The Mysteries of Textbook Economics

by Henry on February 11, 2009

Andrew Gelman is puzzled.

I received a free copy in the mail of an introductory statistics textbook. I showed the book to Yu-Sung and he said: Wow, it’s pretty fancy. I bet it costs $150. I didn’t believe him, but we checked on Amazon and lo! it really does retail for that much. What the . . . ? I asked around and, indeed, it’s commonplace for students to pay well over $100 for introductory textbooks.
Well. I’m planning to write an introductory textbook of my own and I’d like to charge $10 for it. Maybe this isn’t possible, but I think $40 should be doable. And why would anybody require their students to pay $150 for a statistics book when something better is available at less than 1/3 the price?

… It just mystifies me that, in all these different fields, it’s considered acceptable to charge $150 for a textbook. I’d think that all you need is one cartel-breaker in each field and all the prices would come tumbling down. But apparently not. I just don’t understand.

Well, perhaps crack economist Greg Mankiw might be able to solve this particular mystery. Or, perhaps, not so much. But more simply, I think that the obvious public choice answer is that the costs of this particular arrangement are borne by the students, who constitute a captive market, rather than by the professors, who actually choose the textbook that is required. All that you need are some very moderate side-payments to persuade self-interested professors to adopt particular textbooks (perhaps even just lowering their search costs by sending them free copies). So the cartel-breaker would have to provide sufficient inducement to the professors, which seems rather unlikely given that they would not be making monopoly profits, and hence would be outbid by those who are in a position to capture them.

Of course, if the professor is teaching their own textbook to large undergraduate intro classes and making large amounts of money from each semi-compelled purchase, then no sidepayments at all are needed (not all professors being as conscientious as Andrew Gelman). There’s clearly an opening for some enterprising grad student to write a paper (perhaps for the Journal of Economic Perspectives or some such) on the characteristics of this very interesting market …

{ 84 comments }

1

John Emerson 02.11.09 at 8:21 pm

Education is biz.

2

Anderson 02.11.09 at 8:23 pm

I have heard that the used-textbook market drives prices up, because instead of selling a new textbook every year, the publisher sells one every 2 or 3 years.

Of course, that sounds like a nice excuse for the publishers, but it makes at least superficial sense to the economically challenged such as myself.

3

Tristan McLeay 02.11.09 at 8:31 pm

Don’t worry Anderson, the publishers have learnt how to avoid being screwed by evil students sharing their hard work without giving them a cent back: They just issue a new edition every year or two.

4

Matt 02.11.09 at 8:32 pm

When I took into to economics many years ago the professor didn’t assign a particular text but just said something like “just pick any into to microeconomics text you’d like- they all cover the same material and will be equally useful for you.” I’m not sure if that was a good plan or not but I liked it.

See also, from the philosophical lexicon, copiwrite, v. To come out with a revised edition for some purpose (e.g. to remove inconsistency or cut off the used book market).
(named after former University of Michigan philosopher Irvin Copi, whose introduction to logic book was one of the most heavily used, and that went through 12 or more editions, usually one every other year.)

5

Jonathan Dursi 02.11.09 at 8:33 pm

I’m fascinated by how seemingly hard it is to get real collaborative/opensource textbooks put together — especially for intro courses, where the material is pretty much the same from one text to the other. WikiBooks, for instance, is much less successful an enterprise than wikipedia.

Part of the issue must be that it’s much harder to collaborate in this fashion on a large project than many little projects — indeed, even for large open source programs, things are usually organized into small groups working on individual parts of the whole, overlapping as little as possible with other parts.

I think another part must be an issue of presentantion. Textbooks are nice, slick looking affairs these days, and if students are paying $1k+ to take a class, they expect certain things of the associated textbooks. And putting together something with that much polish takes time and effort that is very different than assembling the basic material.

Another issue has to be problem sets. Certainly one of the hardest things for intro texts has to be putting together large number of suitable problems, and it seems like there’d be obvious disadvantages to hashing out the back-of-the-chapter problems in a public forum leaving ChangLog notes around as googlable hints to the problem sets you want the students to do…

6

Anderson 02.11.09 at 8:34 pm

The new editions shtick is as described, but note that it also runs the cost up — they have to (presumably) reset the book at least, redesign every so often — the book *has* to be different enough that students can’t just get by with the previous edition.

7

John Emerson 02.11.09 at 8:35 pm

Samuelson did it too. Econ professors would feel wrong not maximising their take. Students can’t complain because getting on the gravy train themselves is their own goal.

8

robertdfeinman 02.11.09 at 8:51 pm

Professors who aren’t interested in the income can provide their textbooks at reasonable cost. There are several paths. They can post it online as a PDF document (or one per chapter).

They can sell it online as a PDF document or use one of the demand publishers like lulu.com. Lulu only charges the cost of production ($10-20 for an average book without color). The author can then add on whatever additional cost he wants as profit. Lot’s of specialized books are now being published this way, not only vanity press authors.

Take a look, you’ll be surprised at the new world of middleman free publishing.

9

Ted Lemon 02.11.09 at 8:57 pm

Of course, a school where the teachers, as a policy, used the low-cost textbooks would be at a competitive advantage over a school where no such policy was in place. It might not be a large advantage given all the other factors that go into choosing a school, but I would not be surprised if it could be turned to an advantage.

Also, a professor who does not get a book-publishing contract could bypass the traditional high-cost textbook market by producing a low-cost or (preferably, I think) free textbook and teaching from it; if it’s a good textbook, other teachers might adopt it as well, and certainly such a textbook, if it were well-written, couldn’t help but improve that professor’s reputation.

10

Gary 02.11.09 at 8:58 pm

This is not a new issue or one only concerning economic text books. When I went to U of NM in 1969 my text books cost hundreds of dollars. Same when I went back to school at the U of H in 1983 for a Mech. Engineering Degree, and the same at Cal Poly in 1996 as a grad student. Sounds like somebody has not been in a College bookstore in a while.
Grumpy Old Student.

11

CJColucci 02.11.09 at 8:59 pm

I happened to look at the current editions of some intro textbooks I used decades ago. The current editions are beautiful examples of the book publisher’s art, with lots of color and gorgeous graphics, but why do we need them in, say, calculus, intro economics, accounting, statistics, or logic? Why can’t someone come up with inexpensive books slightly more well-developed than, say, a Schaum’s Outline?

12

Laura Wimberley 02.11.09 at 9:01 pm

It’s not just profs using their own textbooks. There’s no faster route for a newly minted Ph.D. to slap together an intro course than by using his or her old advisor’s textbook and lecture notes, and the royalties become an informal, indirect kickback.

As to why WikiBooks doesn’t work – digital textbooks are pedagogically unsatisfactory. There are lots of studies showing that people read differently on screens than they do with paper. Screens are for skimming, not for the in-depth kind of reading needed to follow real explanations and arguments. Moreover, in face-to-face classrooms, students need to have their books with them, for in-person examinations of diagrams or close readings of texts. Not enough students have laptops, even at major universities, for digital texts to suffice for that – and even if they did, a room full of laptop screens cuts off the discussions.

So textbooks need to be physically printed. And faculty cannot presume that students will print out the readings and bring them to class, because they just will not do it. True, not all of them will buy the reader and bring it to class, but enough will to make discussion possible. Maybe in the future this will change, but for now, I think that pre-printed textbooks, ideally available for purchase on campus (in class?) are the only way to go.

If you want cheap textbooks, you need reliable, print-on-demand, open source or public domain content (like here). The reliability of print-on-demand seems to be a sticking point here, but Flat World Knowledge seems to be getting close to what might work.

13

nick s 02.11.09 at 9:02 pm

Arbitrage has already changed the textbook market, given that the absurd pricing seems pretty much a North American thing, and related to the way that classes are tied to textbooks.

14

Slocum 02.11.09 at 9:26 pm

Don’t worry Anderson, the publishers have learnt how to avoid being screwed by evil students sharing their hard work without giving them a cent back: They just issue a new edition every year or two.

