run the gamut, from bargains in $10 of books you never give up to a disaster of an Apple Server book that costs more than the price paid. Again, it's value.
    From the other side of the fence, when I TA'd I made sure the book I used was available on used market, would have a value on the used market in semester's time, and was useful in subsequent classes. Oh and yes professor, one could take 3 introductory and 2 specific courses in one year - as in two semesters. When asked, I told fellow students to take the GE courses first - nothing but GE - then focus on the major. More overlap in Organic Chemistry and BioChemistry than either with US and State History.