Textbook Costs

I heard a report on Marketplace this evening about the high cost of textbooks and how Congress wants to force publishers to reveal to professors the costs of books they require in their courses. I find it strange that such a measure should be necessary. Is it that hard to figure out what books cost? I use Amazon when writing a syllabus. So do many other cost-conscious professors. And who is this professor they quoted who talked about being courted by publishing representatives with good chocolate in the mailroom and meals out? Certainly no history professor.

The report blamed the rapidly growing cost of textbooks on an expansion of the used book market because of the internet. Really? Used books sounds right, but to my mind this isn’t the internet per se, but rather the chains that sell books in so many university book stores. I don’t know what kind of arrangement they have with their host universities, but I wouldn’t be surprised if these universities are complicit in the process, insofar as they are earning money from these arrangements.

Returning to the original topic, it is sometimes hard to tell how much new books will cost students, because publishers can only qoute net prices. In the past I tried to bundle books from a publisher, in order to lower costs. Result: the net price to the bookstore went down, but the bookstore priced the bundle with no discount, because it had to make these books more expensive than the used books it wanted to sell at some two thirds to three quarters of the new price. It earns a higher margin on those, after all.

Some students at Georgetown University have the right idea. They set up a book coop that collects books at the end of the semester and sells books at the beginning of the next semester at the prices the owners of the books set. I wish George Mason University had something like that. I’ve tried to help by setting up a Google group on which my students can establish contact with each other for the purpose of buying and selling their books. So far I’ve had no takers.