In the U.S., publishers have gone way beyond that. It’s not uncommon for publishers to use POD technology to ‘customize’ textbooks for a particular course and semester. The resulting book is a crappy soft-cover and cannot be resold. Sometimes, the professor in invited to contribute a chapter or two to the customized book, so the publisher can pay ‘royalties’. And to prevent students from even sharing books, in some cases, there’s at least one online exam that requires a code unique to each copy of the book, so it’s impossible to take the course without buying the book. And, yes, they all cost ~ $100.

15

harry b 02.11.09 at 9:32 pm

Wow, that is appalling (slocum, #12). I wonder if anyone has had the experience we have had here recently. For many years (following some big lawsuit) we got lots of memos from deans telling us to be super-duper cautious about copying from books for course packets, and it was all made as cumbersome as possible, so that using an expensive textbook was much easier (and not really that much more expensive for the students) than making up a packet. IN the past 3 years, though, we have had equal numbers of memos directing us to use the least expensive possible options, and making it as easy as possible for students to buy used books/share materials, etc.

I refrain from assigning my own books for my classes because the whole point of assigning a book in philosophy is to generate criticism. I suppose I disagree with enough of my first book now that I could assign it and teach it as if it were written by someone else, but I think that only the very best students wouldn’t find that disconcerting.

16

Janice 02.11.09 at 9:38 pm

I notice that the high-priced textbooks are disproportionately available for the introductory and other high-enrollment course types (Western Civ, U.S. survey or medieval survey texts in my discipline). I have tried to get around this by searching out the most cost-effective textbooks that do the job I need them to do — give the broad survey of knowledge and research tools that students can build upon. This is still difficult as so many publishers focus on the few and high-priced options.

That said, I like some of the POD solutions. Selections from many of the the Penguin classics series are now available in a POD format — I can get a reader customized to exactly what I want the students to be reading for $20 or $30 as compared to the sprawling survey reader that often overlooks the texts upon which I’d rather focus.

Other times I feel as if I’m stuck. Teaching a course segment on Renaissance historiography, I toyed with the idea of assembling a custom reader through the bookstore but, in the end, opted for a sadly-overpriced but excellent reader that I knew would cost only slightly more than our bookstore’s system offered and at least had the benefit of being bound and organized with thoughtful editorial material. The one consolation, and one that I advertised extensively to students, is that it’s been in print for about as long as I’ve been teaching so that there are countless used copies floating around. Armed with titles and ISBNs, my students can comb the used book marketplaces well before term begins in hopes of scoring a bargain.

17

Henry 02.11.09 at 9:39 pm

Slocum – that’s even worse than I thought it was. I’ve heard of teachers (esp. hard-up adjuncts, whom I have a hard time condemning, given how systematically screwed they are by the university system) being more or less overtly bribed by textbook publishers, but the ‘royalties’ scam is a new one on me. I have thought about trying to write a textbook for the course I teach each year on the politics of the Internet, but if I did it would be creative commonsed, available as online PDFs etc.

18

Colin Danby 02.11.09 at 9:40 pm

Last time this came up on the ‘sphere I heard from these people: http://www.freeloadpress.com/catalog.html who have an interesting model.

One of my dreams is a wiki which will function as an intro econ text, including animations, lots of problems, things that you can’t do on paper. (Yes, the coffeetablebook-type production you see is an effort to justify prices above $100.)

Re side payments, there was a _Chronicle_ piece a few years back with some pretty egregious examples. But there are also the morally-dubious offers of $200 to “review” a text in cases where they clearly have zero interest in what you’re gonna say. What have folks seen?

19

Colin Danby 02.11.09 at 9:44 pm

Wow, a really good side-payment example as I was posting. Reminds me of another thing. The way textbook ordering often works, instructors are not told what students will be charged — even if you ask directly, you may not get an answer.

20

Slocum 02.11.09 at 9:47 pm

Wow, that is appalling

Yeah, it’s pretty bad. There’s some serious rent-seeking going on. My daughter has personally run into both the customized P.O.D. text and the unique test-code in the book (though in other courses at the same university she’s been able to use used books and international versions).

Although, the most appalling rent-seeking going on is not $100 for a introductory Macro text but $1,000 tuition for a the semester course taught in 300 student lecture format, where the same body of knowledge could be acquired more quickly, easily and vastly less expensively by just reading the damn book (preferably the $50 international version). In rent-seeking, text book publishers are really small-time crooks compared to universities.

21

F 02.11.09 at 10:00 pm

Yes, it’s that bad. The $200 to review a text, the new edition every 3 years (one publisher tried to do this every 2 years, which really pissed us off), the $150 a textbook are all true. The new editions usually are not substantially different, but the students don’t know that, and given how anal they are about their grades they’re not going to chance it. Also, there’s a perception that the money to pay for books doesn’t really come from the students because they usually use their loans to do it (yes, I know this isn’t true, but when you just lump it on top of tuition it doesn’t seem that bad).

Slocum,
Perhaps it is true that it’s just as easy to read the damned textbook than go to class for some small subset of people. But for the vast majority of folks, this isn’t anywhere close to true. The modern university-as-business model has many flaws, but yours is the laziest criticism I’ve heard.

22

ingrid robeyns 02.11.09 at 10:01 pm

It’s a pity that a publisher such as Berkely Electronic Press doesn’t do books. Some academic authors who want to publish a really cheap book have incentives to do so with an ‘established’ press (for example, in the context in which I work, we are assessed on publication output, and I don’t think a self-produced book would ‘count’, whereas a BEP book would certainly ‘count’).
I recall that we once here had a post about a book published by Yale University Press that was available online as a PDF. That seems the best of both worlds.
Which are the publishers that people can recommend for being willing to cooperate with academic writers who want to keep the consumer price really low?

23

theo 02.11.09 at 10:10 pm

“morally-dubious offers of $200 to “review” a text in cases where they clearly have zero interest in what you’re gonna say.”

“Sometimes, the professor in invited to contribute a chapter or two to the customized book, so the publisher can pay ‘royalties’.”

Sounds like the publishers have been learning directly from the drug companies. Another market where decisions are made by a gatekeeper rather than the ultimate customer.

(And no, I’m not a wacko libertarian who thinks magically informed customers should be making the ultimate decision about medical devices, drugs, and textbooks — there’s a clear necessity for professional/institutional/governmental regulation).

24

emjaybee 02.11.09 at 10:41 pm

It seems pretty clear that students who are purchasing, say, 4 courses worth of books could get a Kindle + downloads for less; Kindles are quite readable, and could be used for all four years. If the textbook publishers could be strongarmed into this, they’d still make money; print and distribution costs are only getting higher, and simply selling the electronic ms. as a pdf or similar file would work just fine.

In addition, such texts would be *searchable*, which, when I was a student, would have overcome any amount of dislike for reading on a screen.

25

Slocum 02.11.09 at 11:20 pm

Perhaps it is true that it’s just as easy to read the damned textbook than go to class for some small subset of people. But for the vast majority of folks, this isn’t anywhere close to true.

I strongly disagree. Do you really think lecturing over Econ 101 material is a critical value add? Bear in mind that there’s little or no opportunity for questions in such an environment. If you think the talking head is essential, then fine — make it a video the comes on a DVD in the back of the text for the students who prefer watching TV to reading.

But think about it — sitting through a 3-hour lecture, you have no control over the pacing. You spend hours squirming, listening to stuff that was perfectly obvious from the reading (or perhaps you learned in high school econ), but if something comes up that does puzzle you a bit, you can’t hold up a 300 student lecture for more detail (and that’s assuming you hadn’t long before zoned out and started texting your friends).

Far better to have spent the time on your own (or in a study group) focusing on the bits you find difficult and skipping over the stuff you already know or find obvious. My daughter’s Macro class was 3-hour, once a week lecture. The prof, quite helpfully, made the power-point slides available ahead of time. A high percentage of the class disappeared during the break time or didn’t show at all. And perfectly rationally, too — why waste the time?

