The Times writes about a new trend of renting out textbooks to college students for about 60 percent of the cover price. I’m not surprised that the article refrains from specifying the actual cover price of any actual textbook (it does say that books can “often” cost more than $100). “Don’t ask don’t tell” is the perfect slogan for the perspective of anyone in higher education (other than students!) when it comes to textbook costs.
When I began teaching college journalism almost twenty years ago, I started regularly getting promotional material from textbook publishers, hawking their wares. What I only gradually noticed was that every flyer contained the title, author, ISBN number, and many sterling attributes of the recommended book—but not the price. This seemed odd. For the introductory class that’s the backbone of our program, I assigned the same text my colleagues used. When I strolled over to the bookstore to make sure it had arrived, I saw, supermarket-style, no price on the book itself, but one on the shelf– $45, as I recall. That seemed kind of a lot, circa 1992, for a paperback (albeit a thick paperback) with no color and minimal graphics. But again, at the time I didn’t think much more about it.
What did catch my attention was the way a new edition of the book came out every three years or so. This was truly odd, since (remember, we’re talking about the ‘90s here) journalism didn’t change very much year to year: there might be a new circuit court ruling on defamation or something like that, but no one was discovering another “W” or a fabulous new interviewing technique. Today, the book is in its ninth edition, and amazon.com has its list price as $79.95.
If Amazon can name a price, why can’t publishers? A couple of times over the years, I had occasion to ask sales reps this question. They all claimed that there was no list price, that each bookstore set its own figure. That seemed like splitting hairs, at best, and disingenuous, at worst. For my own classes, I eschewed the pricey book(s), and instead assigned moderately priced texts (researching the prices on Amazon), trade paperbacks (usually priced at $15-20, way less than textbooks), or, instead of books, a combination of newspapers, magazines and web resources.
Meanwhile, I developed and have come to believe in a conspiracy theory, as follows: for various reasons, textbooks are expensive to produce. That, added to publishers’ desire for profit, means that they are expensive to buy. Publishers make a concerted effort to conceal the price of books, rightly reckoning that if professors knew how much students had to spend, they would assign fewer texts, or maybe none at all. They also hurry up new editions as much as possible, so that students won’t be able to sell (non-current) texts back to the bookstore at the end of the course and the next semester’s students will have to buy a brand-new copy.
And concentrating on buyback/sellback is, to me, the best approach to the problem. One helpful bookstore site, at Valdosta State University in Georgia, explains that it will buy books for “up to” 50 percent of the cover price if it’s being assigned the following semester, and up to 35 percent if not. The policy–which I believe it pretty typical–could be even better for students than the rental deal the Times is talking about.
How about if a forward-thinking publisher slows down on new editions (issuing free or cheap online or print supplements to deal with new material), publicizes that policy—and openly declares the pricetag of its books? I’m thinking my fellow professors would respond in a big way. I know I would.