Lots of cross-blog talk on this subject at the moment: why are textbooks so expensive?
The answer is mostly that it’s a racket with some resemblance to some of the weird pricing that happens inside the health care system. The general cost of health care to individuals, for example, may basically correspond to a one-by-one breakdown of what the overall costs of health care across a whole society. But look over any given bill you receive for medical care and the itemized breakdowns tend to become more surreal the more granular they are, where items that you could purchase outside of medical care are billed to you at many times their normal purchase price.
What’s happening in part is that the price of other things not on your bill is being off-loaded onto those items: the labor costs of doctors, nurses, administrators, pharmacists, custodial staff, and so on. The costs of uninsured care in that same facility is being added into your prices. The costs of insured care which is absurdly expensive to run or prescribe for you or for others are being broken down a bit and blended into other items. The total pharmaceutical costs of a hospital or facility are being averaged over all the drugs prescribed. And so on. In the end this works in part because it’s usually not about a payment made directly by the user of health care but a payment from an insurer to a health care provider. The breakdowns are a kind of surreal peek inside a black-box process. You don’t have much choice about any of it, including usually whether or not to seek health care in the first place.
Textbooks are way less defensible in these terms because they’re a much more direct relationship between teaching faculty, their colleagues who publish textbooks in a given field, and the publishers. But much as in the case of health care, a student generally doesn’t have any choice, and that’s more or less the root reason why a single textbook can cost over $150.00: because the publisher can charge that and expect that a captive market will have to pay.
It’s only when you ask why faculty in many fields don’t just do without textbooks that you realize a bit of what that price is standing in for. (I’ve never used a conventional textbook, and I’d say that’s generally true in a lot of humanities courses.) Compiling a series of reliable and clear readings on the full range of topics covered in a survey course is hard. If you had to write them all yourself, that would be an enormous undertaking. If you’re also putting together problem sets which you intend to use for grading purposes, that’s harder still, because not only do you have to compose those problem sets, you have to change them, or have a very large group of them from which to draw every year. Making up your own textbook, if your pedagogy needs to be based around one, would be a tremendous amount of labor well above and beyond your ordinary responsibilities as a teacher or researcher.
So most faculty who use textbooks, if they even dream of writing one themselves, understandably want to be compensated if they do. If you have no ambition to write one yourself, you’re probably willing to see colleagues compensated for doing that work for you. When you hear what the price tag for a textbook is, then what? The only way to opt out of that market is to make your own textbook, seemingly. And so we’re back to wanting to be compensated. Who will publish your much-cheaper textbook that you’ve written in order to save students money, and still have the money to advertise and market that textbook?
The answer I think lies in something like Wikibooks open-content textbook projects. The history ones are mostly really bad so far, the science ones seem very slim and weak as well. There isn’t much yet at Flat World Knowledge, either. I’m totally willing to correct a Wikipedia entry from time to time, but writing a whole history textbook (especially considering that I don’t use history textbooks or think they’re very useful) is way beyond anything I’m interested in doing for free on behalf of other people. A whole textbook written by one hundred or two hundred experts in small bits and pieces is usually going to be a total dog’s breakfast, hard to read and hard to teach from.
Doubtless a lot of professors feel the same way. I think if cheap, relatively open textbooks are going to take off, it’s going to take somebody somewhere putting at least some money into the project. One possibility? A big consortium of universities and colleges, where they could compensate authors through stipends or modest salary increases while doing a lot of make the cost of instruction to students considerably less.