And while I’m at it, I might as well pile on. Robert Frank reports that if you test ex-Econ 101 students 6-months after having taken the course, they are indistinguishable from students who’ve never taken the course at all:

What we know is that the course as it’s traditionally taught doesn’t achieve much impact. Students are given tests six months after they’ve taken the course to see whether they understand basic economic concepts, and students who’ve taken the course don’t score any better on those tests than students who didn’t take the course at all. That seems like a pretty scandalous level of performance, to my eye. I think in other sectors of the economy we’d see malpractice lawsuits filed; in the university, maybe we get a pass on that sort of thing.

http://insidehighered.com/news/2007/06/01/frank

And is there any reason to suspect that phenomenon is limited to Economics?

26

P.D. Magnus 02.11.09 at 11:40 pm

This kind of nonsense is what motivated me both to write an intro logic book and to release it under an open license. Although it is available in electronic format, that’s mostly for people elsewhere who want to use it. For my course, I make it available to students in print just as I would a course packet.

This does not solve all of the problems of abusive monopolies, however. After the copy center across the street closed down, I’ve been making the hardcopy available through the campus bookstore. Turns out they’re sticking students for a $10 premium over the cost of printing.

27

Kevin Donoghue 02.11.09 at 11:46 pm

In the Mankiw thread, Notsneaky mentioned an institutional complication I hadn’t been aware of:

In my experience, usually the parents buy the student a “plan” which includes daily meals and purchases at the book store. […]

Of course there’s a principal-agent problem here (parents can’t trust students not to blow their allowance on beer rather than textbooks) which the college/bookstore is exploiting, since ostensibly these “plans” are supposed to be a way of limiting your offspring’s expanses (which they might, but the side effect is that they create a captive consumer base and create monopoly power, so net effect could go either way).

That’s the thing about market forces. They can work, but people have many reasons for obstructing them.

28

Kevin Donoghue 02.11.09 at 11:49 pm

Sorry, preview mislead me about the formatting. The paragraph about the principal-agent problem is Notsneaky also.

29

Misha 02.11.09 at 11:54 pm

Faculty who aren’t textbook writers themselves are often completely divorced from the actual cost of the books they assign, which helps perpetuate the horrible cycle.

My favorite totally harmless story of this comes from my own graduate education, when an anthropology professor who shall remain nameless assigned us Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle and had the campus bookstore request a standard desk copy for him, as he did for all the many books he’d assigned us (grad students earning 1/10th his income, no less) for the course. He got back a letter calling him a capitalist swine, because the publisher had intentionally lowered the cost of the book to what it cost them to produce: about $2.50 a copy.

30

dsquared 02.12.09 at 12:09 am

I refrain from assigning my own books for my classes because the whole point of assigning a book in philosophy is to generate criticism.

Surely you could just intentionally write a crap book every couple of years and cash in that way?

I am with John at #7. If someone offered me an economics textbook that they’d written and were giving away or selling for cost price, I would wonder what other important points of economics they might have failed to grasp.

31

Jamie 02.12.09 at 12:33 am

Harry B,
Yes, some years ago it became vastly more difficult to construct course packets and the packets began to cost much more. We now have a clearinghouse that does the work of securing permissions for us… but the packets are still very expensive.
Here are two good solutions. One I adopted myself when I (stopped being so embarrassingly out of touch and) discovered how expensive anthology textbooks are: I just designed the syllabus around the previous edition and had the bookstore order all used copies. This worked very well.
The second Brown has implemented. You make your own anthology out of articles and book chapters and the library will put together a web page with all the material (in some cases links thereto). For stuff that isn’t available electronically, they’ll scan it and put up a pdf. Since these sites are password protected (and for purely educational use, not for profit, etc.) Brown’s position is that this is Fair Use.
I now use only one anthology (Moral Discourse and Practice, which is very good and relatively inexpensive). I’ve replaced all the others with the library web pages.

Now if only my college freshman son’s professors would follow suit…

32

giotto 02.12.09 at 12:57 am

For stuff that isn’t available electronically, they’ll scan it and put up a pdf. Since these sites are password protected (and for purely educational use, not for profit, etc.) Brown’s position is that this is Fair Use.

Does anyone know if this has been tested in court anywhere?

I am moving toward posting PDFs of every reading but the survey text. The local copy shop, which makes all the course packs is very adamant that this would NOT be legal. (Of course, they need to protect their golden goose, and it seems to me now that we can all make PDFs, their business model is toast.) They claim that part of the expense of the course pack is hunting down copyright holders and paying fees. Being cynical, I’m dubious that this is the case, but I’m not sure enough about that to insist that it isn’t the case. Anyone here familiar with how this works?

33

Righteous Bubba 02.12.09 at 1:02 am

The local copy shop, which makes all the course packs is very adamant that this would NOT be legal.

It wouldn’t be legal for them: it wouldn’t be fair use. That’s probably all the thinking they’ve done on the matter.

34

Charlie 02.12.09 at 1:12 am

As a tradesman (plumber/gasfitter), I can tell you this is not limited to Academia.

My textbook costs for my first year of a four year apprenticeship were 950$. That’s for wks of classes. Second year was an additional 650$. Third year they are rewriting both the plumbing code and the natural gas code, and that will cost me an additional 350$ to replace two obsolete codes, on top of another 700$ for new books. Fourth year I expect to pay another 1000$ or so.

I should point out that most of these books are building and mechanical codes: ie, they are laws, and theoretically public domain knowledge…Why exactly am I paying so much for them? Because there are very cosy little sweetheart deals being made, is why.

35

Matt 02.12.09 at 1:19 am

Fair use allows you to make one copy for yourself. What got copy shops (in particular Kinkos) in trouble was that they were making course packets, not paying the copyright fees, and then charging for them. It’s the charging that’s the special no-no. That’s why you can put stuff on reserve and have students copy it themselves, or scan it and have it on a site like blackboard for students to print one copy for themselves, but if you have a course pack made at the copy shop it will be expensive- they’ve learned to pay the copyright fees so as to not get hit with huge law suits, as Kinkos was several years back. Also, you’re usually safe for this sort of fair use for academic purposes if you don’t use the whole book. Articles, especially if taken from different books, are fine. These days students might not even print them, but just down-load the pdfs to their computers, saving trees.

36

John Emerson 02.12.09 at 1:24 am

It would be nice if there were POD printer-binders available at Kinko’s where you could get a bound volume of any PDF right on the spot. You could even cut out the LULU middleman. I [would] photocopy exorbitantly-priced scholarly books I get from the library in toto, but [do not do so because it’s illegal and] working from photocopies is really annoying.

37

nick s 02.12.09 at 1:50 am

As a tradesman (plumber/gasfitter), I can tell you this is not limited to Academia.

Oh, completely. My wife’s professional licensing study guide sells for about $750 new, or $600 for a stripped-down version. The makers and their authorised resellers actively scaremonger against buying used copies from previous years — sitting the exam costs $750, so it — and have shut down some eBay auctions in the past. Every page has a copyright warning plastered in the header and footer; the perfect binding is atrocious and pages fall out after a few weeks.

While I can’t be certain, I’m pretty sure that the revision guide makers collude with the test-setters to ensure that some of the more ambiguous multiple-choice questions basically require buying the “online test” component to get prepped on the “correct” answer.

38

mrstock 02.12.09 at 1:58 am

If you can get your book done for $40 my hat is off to you. Otherwise you’ll need to pick up a textbook on introductory economics to figure out why you won’t!

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Tom West 02.12.09 at 2:15 am

Having been in the textbook publishing business (albeit with a micropublisher), it’s not all skittles and beer. First, a good quality textbook is easily a $100K investment, probably closer to $200K. (A professional probably takes 1 year to write a decent 500-1,000 page textbook + a few months of professional editing, proofing, typesetting, etc.)

Then you need to send 1K worth of free copies out, pay your sales force, etc. By the end, unless you’re selling >5K copies a year (and good luck with that unless you’ve got a massively successful first year textbook with widespread adoption), your eking out a profit. (6 years ago our cost of goods was about $25 per 1,000 page hardcover textbook, selling price was $65 with bookstore markup on top, although most of our sales were direct to high schools).

