Well it’s back to school time and one of the big sticker shock items in the eyes of many students is just how much textbooks cost. There was a nice little article on the WaPo recently on this, but I didn’t need to be reminded of it. Unfortunately, I believe some of my colleagues might.

The textbook market is, of course, several different markets, and much of what really angers students is the big intro course textbook, which frequently costs a small fortune. If you’re taking five intro courses as a new frosh, be prepared to be spending $1000 a semester on textbooks. Factoring in inflation, I don’t think textbooks are really all that much more expensive than they were when I was an undergraduate, but then one could buy used books, which cut the bill by about 30% after you factored in the lower cost. The ability to sell the books back at the end of the semester got you a little more. It was something, and an efficient way to recycle, too. However, publishers in this kind of area have been fighting off the used market more and more by churning editions, making custom editions for a given university, adding electronic resources of dubious nature, etc. This is all to let them keep collecting rents on textbooks by undercutting the used market. Students have, of course, replied by downloading scanned versions from torrent sites, sharing books, and so on.

Let me give you an example of edition churn. As a graduate student I taught a junior/senior level mathematics course that I had taken as an undergrad just under a decade before. (It was junior/senior level because Calculus III was a pre-requisite.) When I took the course, the book was in its third edition with a copy date of about 1980 (not exactly sure and my copy is elsewhere). It was showing its age. When I started teaching the class, the book was, sensibly enough, in its fourth edition. During the three years I taught the course it went through two version changes, fourth to fifth, fifth to sixth. It is now in its seventh edition. Even though I believe one of the authors has subsequently died, it is still being updated. Yes, it’s true the material has changed a bit, but most of the alterations were just large enough to justify a new copyright. For instance, material in the third edition was altered in the fourth but put back in fifth. Or was it the sixth? Like Dirty Harry, I can’t remember! The point is, it was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic because the substance didn’t really change… nor should it, because it was the introduction to a topic that really wasn’t all that different. Sure the authors would add snippets of newer developments but I’m fairly convinced no one ever actually used much of the newer material—remember, this was an intro class and there’s only so much one can do in a semester. Rearranging an existing book is, of course, much easier than writing one de novo. It could probably be done as work for hire, which means the “author” provides limited input at best. Maybe one of the authors had a love child to put through college (ironic, n’est pas?) or, more likely, wanted to put a down payment on that retirement condo in Taos….

Now the reality is that faculty members—with the notable exceptions of the authors of intro books who grind through editions—are not getting rich on textbook publication. Believe me, I’ve written one. It took my co-author and I hundreds of hours and between the two of us, we’ve made a few thousand dollars on it all told. Now admittedly it helped get a good job so I’m getting paid that way, but still, I’m not exactly sipping rum punch on Bermuda after playing the back nine with Sean Connery off the proceeds. And this is to be expected. Last I checked our book has sold a few thousand copies, mostly to libraries. Here’s another example: I had a fantastic professor in grad school who taught a very technical mathematical theory class. He had amazing notes he’d put a lot of time into, all very nicely typeset in LaTeX. He just gave them away. I asked him why he didn’t publish them as a book (most textbooks in this area are dismal) and he said “I’m a full professor and won’t be promoted any higher. It simply doesn’t do me any good and would be too much work, so I just give them away for free. I’ll probably put them on Lulu eventually.” The problem, of course, is that nobody will know about his work except by word of mouth because it will not be promoted by a publisher, which is too bad. His course notes are simply that good. So there is a reason for publishers to exist. I do not begrudge them making money. They’re not in it for free, after all, but I could at least expect books that would last a references, but I believe quality has been going downhill, too, at many publishers…. especially the ones churning editions.

Beyond that, too many faculty members are insufficiently price sensitive. They simply don’t bother to look and fall for the blandishments of publishers, which include nice wine and cheese spreads at academic conferences, constant spam and direct mail, free quasi-worthless course material posted on book web sites, etc. Here’s another personal example. I teach a graduate level theory class where there are a few different textbooks. I like the one I used but it’s too advanced for most students. (I had the benefit, or curse depending how you look at it, of having the author as the instructor.) There are some other choices, most of which don’t provide enough details to be workable for my class, or else provide too many details that are really nice for me but not for students. I was left to choose between a $150 hardback and a $30 paperback reprint of an older book. I didn’t know the cheaper book well but decided it would be worth looking at it to see if it would be good for the students… the answer was yes, in fact it was better than the other more well-known text, covered most of the relevant theory well without any glaring “here’s how we do it in the days of mainframes” computational details that is always a risk for older books. That’s the one I picked. In fact, it is possible to get a copy of it for less than $10, used. The other course book can be had for $40 in paperback and I post my course notes and the extra journal articles on the class web page. Total cost: < $100, counting printing (believe me, grad students always find a way to print for cheap or free so even a few hundred pages of printing won’t cost them that much).

I urge any of my colleagues reading this to consider how many extra hours flipping burgers McDonald’s or peddling clothes at Abercrombie & Fitch, or, worse yet, how many extra dollars their students have to go in debt, before piling on all the extra books.