The Cost of College Textbooks
As you probably know, The New York Times posted an online discussion
about the cost of college textbooks. They posted short articles by people from various aspects of the issue and allowed for comments by readers.
Having spent much of my career in the world of college textbooks, I feel entitled to jump in to the fray.
The first question is-how much of an issue is this REALLY? This is not unique to the question of college textbooks. How often have we all been pulled into an "emergency" meeting because someone is whipping up a frenzy about something when, after actually examining reality, we find that the real-life impact is minimal? Eric Weil, of Student Monitor, posts statistics on the Times suggesting that in the grand scheme of things this is NOT something to focus on as much as we do. A couple of examples:
- "On an annual basis, college students spend 40 percent more for their cellular telephone service than for textbooks."
- "Fewer than one in four students report: "My experience with a bundled textbook discouraged me from buying another bundled textbook next semester.""
Another stat he cites is that 84 percent of students graduate college with debt averaging $36,501. Based on all this, he suggests that there are bigger fish to fry.
Right or wrong, the price of textbooks is an easy target. This is not to say publishers are blameless, but the economic reality is that textbooks are not the biggest percentage of what parents and students are shelling out for a college education. It begs the question-where is the pressure on higher ed institutions to justify their costs? The cynics among us would say that, like the lack of controls on Wall Street, those with money and power get to keep it.
Which brings us to some of those publisher practices. James V. Koch, a professor at Old Dominion, points to bundling as one of the ways that publishers push up prices. A textbook alone costs less than the textbook plus the ancillary material that the student is required to buy with the book. True enough. What he does not point out is the fact that, for many years, potential adopters would not even consider a textbook unless those additional materials were available for them and/or the students. Teachers are overworked and underpaid and look to the publisher to provide materials so that the teachers do not have to create them-these include assessment material, teaching manuals, study manuals for the student, additional online content, etc. I mention this not as a judgment of the teachers, but it is important to understand the customer request of the publisher.
It would be nice to say that every teacher lives and breathes only to enrich the lives of every one of their students; or that every student looks at every day of every class as an exciting opportunity to expand their knowledge base. It would also be nice to say that the New York Rangers will win the Stanley Cup every year … or ever again, for that matter. None of it is true. For the most part, everyone is trying to get through the semester with what they need. And those ancillary materials provide very useful teaching and learning tools. And, from the publisher's perspective, they don't come free. And if the Rangers don't fire Glen Sather … well, nevermind.
And what ABOUT e-books? Several commentators on The Times site point to the need for greater use, and also suggest that information and teaching not be limited to book-page formats. I agree wholeheartedly.
It's also a flip and easy answer. Acceptance of, and demand for, e-books is growing by leaps and bounds. This is terrific. We're not there completely yet. Both institutions-publishers and colleges-need to continue to shed old ideas and practices to move this further.
A word of caution-aside from paper, the cost of physically manufacturing a book has come down dramatically, and therefore, is not as big a factor as you might think. The publisher still needs to hire authors and either staff or vendors to create the content for distribution.
There are other publisher practices that have been unnecessary and have driven up costs, such as unnecessary revised editions. Publishers also have a long ways to go in gaining process efficiency, and adopting practices that can save them costs.
Like so many other things in the world of publishing, the basic dynamic of college textbook publishing and usage is changing. I think all we can safely agree on is that should, and will, be different.
He is currently Production Director for Teachers College Press. Previously, he was Vice President, Global Content and Media Production for Cengage Learning. Prior to that he was Vice President of Production and Manufacturing for Oxford University Press, Pearson/Prentice Hall, Worth Publishers and HarperCollins.
In those capacities, he has been a leader in managing process and content for delivery in as many ways possible.