To be honest, I never saw any evidence of kickbacks. I will say that for universities, a recognizable and trusted name on the cover was probably marginally more important than the content. However, professors were quite price insensitive – they’d use the book they liked best regardless of price. High schools were very price sensitive. Sadly for us, in our field (CS education) they often chose the ultimate discount of using no text book at all.

I suspect that for the larger publishers (like publishing in general), you make all your profits on the few really successful books and that pays for the hundreds of textbooks that you published that lost buckets of money. The trouble is (like publishing in general), it’s pretty hard to determine which one’s are going to be the really successful ones in advance. For your $100 dollar textbook, a lot of the $60-80 that’s going to the publisher is really paying for the others four books nobody bought…

40

Laura Wimberley 02.12.09 at 2:33 am

For stuff that isn’t available electronically, they’ll scan it and put up a pdf. Since these sites are password protected (and for purely educational use, not for profit, etc.) Brown’s position is that this is Fair Use.

Does anyone know if this has been tested in court anywhere?

Regrettably, this is still an open question – Georgia State is being sued by publishers over electronic reserves.

What really aggravates me about this suit is that a number of the plaintiffs are university presses. Talk about robbing Peter to pay Paul.

41

David Hobby 02.12.09 at 2:41 am

I am a college professor, and here’s my side of it.

Yes, the publishers do their best to sell books. They certainly don’t tell you what the cost to students is. The solution is to look on Amazon, although by now I can usually guess retail prices quite accurately by examining the book.

I haven’t seen any side payments to instructors, beyond free desk copies. Publishers pretty much have to give those out, since instructors would probably boycott any book where they had to pay for their own copy. (Actually, my department did get a large box of good chocolates from the publisher’s representative when we adopted their Calculus text. That for around 200 copies a year, for five or so years.)

Our campus bookstore is sort of a non-profit entity, and some students expect it to carry the books they need. So I have difficulty assigning older editions of a book–the bookstore says it’s unable to purchase them. (Since the bookstore needs to get 30 copies, I can see why they don’t want to mess with buying them piecemeal from used book sellers.) The best I can do for my students is to say “feel free to use an earlier edition, I’ll give you copies of the assigned exercises”. Not that the exercises aren’t in the older editions–they just have slightly different numbers.

A lot of students seem not to read the text. Putting a charitable spin on this, I’ll say that “everybody learns differently”. One does need to have a text as a backup, though. Some students do read the books carefully. While I try to keep costs low for students, I don’t assign books that aren’t good enough. My students are paying at least $1000 for the course, so paying a bit for a textbook that helps them learn the material and get a better grade could be money well spent.

In previous semesters, I’ve assigned: a $160 Applied Math text which fit the course well, a book on Taxicab Geometry from the 70’s which cost $5, and a free Linear Algebra text in .pdf format.

You’d think that by now there’d be a good free Calculus text!

42

Tom West 02.12.09 at 3:12 am

You’d think that by now there’d be a good free Calculus text!

Except if it’s free, who is paying to market it? – and if it’s not marketed, then realistically, it’s not going very far.

One of the more painful lessons of my adulthood. If there’s no-one making any money on it, in most cases it’s going to disappear. Not because there won’t be the product – there’s people willing to provide good product for free surprisingly often. It’s that there are very few people willing to spend all their time marketing for free :-).

43

Anderson 02.12.09 at 3:23 am

“A lot of students seem not to read the text.”

No “seem” about it. I was in my last semester of undergrad before I realized that almost none of my classmates — even the A students — was doing the reading. I just happened to like to read.

44

Marcus Pivato 02.12.09 at 3:57 am

Here is my perspective as a mathematics professor. (Perhaps things are different in other disciplines).

First, when picking a text, I am actually quite sensitive to price. Perhaps that is just because I am unusually scrupulous, but I doubt it —most of the people in this blog are quite scandalized by textbook prices, and most professors I know feel exactly the same way (we were students once, and young…). It is true that I generally try to pick the `best’ textbook for the course, because a bad book makes life harder for students, and definitely makes life harder for me. However, I always research price, and when two texts seem of comparable quality, I always choose the cheaper one.

This is made somewhat easier in mathematics because of Dover Books. Dover is a wonderful company which buys the copyrights of older textbooks and republishes them in inexpensive (approx $20) paperback editions. Most of the `classical’ areas of mathematics haven’t changed much in fifty years, so it isn’t necessary to have a `cutting edge’ textbook. There are many extremely good textbooks written 20-30 years ago which are now available through Dover at modest prices, if you know how to look. (Of course, there was also a lot of crap published 30 years ago, much of which is also available through Dover).

Some comments above claim, `professors aren’t even able to find out the price from the publisher if they want to’. This is nonsense. The prices are instantly available on Amazon and half a dozen other online book-sellers. Any professor who doesn’t research the price of her textbooks is not doing her job properly.

Other comments claim that there is some form of `side payements’ or `kickbacks’ involved. For the record, I have never received `kickbacks’ from publishers, and I regard the unsolicited sample copies they keep sending me as junk mail more than anything else. Probably the only `perverse incentive’ in my choice of textbooks is inertia: it is easier to use the same textbook I used last year than try something new.

Some commenters claim that the slick, glossy, full-colour `coffee-table book’ format of modern textbooks is just useless bells and whistles used by publishers to justify inflated prices. In mathematics, this is false. There are many, many concepts in mathematics which are made infinitely clearer by a few good illustrations, especially if they are in full colour, three dimensions, etc. In my opinion, the greatest deficiency of most advanced math texts is that they lack the slick full-colour graphics which is now ubiquitous in intro calculus texts. (Of course, some of the slick graphics really are just window dressing. But my point is that they can be and often are very pedagogically useful). I think the same is true in economics. I have always admired how economics texts can take even relatively subtle mathematical ideas and communicate them with a few well-chosen pictures.

Some of the `mainstream’ academic publishers are less expensive than others. For example, many books by Cambridge University Press are quite reasonably priced. Furthermore, several of CUP’s authors have negotiated contracts which allow them to continue to make a PDF version of the book freely available online. For example, there is an excellent textbook in algebraic topology by Allan Hatcher which is published by CUP and which is also available on Hatcher’s webpage. (Disclaimer/plug: I myself have recently negotiated a similar publication contract with CUP). Needless to say, if CUP is competing with a free online version, the price for the printed book is quite modest.

The fact is, many more academic textbook authors could negotiate publication contracts which force the publishers to price their books reasonably or to provide free online versions. I frankly doubt that most academics write textbooks as a money-making endeavour. We are already highly paid, and unless you write a best-selling textbook for a highly populated 100 level course, the royalty payments cannot possibly compensate you for the thousands of hours of work. Academics mainly write textbooks for the same reason we (freely) publish our research: partly because we believe in the intrinsic value of the project, and partly because it enhances our professional prestige (which may lead to indirect economic payoffs in the form of promotions, etc.). In most cases, the direct financial recompense must be pretty small beer compared to the labour involved. So there’s really no excuse for the textbook companies to charge such scandalous prices.

Some commenters have asked, `Why aren’t there a whole bunch of really good free textbooks available online?’ Well, there are, in fact, thousands of free textbooks available online. Just Google `free textbooks online’ and you will find half a dozen directories of these books, some of which contain thousands of titles. However, I didn’t say these were `good’ books —many are little more than sketchy lecture notes, full of errors, ambiguities, badly organized, incomplete, etc. It is relatively easy and fun to write a 90%-finished textbook. It is incredibly difficult, time-consuming, onerous, unpleasant, and damaging to your sanity to write a 100% finished textbook. You spend five times more time proofreading, correcting, cross-referencing, fixing ambiguities, and adding exercises/solutions/etc than you spent actually `writing’ the book. For this reason, most of the free books available online are basically half-assed and useless as a text for a course. The `other 10%’ is all the heavy work, and it is what makes the difference between someone’s free online lecture notes, and a book which will actually get published by a major academic publisher.

