Monday, August 27, 2007

Textbooks, Textbooks and More Textbooks

The Dallas Morning News had a pair of articles on Sunday about the textbook dilemma that I've addressed previously here and here.

Both articles were written by professors who write textbooks. Michael Granof is an accounting professor and also the chair of the University Co-op Bookstore at the University of Texas at Austin. Kenneth S. Saladin is a professor of biology at Georgia College & State University.

Dr. Granof argues that a well-organized used book market is what keeps prices of new textbooks so high. He says, "publishers have the chance to sell a book to only one of the multiple students who eventually use it. Hence, publishers must cover their costs and make their profit in the first semester their books are sold, before used copies swamp the market. That's why the prices are so high." He acknowledges the disconnect between a hardcover textbook costing $180 and a hardcover novel costing $30.

He admits the reason publishers come out with new editions every three or four years is to undermine the used book market. This desire for "premature obsolescence" (his words, not mine) is also why publishers bundle the textbooks with CDs and workbooks that cannot be reused.

His suggestion for correcting the situation is to have universities pay a negotiated fee to the publisher based on the number of students enrolled in classes using a particular textbook. He gives the example of $15 per student for a semester. Therefore, the publisher would have a ready stream of income every semester the book is in use (and theoretically no reason to price gouge).

Of course, this fee would be passed along to the students as part of their tuition costs.

Dr. Saladin's argument is more openly self-serving. He says, "The first edition of Anatomy & Physiology: The Unity of Form took me four years and seven months to research, write, review and revise . . . Even before the most current edition of one of my books is off the press, I'm already compiling notes for the next . . . Revising the book takes eight to 12 months, usually working nights and weekends to meet deadlines."

I was amused by the "nights and weekends" comment. Most authors do write nights and weekends in addition to their day jobs. His sense of entitlement was exactly what my experience was of my professors in graduate school. They brought out a new edition every two or three years, forcing students to purchase the latest version.

Dr. Saladin's says that, although anatomy doesn't evolve rapidly, our understanding of it does, and this justifies the more frequent editions. I would say that this suggests the need for electronic versions of textbooks or CD supplements rather than a constant stream of new hardback versions.

I was not impressed by either man or his arguments. This whole setup feels like collusion between textbook authors and publishers to squeeze as much as the market will bear out of students. Dr. Granof is more honest in admitting it; Dr. Saladin spends his column trying to justify the current system.

I have no problem admitting my bitterness is the result of painful experiences in graduate school where it took an entire week's paycheck to cover my book purchases each semester. I'd taken a significant pay cut to work in the psychiatric emergency room at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas because of the valuable experience that job offered. The $600 I had to pay out for books each semester (on top of tuition and lab fees) guaranteed I spent my three years at UTA as a financially-struggling student, trying to avoid taking money out of savings every quarter.

The textbook industry gouges U.S. students. American universities need to step up and take action to stop this racket. Remember the percentages: "Nearly two-thirds of those receipts end up in publishers’ coffers. 12 percent of the book price goes toward the author’s royalties, 23 percent goes to the store, 32 percent pays for the publisher’s costs, and another 32 percent is publisher profit, according to the National Association of College Bookstores." (courtesy of Stanford Daily News)

It's time for change.


The Anti-Wife said...

If Dr. Saladin and Dr. Granof were students sturggling to pay their own expenses do you think they would be presenting the same arguments? They are obviously out of touch with the realities of most student's financial situations.

I agree that updatable electronic versions of some textbooks - especially those of constantly evolving subjects - should be available.

Colleen said...

Imagine, then,the cost of Canadian textbooks where the excuse for ridiculous price tags is our smaller (than U.S.) student market.