Textbook Costs

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.

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11 Responses to Textbook Costs

  1. Western Dave says:

    You forgot the most expensive part of textbooks: the image rights. My position at a small history museum was paid for, in part, by selling the image rights of their one famous painting to textbooks.

  2. topometropolis says:

    I find the textbook situation particularly frustration in my discipline. Undergraduate mathematics courses, especially low-level ones like calculus and linear algebra, haven’t changed substantially in content in a hundred years. Sure, the emphasis has changed a bit (less analytic geometry, less computation but more about the underlying ideas), but it’s not like the sciences where textbooks need constant updating as new things are discovered. Yet still the standard texts cost $150. Moreover, most of them are actually pretty poor, both from the student’s and the instructor’s point of view.

    A positive story: Allen Hatcher wrote a book for the standard first-year graduate class on algebraic topology and put it on the web for free. He then negotiated a deal with Cambridge University Press to sell copies for less than $40. It’s now by far the most common text for this course, not just because it’s free but because it’s really excellent. If this can happen for a small volume specialized text like this, surely it should be possible to do this for calculus as well…

  3. dmerkow says:

    I’d follow on that the rise of Amazon and the internet has upset the balance in terms of textbook pricing. Once upon a time, publishers and wholesalers could lean on college bookstores to adjust the size of scope of the used book market, such that roughly speaking everybody could win – students weren’t ripped off, bookstores made their operating expenses, publishers made some money and so did the new/used book wholesalers. Now the student and the publisher compete head on for power. The student can pretty much draw on the entire world in search of the cheapest used book, whereas the publisher has to capture as much of the necessary revenue in each sale to cover expenses because once a book goes deeply into the used book market the long tail all but disappears. So they have to turn over editions as quickly as possible and shovel stuff into the book because the long tail is all used books and not new.

  4. G. Weaire says:

    “…beyond your ordinary responsibilities as a teacher or researcher.”

    This point interests me, and I’d like to hear you say more about it. Academia is rather good at getting us to internalize a sense that we should do certain kinds of work without direct compensation. So why not this, especially since (as you indicate) we end up doing a certain amount of informal “text-book writing,” (informed by both teaching and research), anyway?

    I don’t mean this as hauling out the old “X isn’t respected for hiring/tenure/promotion” cliche. Because I don’t think that’s it – there are plenty of us in institutions where this would count.

    My own motives for reluctance – which may not be typical – would definitely have something to do with the fact that I’d see a “textbook” as requiring a certain suppression of my own point of view and personal voice. On the one hand, academic publishing is all about articulating one’s own point of view, and on the other, academic lecturing is inseparable from a personal voice. While textbook writing, perhaps unfairly, feels to me like it would be a bit bland on both counts.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    I’m not wild about textbooks personally for the same reason, both as a user and as a possible author.

    But on the labor question, here’s how I look at it. Despite the stereotypes of the leisure-class academic, I think most faculty in most institutions are working hard to handle their teaching and research and service responsibilities as they stand. So I’m very uneasy about adding a presumption that in addition, we all be expected to personally generate a textbook for our major survey courses, unless we somehow budget that either financially or temporally into existing workloads. I would have no problem with a different way to budget for that besides straight-up monetary compensation. For example, if a university went to its economics department and said, “Everyone who wants to participate in a textbook-making project gets a course off this year (with the assumption that the end result will be a quality ‘local’ textbook and group of problem sets that can be used by members of the department).” You’d get some complicated intellectual property issues (would the university own the textbook? the faculty? could you take it with you to a new position elsewhere? etc.) but those aren’t hard to handle if you approach them in the right spirit. (Maybe, for example, using a Creative Commons license for the end product.)

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Another way to do it: credit someone who writes a cheap or free textbook that’s seen to be high quality with having done work more valuable than having published original research or written a monograph, as in topometropolis’ example of Allen Hatcher–if an achievement like that shows up in a tenure dossier, maybe we should be in a position where we regard that as almost automatically demonstrating the kind of commitments we want to see in tenured faculty.

  7. G. Weaire says:

    I was wondering how I became socialized into that attitude, frankly, and how typical it is: to what extent it’s a function of academic culture.

    (It’s not that I think writing a textbook would be easy, to make that clear – I’m fairly sure that it’s much harder than just adding another piece to the pile of specialized work.)

    Along these lines: wouldn’t writing a broad survey textbook force one be an example, in its way, of the sort of generalist work that you’ve called for?

  8. G. Weaire says:

    Poor editing on the last sentence. Delete “force one.”

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, it would. Actually, I can think of one Africanist textbook I like quite a bit: Fred Cooper’s Africa Since 1940. That’s a good example of a work of synthesis that still has a viewpoint but that can be used pedagogically as a textbook.

  10. Interesting discussion, especially since I just wrote a textbook. I plan on blogging more about this myself, but I would say a few quick points off of the issues raised here:
    – A textbook need not be written in a dry, detached manner. In my own, I’ve really tried to offer a lively voice with a clear set of arguments. Perhaps that might push away some potential adopters who disagree with my perspective, but for me it’s what makes the project pedagogically defensible and useful.
    – At least in media studies, images can be used as fair use screen grabs from films & TV. That helps make my book a bit more affordable – “only” $50…
    – While I do hope that I get some income from it, the other major reward is the ability to shape and frame the field. If the book is successful, the impact is far greater than a specialized monograph ever could be.
    – I’m not convinced that most students are interested in an online book (yet). I’ve used a version of my book in draft PDFs, and virtually every student prints it out. By buying the book, they get the images, portability, and resale or archival value.

  11. RobRittenhouse says:

    CMU’s Online Learning Initiative has some online courses including some math and science courses that are Free and Open enrollment. See


    Caveat: I did some work with them.

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