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David Hobby 02.12.09 at 4:00 am

Tom– You don’t actually need to market something if people can find it via Google. For that, all they have to do is suspect it exists and know what to call it. Google gave me gems like this somewhat dated one:
http://books.slashdot.org/books/04/03/04/028253.shtml
To summarize, yes there are free calculus books out there. But none that fit well enough that I’d teach from it.

The Linear Algebra text was thoroughly developed by the author but never published, so he wound up putting it on the web. Which was a lucky accident, from my point of view.

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The Raven 02.12.09 at 4:03 am

David, I went through this, recently, advising colleages on a specialized monograph that was previously published through Booksurge. When Amazon took them over, Booksurge lost–one can’t make this up–the book from their catalog. So I did some market research & here’s what I found:
1. There are three main POD channels: Booksurge, Lightning Source, and Lulu.
2. If you want your book sold through Amazon, you have to do an edition with Booksurge.
3. If you want your book available in bookstores, you have to do an edition with Lightning Source.
4. If you just want your book available via the internet, Lulu is fine.
5. All the services subcontract their printing, and there are few incentives to produce a consistent quality product; if the physical quality of the book matters, you have to act like a real publisher, do your own printing contract, oversee the results, and so on.

So there’s your answer: if you want to publish an inexpensive POD book, and you’re sure enough copies will be sold to pay for the setup costs, do it through Lightning Source.

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David Hobby 02.12.09 at 4:16 am

Marcus–

Well said, I agree. But I feel you need to distinguish between mass market textbooks and ones that are advanced enough to count as academic publications.

You mention an Algebraic Topology text as an example at one point. A lot of schools don’t even have an undergraduate course in that area. I agree, a lot of important books in my field are freely available online as .pdf files. Publishers tend to do one print run, and after 15 years or so the authors are free to put their books online. (I’m an author of one such. We got around $2000 from it, and you can bet it wasn’t a big earner for Springer, either. Now it’s online for free.)

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Gotchaye 02.12.09 at 4:49 am

Just a student’s perspective on textbooks, for what it’s worth:

Just last year, I was one of the students Anderson mentioned. I only really know engineering and philosophy, but a whole bunch of us in engineering only ever cracked the textbooks in order to do problem sets. I assume that other fields allow for a bit more creativity during lecture, but something we learned very quickly was that you could either read the book or go to class, but doing both was a waste of time. We went to class (mostly) because that was what the professors were going to test us on, whereas the books also had information that we’d never see again. If the professors couldn’t count on everyone to do the reading, they have to cover all of the important information in class anyway, so why read? We wouldn’t have been noticeably worse off with pdf lecture notes and photocopied assignment sheets. There were a few classes with very good books, but the professors very quickly learned that such books cut class attendance in half (at least). My feeling is that the professors paid a bit too much attention to having good books, and I think I may have learned the most in classes without required texts. And the prices didn’t help here – two people would often share a book, which made it even less likely that people would read the thing. Since starting grad school I’ve found that texts can be a wonderful reference for research, but I’ve yet to hit a class where I’ve felt the need to read the book. The cost of a textbook almost seems secondary to whether or not textbooks are even necessary for many classes.

Philosophy was a bit different. Here, reading was much more dependent on the lecturing style of the professor (and on how interesting the material was, of course). In lower-level classes where the professor recaps the readings anyway, you only need to read if the professor forces you to (by requiring response paragraphs to be submitted in advance, for example, or by having random quizzes over readings at the beginnings of some classes). There were classes where I didn’t bother buying all of the required texts, and it’s not like I learned any less for it – I just took some hits on the occasional pop quiz, but I got a summary of the reading in class anyway. In higher-level classes, where the professor takes reading for granted, you’ve got to do it. It’s all about expectations. But given that professors just can’t count on students in a low-level philosophy class actually doing the reading, I really don’t see that an expensive book can be justified over a cheap or free book. Students are almost always going to buy at least some of the books for a class, even if they’re not going to read them. And if they’re not going to read them, and if you know that they’re not going to read them, you can pick cheap books without hurting anything. We very much appreciated when readings were google-able (as with classical stuff) or were photocopies/pdfs of short articles.

A lot of professors seem to operate under the impression that students use the text, and I think that further distorts their decisions.

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John Emerson 02.12.09 at 5:05 am

I frankly doubt that most academics write textbooks as a money-making endeavour. We are already highly paid, and unless you write a best-selling textbook for a highly populated 100 level course, the royalty payments cannot possibly compensate you for the thousands of hours of work.

No, most academics don’t. Just the ones who are able to make enormous amounts of money by fleecing their students. For example, the authors of popular Econ 101 books, or popular intro calculus books. Like everything else economic, small-time crime doesn’t pay. Either you steal from the rich, or you steal from large numbers of poor.

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purpleOnion 02.12.09 at 5:25 am

I’m not as concerned with the cost of the books, but their content. With so many people willing to take bribes and protecting their careers above all else its possible to imagine the promotion of a particular ideology through text books.

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joe koss 02.12.09 at 6:43 am

It is interesting. I have been on both sides of this. I have been, and am currently, a student who is beaten down by these excessive prices. But, like Tom West, I have worked in a industry that is based on the mass production of textbooks. And as I am sure he can attest to, there is a point that is being lost in this discussion.
For some it might be hard to realize just how big and expansive the process is to make a book. It takes loggers, pulp factories, paper factories, printing factories and binderies. It takes a vast network of salespersons, design staff, writing staff and layout staff. It involves paper companies, printing/binding companies and publishing companies. Thousands upon thousands of working class jobs have traditionally been dependent on printing, esp. in states like Wisconsin (WI has lost over 16,000 paper related jobs the last 10 years). It is an extremely labor intensive process to go from a tree to a textbook.
Now, none of the above justifies the industry becoming as bloated and myopic as it has become, probably not unlike the music recording industry. In many respects, they, like the music industry, willingly failed to embrace the advent of new technology and the obviousness of the shifting of the paradigm.
Many mass produced textbooks come out with new editions with only the slightest of variations, like a different photo or different border; eg things that are easy to change given the current work already put into its creation (wisperg, a UW watchgroup did a pretty damning study on this I believe). While it is somewhat hard to explain how an offset press works, it is very easy to make a superficial change in say the black color plate while preserving the whole, thereby giving the appearance of a ‘new edition’ while limiting the actual labor intensiveness of the change, ie preserving the original investment and making money on an already paid for product.
This is a very common practice. But it keeps printers printing, loggers logging and paper companies making paper.
I wish I knew more about economics, but I don’t, so I don’t know where the fat is, how textbooks could once cost a fraction of what they did. But I do know that over winter break, I returned to the factory to work and we shut down 7 out of 10 of our presses, because they were all working on an order from one publishing company that was for the Las Vegas school district, and the district had just informed the publishing company that they were not going to get a payment for the books this year (or even in the next couple of years). A phone call came into our plant super, who then called all the presses, and we shut down and started cleaning. We didn’t start up again for 3 days. My company has a local history of never laying off employees, for over 150 years. Some aren’t so lucky. It takes a long time to change horses in mid-stream when you are dealing with printing…

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The Raven 02.12.09 at 8:01 am

BTW, the market is lots weirder than you’ve yet imagined. You doubt me? Go where your students buy textbooks & ask the buyer how they decide what books to shelve & what books to order. Then you can go to your university library & find out how the librarians set their acquisition policies. It’s so far from an auction market as to be unrecognizable. I suppose there’s a “market”, sort of, but it’s nothing like any economic analysis I’ve ever seen covers. Textbooks…I can’t even imagine. Maybe the ravens in publishing houses set the prices. Krawk!

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Tom West 02.12.09 at 11:05 am

Tom— You don’t actually need to market something if people can find it via Google.

I’m afraid my experience has been rather different. You need a *very* enthusiastic professor to spend the large amount of time to do all the finding and filtering (as #42 Marcus mentioned there’s a lot of chaff). The vast majority of professors and teachers used the basic filter of ‘was someone else willing to risk a lot of money on publishing this book’ before even looking at it. Unhappily for us, the second filter was ‘was a big publisher willing to risk…’ :-). Once it was down to half a dozen textbooks, then the teachers/professors would read each one carefully.

