Textbooks: A race to the bottom?
September 13, 2012 | 9:41 pm
By Joanna Cabot
From The Textbook Guru comes this interesting op-ed on the price of textbooks. We’ve all heard about how Amazon, the secondhand market, textbook rentals and so on are taking a bite of Big Pub, but what this article points out is that the average price per title is falling across all markets, not just the ‘new textbooks from Big Pub’ one. And not only that, but sales are holding steady, not increasing, as prices fall. So, why hasn’t the Brave New Marketplace opened up the market?
The article suggests that the real fulcrum in the market is rental services. Their prices are more relative than the Big Pub market is because they are competing not with the highest-priced Big Pub, but with the secondhand sales market. So as more publishers lose market share to cheaper open-source and online offerings, the secondhand sales market has to lower their prices to remain competitive. And then the textbook rental people have to lower their prices so they can compete as well.
“The good is that some students are getting books for less money. The bad is that other students are paying more for books because fewer options are available to them.”
It’s hard for me to know how true this is because I teach elementary school and it’s not the same thing. The program I teach with allows me to copy materials for my students every year as I wish (but they charge $500 per teaching unit up front for that privilege!) So my students don’t buy their own materials of any sort.
But from what I remember of my university days, the issue is not so much ‘the choice of the students’ as it is ‘the choice of the teachers.’ All the classes I took had prescribed texts, and you could either buy them through the channel of your choosing (used, new and so on) or borrow them ‘on reserve’ in the library (you could use the book only for three-hour periods within the physical space of the library itself). By the time I got to fourth year, custom course packs were beginning a more popular option. They were cheaper upfront than a ‘real’ textbook, but could not be re-sold because they were customized to each term and each professor.
But in any case, the key point was that I bought (or rented, or borrowed, or whatever I did) because a professor chose that resource and told me I had to get it. It wasn’t my choice at all. If more professors are choosing open-source texts, custom course packs, online materials, or whatever it is they happen to choose, then that’s what the students will buy. (Or borrow, or rent, or download, and so on).
If less choice is available, as the article suggests, then it’s because the publishers are not offering content that today’s instructors want to choose. The students themselves have little to do with this whole equation, other than getting the book once the choice has been made.