Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Price of Textbooks

Few would dispute that the cost of college textbooks is out of control. I regularly have students come in to beg a desk copy because they have run into financial problems and simply cannot afford to drop the outrageous amounts that are charged.

On the one hand, you have a captive consumer, someone who must purchase something and that means that the seller can jack up the price. There is little in terms of competition because most cannot go anywhere but the college or university's bookstore to get their books and they are printed by one publisher only.

At the same time, many academic presses are in financial dire straits. These are not highly profitable companies gauging their customers for record high profits. Writers of textbooks are not poorly remunerated (or so I've heard...mine is not out yet), but profs are not getting rich off of these things, by in large.

But the prices are unreasonable. What can be done?

I made clear to my editor at University of Chicago Press (who is wonderful and fully agreed) that everything that could be done needs to to make my textbook, Methods and Models, affordable. It will be paperback. A companion cd or website has been eliminated. I'm using as many public domain translations as possible to limit fees where possible. But what else can be done?

Most profs would be happy to let students know ahead of time what books they will be using so that students could shop around. But what else can we do?

An interesting development is new publishers like Flat World who make web access to textbooks free with affordable pfd's. I don't know if that is a feasible model beyond a few boutique classes, but it is an interesting approach to watch.

What else can be done to keep students' book costs down?