Admittedly, this may have changed in the last handful of years…

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laura 02.12.09 at 1:08 pm

Ooooh, oooh. I actually know the answer to this one. That textbook cost $140, because the publisher sells it at 50% discount to the book seller. That means that the publisher gets $70 per textbook. Minus royalties (not all that much), paper costs (which have gone up a lot), shipping, publicity, editorial and administrative costs, the publisher is looking at $20. Which is still a lot. No doubt. But the publisher is able to charge that amount, because it has a captive audience. Students have to buy the book. And then the publisher uses the profits from the textbook publishing division and diverts it to the less profitable divisions, like fiction and academic writing.

I’m actually laughing that Gelman thinks the author has any say whatsoever about the cost of a textbook.

– a former book editor

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Slocum 02.12.09 at 1:11 pm

I’m still amused that people are willing to spend so much effort discussing the problem of forcing students to buy $100 texts (when there are perfectly good free/cheap functional equivalents) but not the problem of forcing students to buy $1000-$2000 semester classes (when there are perfectly good free/cheap functional equivalents). Especially since the $100 text is a mere side effect of the $1000 course (obviously you have to buy the overpriced text only because you have to take the overpriced course). If there were alternate methods of proving competence and receiving credit for Econ 101 or Calc 115, there’d be no need for the $100 or the $1000, and students wouldn’t spend the next decade or more of their lives digging out of the debt incurred to buy these things. If we solved the root Econ 101 rent-seeking problem, the much smaller Principles of Macroeconomics, 17th edition problem would solve itself.

Here’s my modest proposal. A la Robert Frank, all students take a second final for a course at the end of the following semester (e.g. 4-8 months later). And any student who has not taken the course (or who isn’t even enrolled at the university) can pay a nominal test-taking fee to sit for the exam as well. For these students, if the score is, for example, in the range of that of students who earned a ‘A-‘ in the course, then they, too, receive course credit with a ‘A-‘ grade.

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El Cid 02.12.09 at 1:46 pm

Some of my professors made sure that every single reading was available as a reserved photocopy in the university library or as direct web-linked content. If you were willing to take just a tiny bit of extra time, you didn’t have to pay a dollar for books or reading.

On the other hand, a couple of textbooks I bought for science courses were expensive but were absolutely fantastic learning and reference tools. I wish I could have afforded to keep them rather than selling them back.

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Ginger Yellow 02.12.09 at 2:14 pm

“I notice that the high-priced textbooks are disproportionately available for the introductory and other high-enrollment course types (Western Civ, U.S. survey or medieval survey texts in my discipline). “

This makes no sense to me. I can understand the need for (and therefore the cost of) textbooks in science/maths heavy courses, but in the humanities there’s always the option of just setting books. Indeed, the only textbooks I read in my English Lang and Lit degree were on linguistics. Surely you don’t need a textbook to teach Western Civ or Mediaeval history. You need texts.

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Eveningsun 02.12.09 at 2:50 pm

s Glmn rll s dmb s nt t ndrstnd tht mrkt prssrs wn’t hld dwn prcs whn th ppl wh r pyng th prc r nt th sm s ths chsng th prdct?

Ginger Yellow, in my lit classes, whenever possible, I assign Dover editions. (The Republic is $2.50, The Scarlet Letter is $2.00, and of course these editions are even cheaper used.) I never assign the huge anthologies. I wish that all the clueless a–holes who pontificate about enhancing class mobility by making college more affordable would pay attention to the elephant in the room: textbook prices. Simply by making more considerate choices, faculty could save students millions annually. Where I teach, a significant number of students drop out because they can’t afford their books.

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Watson Aname 02.12.09 at 2:55 pm

For these students, if the score is, for example, in the range of that of students who earned a ‘A-’ in the course, then they, too, receive course credit with a ‘A-’ grade.

This would require vastly more comprehensive final exams than many intro classes actually have. It’s not a terrible idea really, but it’s not workable just tagged onto the current system.

I think a variant of this isn’t a bad idea, actually. Something like a comprehensive set of exams (not separated out by course) to cover basic material that you might reasonably be expected to have learned on your own. Results of which will give you credit, but no grade, for (typically) lower division courses. To get a particular degree, you still have to put in some real work at the institution, obviously.

Something like this does happen informally some places with students who have unusual backgrounds.

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ScentOfViolets 02.12.09 at 3:10 pm

I think another part must be an issue of presentantion. Textbooks are nice, slick looking affairs these days, and if students are paying $1k+ to take a class, they expect certain things of the associated textbooks. And putting together something with that much polish takes time and effort that is very different than assembling the basic material.

I’m not so sure about that. I see more and more students these days becoming savvy with torrent downloads. Yes, some of these are illegal. But the existence of such a market indicates that perhaps there is something wrong with the legitimate one.

Another issue has to be problem sets. Certainly one of the hardest things for intro texts has to be putting together large number of suitable problems, and it seems like there’d be obvious disadvantages to hashing out the back-of-the-chapter problems in a public forum leaving ChangLog notes around as googlable hints to the problem sets you want the students to do…

Somewhat true. Putting together good problem sets is an understated and under-appreciated art.

As to why WikiBooks doesn’t work – digital textbooks are pedagogically unsatisfactory. There are lots of studies showing that people read differently on screens than they do with paper. Screens are for skimming, not for the in-depth kind of reading needed to follow real explanations and arguments. Moreover, in face-to-face classrooms, students need to have their books with them, for in-person examinations of diagrams or close readings of texts. Not enough students have laptops, even at major universities, for digital texts to suffice for that – and even if they did, a room full of laptop screens cuts off the discussions.

So why not just print off the book? I’m using Fulton’s “Introduction to Algebraic Geometry” in one class, which the author has kindly given permission to download from his home page. So a lot of students simply print it off, three-hole it, and stuff it in a cheap binder. Doing it this way let’s you use it as a chapter book, and the margins are plenty wide enough to extensive notes on the side. One of my pet peeves with those big ‘intro’ books is how little of them you actually go through, and how heavy they are. My daughter had one set last year in jr. high that weighed over 40 pounds! According to her, me, and just about every student I know, shiny! is seriously overrated, at least in textbooks. Students would rather pay $30 for something not so spiffy than $120 for the latest glossy lump with it’s slick layout and totally useless CD package in the back.

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ScentOfViolets 02.12.09 at 3:28 pm

Some commenters claim that the slick, glossy, full-colour `coffee-table book’ format of modern textbooks is just useless bells and whistles used by publishers to justify inflated prices. In mathematics, this is false. There are many, many concepts in mathematics which are made infinitely clearer by a few good illustrations, especially if they are in full colour, three dimensions, etc. In my opinion, the greatest deficiency of most advanced math texts is that they lack the slick full-colour graphics which is now ubiquitous in intro calculus texts.

I tend to disagree on that score, or at least to think that good illustrations are not that hard to generate. Good illustrations are not necessarily slick illustrations, btw, and they aren’t all that hard to produce, are they? Some sort of Mathematica plot or Maple, right? Possibly ported to something like Adobe to enhance? I could see medical illustrations as being pricey to produce, but surely not mathematical diagrams. Or, come to that, diagrams that illustrate economic concepts; the examples of supply/demand curves intersecting, for instance, seem to use extremely simple curves, even straight lines.

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c.l. ball 02.12.09 at 3:32 pm

Re #42

I agree with much of the post, but this is unfair:

Some comments above claim, `professors aren’t even able to find out the price from the publisher if they want to’. This is nonsense. The prices are instantly available on Amazon and half a dozen other online book-sellers. Any professor who doesn’t research the price of her textbooks is not doing her job properly.

Publishers rarely reveal the pricing when teachers are making the book orders, even if you ask. Even if you hunt it down, the Amazon price may not reflect the local bookstore price. Not all students go through Amazon — those who lack credit cards and those who do not want to pay the shipping. I wish they would since local brick-and-mortar stores — on-campus or off-campus — usually rely on one or two book distributors. I’ve been shocked how many times the bookstore (one in Ames, IA) told me they could not get copies of a book, when I could see many at Amazon. What they meant was that their distributor could not get copies of the book.

