The tyranny of textbooks

Whether you’re heading back to school or starting school this semester, buying a textbook or two is almost inevitable. Even if you’ve carefully saved your pennies, accounted for several months’ rent, and budgeted for food, textbooks can come as a surprising and hidden expense at the beginning of the semester—after you’ve already committed to a handful of classes and paid tuition fees.

Rarely do we even know the cost of textbooks before beginning a course, and some textbooks can cost hundreds of dollars each. If students sign up for a full course load, they can end up spending a few hundred dollars on books, per class. Sound familiar?

There are multiple possible explanations for the high price of textbooks, frequently given by publishing companies. Upon examination, however, these justifications tend to fall apart.

Critics argue that textbook exchanges and used book sales compel publishers to compensate for lost sales with higher prices and costly digital supplements. This is the same logic film companies give for rising movie ticket premiums. If textbooks were reasonably priced, the secondary market would evaporate, since the price difference between used and new would be too small for a secondary market to gain traction.

Some textbooks have a relatively small audience (and market share), yet still have fixed overhead costs for publication. If this were a major factor in setting prices, we’d expect longer books would be uniformly more expensive than short books, and the price of books would reflect the size of the print run—but this seems not to be the case.

At first glance, it seems reasonable that costs associated with authoring, editing, and designing a non-fiction textbook with illustrations and expertly written prose, is significantly higher than, say, your standard novel—professorial writing isn’t free, and most textbooks are more visually complex than the average novel. However, as digital technology makes design easier and cheaper, the price of textbooks has gone up, not down. Older textbooks are still egregiously expensive, and no professors are retiring on the royalties from their textbook sales.

From a student perspective, there is simply no good reason for textbooks to cost what they do—it simply comes across as greed on the part of an increasingly oligopolistic cartel of publishers. It’s a status quo perpetuated by professional pressures on academics to be published by these corporations, and time pressures on professors that prevent them from supplying more reasonable alternatives. The problem with textbooks, as with other academic publishing, is that costs are inflated by publishers with no benefit to the artists, researchers, and technical specialists.

Consider that most textbooks are written by academics funded almost entirely by the public, through tax dollars or tuition money (though tuition money accounts for a relatively small proportion of total university funding). That same textbook is then being sold back to the public at inflated cost, almost none of which goes into the pocketbook of those who wrote it. There’s nothing “fair” about the academic publishing system, and there’s a lot of frustrating injustice about it. What you’re being forced to do, essentially, is pay twice for the same knowledge—once at its point of creation, and once at its point of consumption.

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