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The rise of textbook prices: Authors give their perspective

It’s that time of year; students are heading back to class and hitting the campus bookstore to purchase their needed textbooks for the semester. However, recent surveys, like that by the National Association of College Stores, reveal that students are finding cheaper, alternative methods for purchasing their textbooks or not even purchasing them at all. This may not be too surprising given the latest review of the Bureau of Labor Statistics by NBC, which indicated textbook prices have increased 1,041 percent since January 1977. Often the media covers what publishers, students, and professors have to say regarding this data, but rarely do we hear from textbook authors. With that in mind, I asked our textbook author members, via the TAA Textbook Authoring Listserv, to write a response to the NBC article that gives their perspective on this issue.

The following is excerpted from those conversations and responses.

“I had no luck getting my publisher to lower prices. (My publisher actually has the highest priced developmental math books on the market.) My only recourse was to start my own publishing company, XYZ Textbooks, and lower prices that way. One of the interesting things about the problem of high textbook prices is something that never gets mentioned; the high price of textbooks is eliminating the next generation of textbook authors. No one wants their name on a $300 trig book.”
-Pat McKeague, owner of XYZ Textbooks and and author of textbooks in mathematics

“I recently learned with dismay (and more than a little embarrassment) that two of my titles now retail at many college bookstores for more than $250. When I (once again) implored my publisher to revisit the wholesale price, I was (once again) rebuffed. My dismay grew as I discovered that they sell the same books (in addition to various local adaptations) in Canada for slightly less, in Europe for about ½ the price, and in India for 1/20 of the price. It’s hard not to conclude that the textbook publishing industry is eating its young by charging what each specific market will bear. The company executives come and go; long-term authors will have to clean up the mess down the road. 

Having said that, I believe very strongly that the books a traditional publisher sells do provide value-added compared to many ‘alternative products,’ and a higher price (at least, higher than free) is justified. If anyone who belongs to this organization disagrees with that assertion, it’s possible you are undervaluing your own work. In the music industry, Taylor Swift (among other artists ranging from Metallica to David Byrne) have very publicly made their case for being fairly compensated. Perhaps we need a rock star team of textbook authors to do so as well.

Over the 35 years of my publishing career I have spoken with many colleagues who expressed admiration (and some incredulity) for the amount of work I put into my books. I appreciate this recognition, but I have also found that precious few of them have any idea of the infrastructure that supports my efforts. When you take the time to list the numerous professionals who work on a big 4-color book–copyeditors, permissions researchers, designers, educational technologists, etc.–the roster is staggering. With all due respect, I doubt that a professor who decides to post his/her lectures notes online for students rather than assigning a textbook will deliver anything close to the kind of rigor a finished academic product requires. Perhaps we owe our students that level of rigor when they take a college or graduate course?     

We encounter no shortage of advice for professors and students who want to save money; one of the ‘helpful hints’ in the NBC News article that initiated this thread is to buy the instructor’s version of the textbook! There is nothing wrong with saving money (I bought my fair share of textbooks for the three kids I put through college). However the assumption that seems to frame the narrative today is that the alternative educational sources are of the same quality. It’s just the price that’s lower, so what rational consumer would pay $250 for a product when he or she could obtain the same one for $30 — or better yet for nothing? 

Why do we never hear this side of the story? As a marketing professor, I appreciate one of the basic tenets of good public relations: ‘Do good, and talk about it.’ Where are the trade associations that should be telling this story to our customers? The Association of American Publishers currently has a page on its website entitled ‘Fact vs. Fiction: 7 Truths about College Course Materials,’ which at least half-heartedly aims to debunk some of the negative assumptions (accessed August 18, 2015). Unfortunately, I doubt many adopters will visit this site to learn why a published text provides incremental value. Certainly no student who has to make the purchase will ever find it. Where are these voices in public forums when legislators consider pricing constraints, or when open-source advocates blithely put all text options in the same bucket in terms of pedagogical quality? I have yet to see any proactive attempts by the textbook publishing industry to make the case for its existence. The occasional rebuttal of criticism (as in the NBC News article) is not a sustainable path. The best defense is a good offense.

[We need to] Educate our consumers about the value we deliver. Yes, price our product fairly. Work to make generic content available for those who are unable to access anything else. But at least help professors and students to understand that not all products are the same, and they do have real costs associated with them. By all accounts, a Lexus is a better machine than a Yugo–and the price tag reflects this. Buy one or buy the other, but at least know what you’re getting under the hood.”
-Michael Solomon, Professor of Marketing and Director of the Center for Consumer Research and author of college textbooks in marketing and consumer behavior

“When I got into the game in the late 1970s (first book published in 1982), the environment seemed very collegial. Editors frequently visited campuses and sales reps spent lots of time in friendly conversations. No longer. The last several books I have written or revised for Cengage and Springer have been produced in India; production staffs are hard working and well meaning, but communication problems occur too often.

I have been successful on several occasions in getting Cengage to review prices on a couple of my books and lower them somewhat. It appears that prices are initially set using formulas without human oversight. Springer’s prices are much more reasonable, but they don’t have a sales staff, do relatively little marketing, and skimp on reviewing and production.”
-Jay Devore, Professor Emeritus Cal Poly and author of college textbooks in statistics

“Over the 22 years I’ve been writing textbooks, my publisher has repeatedly responded to faculty and student requests for cheaper books by offering looseleaf, paperback, and black-&-white versions of my books. Then when we do, almost nobody buys them! Students and faculty still want lavish 4-color art, prolific photos, and copious sophisticated online and digital products, and these things cost money. Textbook prices do disturb me as both an author and a professor, but students and faculty have to realize that their demands are a major influence in driving these costs.”
-Kenneth Saladin, Professor of Biology at Georgia College and State University and author of college textbooks in human anatomy and physiology

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