In my field (political science/IR), there are actually few if any good textbooks. Most of them present debates without providing much in the way of evidence for the claim, contain poorly drawn maps, outdated data, and are blandly written. For the most part, I don’t use them, even in introductory courses. I will occasionally recommend students who find the material complicated look at one or two that I place on reserve at the library, but I don’t make them required reading. I can lecture the basic material, assign several good, topical edited volumes that cover much of the basic debates for the cost of one text-book, and use university-provided, on-line journals to cover most stuff. I have used books from Oxford’s “Very Short Introductions” series, but I have not yet seen the IR book. For example, rather than rely on the usually lousy histories of the Cold War in textbooks (to most undergraduates the Cold War is not different from World War II in their political memory), I assigned Robert MacMahon’s Cold War: A Very Short Introduction which runs @ $10.

I would say that this is harder in other PS subfields — the usual comparative politics survey, that focuses on key countries across various regions, is hard to teach without a text, but not impossible.

It is worth noting that most textbooks are published by commercial publishers, not university presses.

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Watson Aname 02.12.09 at 3:54 pm

Some sort of Mathematica plot or Maple, right?

Not really in general. For some things, this works (but even then it can take a surprising amount of time to make a really good figure, mostly because it takes time to work out what exactly it should be). However, higher dimensions is a problem. Presenting 3D information well in 2D is really difficult. Adding time is also often a problem. Marcus Pivato’s comment is right on the mark here — for some kinds of material, good multi-color figures are just the thing you want. And they take a lot of work to make well, and are expensive to print.

One thing that digital/online content can hopefully do better in future is construct interactive examples in 3D etc., but I’ve not seen much that really works well yet.

As someone notes above, it’s the last “10%” of work on a textbook that is the real slog. I’ve wondered if collaborative effort can/will arrive a really decent freely available text, but so far I’ve not seen any (which doesn’t mean they don’t exist). The best ones all seem to be “real” out of print texts, or some other arrangement where it was actually produced for the print market but then made available for free. For some material, this is going to be fine, for others it will be dated.

Making a good set of exercises, solutions for those exercises, checking all figures/equations/references and what have you, going over the whole thing for consistent notation etc. This is just some of the very tedious and time consuming work, but if it hasn’t been done, you’ve got something closer to a polished set of course notes than a good textbook.

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Slocum 02.12.09 at 4:32 pm

I think a variant of this isn’t a bad idea, actually.

Or how about a much simpler proposal — making university accreditation dependent on being able to show retention of learning after 6 months or a year? As Frank points out, if these were pharmaceuticals, we certainly would not allow the companies to be in complete control of both the treatment (teaching) and the evaluation (tests/grading). Any pharma company whose products had effectiveness as poor as standard university Econ 101 classes would have their products rejected by the FDA and go out of business.

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g 02.12.09 at 5:25 pm

Man, at least in econ and science classes you get 300+ page books for 150 dollars. I was a math major and it always hurt a little more to shell out 140 dollars for a 150 page manual, err, book. Ridiculous.

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Colin Danby 02.12.09 at 8:15 pm

http://www.gapminder.org/ has some good examples of animated graphics. I have also seen nice java applets that let you fiddle with parameter values of a dynamic system.

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Joel Velasco 02.12.09 at 8:25 pm

A couple of comments first – $1,000 classes? At some schools perhaps, but for many of you, your students are paying far more. For example, at my former home Wisconsin-Madison, in state tuition this year is $7,570 (out of state, $21,820). The average student takes 4 courses making it nearly $1,000. And I am pretty sure Wisconsin is the cheapest school in the Big Ten – all state universities. And the Big Ten is midwestern schoolers which are cheaper than coastal schools. Private schools are closer to $4000 a course.

And it is certainly a problem that students are paying a huge amount for their textbooks, but noone has mentioned another problem – many of them simply don’t buy them. I know of several students in various classes that never bought a book. They either shared with friends or tried to read them at the library when possible. This invariably made it harder on them. One student told me point blank the textbook was too expensive for him to buy (it was about $70 new).

As for keeping costs down, if you are certain that newer textbooks are basically the same, why not simply assign the older edition? For many books, it is easy for students to get copies (or the bookstore). Several professors at Madison did this (though I think mainly because it was easier for them since they could use their old notes).

And as for course packets, it is even easier. At many schools you could simply assign readings that your school library has access to electronically and give students the links (I did this once for a course, but Madison does have quite a large electronic access). In the rest of my classes, I simply break the law. I either put up articles on my website violating copyright or bring copies to a printer who invariably makes packets for me (just don’t go through the way the university wants). I do occasionally worry that I am in danger of bringing the law down hard on the school (I know nothing will happen to me personally) but I reason that there are many, many other people who do the same thing so my own contribution doesn’t matter (yes, I know terrible reasoning). A thoughtful person could consider this civil disobediance, but I don’t really do it as protest. I just brought a 20 page section of Rawls to the “official” printer once and copyright was $25 per person. So that didn’t happen. Some of the laws make sense, but are horrible on students. Other laws are just idiotic and need to be changed. My guess is that many of you break copyright law unknowingly very often because you don’t realize that anything you do could possibly be wrong (because morally, it isn’t). My belief is that when people go out of their way to find out what the rules really are, they nearly invariably think they are horrible and violate them anyway.

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emjaybee 02.12.09 at 9:34 pm

“One of the more painful lessons of my adulthood. If there’s no-one making any money on it, in most cases it’s going to disappear. Not because there won’t be the product – there’s people willing to provide good product for free surprisingly often. It’s that there are very few people willing to spend all their time marketing for free :-).”

Marketing, no. But providing, especially if that means “slapping onto the internet,” sure, why not?

I have to say, I’m just highly amused/a little saddened by the assumptions of so many that the paper book system can be preserved. It’s dying hard (and yes, taking printing jobs with it) but it’s still going to die out. It’s senseless, inconvenient, expensive, and in terms of pollution/carbon footprint, insanely wasteful; effluvia from printing and paper processing is some of the worst waterway pollution. Fancy graphs are nice, but there is no reason they can’t be provided digitally.

I apologize if someone has already posted this, but here is a nice explanation of the future of text:

http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/news/2009/02/the-once-and-future-e-book.ars

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mollymooly 02.12.09 at 9:44 pm

Modern photocopiers are wonderful. You can reduce four double-pages onto each side of an A4 sheet. The whole text fits snugly in your folder. And you have to squint to read it, which I find improves my concentration and retention levels. Until I get a headache.

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Harry 02.12.09 at 9:48 pm

I think its a good idea, slocum, for what its worth.

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Ray 02.12.09 at 9:50 pm

Yeah, I’ve seen that article about how microfiches are the future of reading already.

(Seriously, books are not like music, ebooks are too expensive for the people who want disposable reads, not robust enough (and too expensive to risk) for those who want to read everywhere , are plagued with DRM, and will _always_ have problems with hardware/software versioning and obsolescence that paper books just don’t have. Dedicated readers don’t have the flexibility for graphics that people have talked about above, or the kind of internet support that could make references really work. General purpose devices – netbooks etc – don’t have the display quality to match the printed page. ebooks always have been and always will be five years from really taking off)

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Eli Rabett 02.13.09 at 12:40 am

Where have you guys been? Eli went over this ground and even commented on a couple of reports about four years ago and even had some more recent advice

The bottom line today at non-R1s for large classes is that the publishers are providing on line homework systems. Since there are no markers at non research habituated universities (NRHUs), this is the only way of assigning and marking non trivial amounts of homework (which is vital for science and math classes) in large intro courses (you try marking weekly homeworks for classes of 50 or more)

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John Emerson 02.13.09 at 2:07 am

52: I worked in a medical school bookstore until 6 years ago, and our typical discount was 22%.
53: I agree with Slocum on academic rent-seeking. I think that on bsic subjects there should be national tests anyone can take. (Law used to be like that: if you could pass the bar, you were a lawyer.)

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aimai 02.13.09 at 5:03 pm

OK, this was twenty five years ago and in the social sciences but
a) we never were assigned text books but rather monographs, studies, novels, etc..
b) we routinely and more or less happilly spent a hundred or so dollars per course for about ten books–xeroxing was in its infancy but all books were put on reserve at the libraries, by course, and you could go and xerox the bits you wanted.
c) courses in the social sciences were very idiosyncratic, like the professor’s lecture notes. It wasn’t possible for a textbook mentality to spring up (and would have been very much frowned on as a sign of lack of intelligence or unique thought on the professor’s part).

As for the cost of the classes is 1000 dollars per class really even cutting it in terms of repaying the bricks and mortar costs of overhead at the university, the cost of the reproduction of the worker (ie the professor’s education and time spent on the course actually teaching?)

I like the idea of “reading for” any field, as they used to “read for the law” but of course people doing that were really apprenticing themselves and also working for their keep while studying with a master. In other fields you are purchasing a credential that enables you to spend money up front to bypass others who spend time actually doing the work but who don’t have money. Its a class signifier, and the more arbitrary the better from the point of view of the lisencing/credentialing institution and the non meritocracy/customer base which likes the certainity of “you pay your money and you get your degree” over the uncertainity and competition of a wide open exam system.

aimai

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Barry 02.13.09 at 8:51 pm

g 02.12.09 at 5:25 pm

“Man, at least in econ and science classes you get 300+ page books for 150 dollars. I was a math major and it always hurt a little more to shell out 140 dollars for a 150 page manual, err, book. Ridiculous.”

I remember way back in the day, complaining about a $40 calc book, and how expensive it was. It was for calc I-III, 12 credit hours total. I never hit that level of $/credit hour again
(heck, for grad school I was rarely under 10x that amount).

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Tom West 02.14.09 at 2:58 am

especially if that means “slapping onto the internet,” sure, why not?

My point almost exactly. *Anyone* can slap it onto the internet and does. You expect the buyers to go and check out 10,000 books to separate the wheat from the chaff? It’s like trying to find the next Booker prize winner by checking out all the fan-fic sites.

Really, when it comes down to it, marketing acts as proof that *someone* believed this book was valuable enough that they were willing to lay down some serious cash, and that becomes the gatekeeper that allows the buyers not to waste their valuable time.

Now admittedly, there’s always going to be a few who heroically wade into the slush pile of the internet to find the gems that really are there, and a few texts might find fans that are so vehement that they essentially act as a marketing department for free, but both are rare and far between…

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notsneaky 02.14.09 at 10:35 am

Walter Rudin. 110$, used. Probably the most I’ve ever paid per page. Worth every penny.

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notsneaky 02.14.09 at 10:49 am

Also, the rents that profs get from the free desktop copies and whatnot are pitifully low. And it’s not like you have a choice of picking a low cost principles textbook – they all cost a ridiculous amount. Given that there is competition among publishers for the profs attention (though not for the captive students) it really doesn’t matter in terms of your financial incentives what textbook you choose. If you snub one publisher there’s like five others who’ll be happy to keep sending you free copies of the textbook based on an off-chance that you’ll adopt one (which says something about the marginal cost of producing the damn things). So you might as well choose the one you like, even if it is seriously over priced, just like every other single textbook on the market.
The real injustice here is that us, the economics teachers, have been unable to collude and extract more of these rents that are so obviously out there, from the textbook publishers. All we get is a few useless copies of textbooks we’ll never use cluttering up our offices (and principles texts don’t look as good on your office bookshelves as all the issues of Econometrica going back to 1349 BC). With the market structure as it is, the students are going to get screwed either way, it’s a given. But we, the profession, are really failing to live up to the whole maximize profits on this one. It’s like we’re nice or actually care about the content or something. This madness needs to stop. I want some bribe offers! Like real actual bribes. Money,cold hard cash or that bling thing the kids are all into, not some crappy principles textbooks!

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ejh 02.14.09 at 12:02 pm

The real injustice here is that us, the economics teachers

“We”

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salient 02.14.09 at 4:24 pm

Walter Rudin. 110$, used. Probably the most I’ve ever paid per page. Worth every penny.

Seconded. Hey, didn’t know you were a fellow mathematician, comrade!

The same evaluation holds for Munkres, Topology, second edition (the half addressing point-set topology). There are a rare few $110 textbooks that, from a utility-per-page perspective, are underpriced. Come to think of it, I wonder what percentage of them address topics in pure mathematics.

Price-per-page doesn’t quite capture the utility of a textbook. Price per concept elegantly and lucidly explained? Price per exercise that actually helps to solidify and expand your understanding of the material? (It’s the exercises that sets a truly fine textbook apart from a very good handbook, from the very elementary to maddeningly challenging. I like how Munkres includes two exercises that remain open unresolved questions in the field to this day, and doesn’t identify which exercises they are!)

This madness needs to stop. I want some bribe offers!

You might be able to trick Slocum into sharing further details with you about this “contribution” quasi-scam. Or just write “supplementary notes” that are optional but genuinely helpful, especially on your quizzes, and charge students for them! I have a colleague that does this, charging the exact cost of copying, but I imagine you could find a way to sneak some genuine rent-seeking in.

One benefit of new editions coming out every couple years: it’s possible to get a fairly new textbook resource for many introductory-level topics dirt cheap. Find out what a tenured professor at the university of your choice used two years ago, contact the professor and find out if the textbook proved satisfactory, and find a copy online for $10~20. This doesn’t help students taking a course, but does help folks who want to (for example) learn the fundamentals and status-quo perspectives from a field of study on their own. Krugman’s international economics book cost me < $15 with shipping.

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Sandwichman 02.15.09 at 6:49 pm

Well, I find the very idea of a textbook egregious. I mean, these things have their own history and it’s not pretty. It’s not simply that textbook knowledge lags behind intellectual progress. The “authoritative word” (in Bakhtin’s sense) of the textbook is an inherently reactionary and hierarchical voice that enforces conformity and discourages intellectual inquiry and dissent.

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salient 02.15.09 at 9:19 pm

Well, I find the very idea of a textbook egregious.

I’m curious. How is a textbook inherently more egregious than, say, a professor’s lectures on the same material? Or do you just find the concept of education by learning from any established authority figure inherently egregious?

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Sandwichman 02.16.09 at 2:20 am

I don’t find the concept of learning from an authority egregious, although I’m suspicious of the term ‘authority figure’. The distinction I’m aiming at here is between authority earned by distinguished contribution to the discipline and authority bestowed by a corporate hierarchy. Obviously, there is going to be some overlap so I’m not talking about some kind of ‘purity.’ There is a whole game of recruiting ‘names’ to be the nominal textbook authors, who then, presumably farm out the writing to grad students (yes, I was once offered a job doing that). But then the textbook also can only deviate about 15% from earlier textbooks, so the authorship is part corporate and part traditional.

Presumably, a professor’s lecture is based on his or her knowledge and research. If not, I would find that objectionable, too.

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F 02.16.09 at 3:01 am

Slocum,

I think your idea is great, in theory. As has already been pointed out, a lot of work would need to be done to develop an actual comprehensive fair exam. Of course, there are some problems with that (see, oh, every standardized test ever made). But let’s assume these could be overcome. As for your 6-months-later test, well, given what I know of most undergrads (especially pre-meds) they’d just cram all over again 6 months later.

I still think you’d find that the people who attended lecture would outperform those who did not. For students at the extremes, it is probably true that teachers don’t have much influence – the good students will do well anyway, the really bad ones are unsalvageable. But the ones in the middle are sometimes affected. Sometimes the teacher explains things in just the right way that clicks with that particular student. Sometimes the teacher uses a memorable anecdote or technique that allows the student to remember a particular piece of information (which is nearly impossible from a textbook).

It’s just ignoring so much of what’s known about human nature and learning to suggest that learning from a textbook is equivalent to reading a book.

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