April 10, 2015
Professor as Intermediary in the Textbook Wars
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

I co-teach a year-long Business Ethics class that culminates in the students writing and presenting a case study.  (It occurs to me that I haven't blogged much about this class, and I will rectify that, but that's for another post.) 

Today I want to talk about a case study that focused on textbook pricing-- undergraduate, because there is more information available.  One student recounted a single Intro Bio textbook that cost $500.   I remember thinking books were expensive back in my college days, but $500!  How does textbook inflation compare with other metrics? According to the GAO, the price of textbooks increased 82% between 2002-2021, tuition and fees increased by 89%, and overall consumer prices grew by 28% (this stat and the others come via the excellent case study).  

Where does all that money go?  I've always wondered. According to this US News article, 21.6 %of the purchase price of a new book goes to the bookstore, 1% to shipping, and 77.4% to the publisher.  And according to the same article, in 2008 (the last available data) 15.4% of the purchase price went to marketing, 11.7% to authors, 32.2% to paper, printing, and overhead. 

We told the students to be neutral in the case study, so here's the publishers' position: students increasingly want products that accompany textbooks, including study guides and applications like online quizzes and homework for teachers. These things cost money to develop.

While the case study focused on college textbooks, of course the students talked about their experiences in law school.  The consensus is that casebooks are way too expensive.  There's a lot of frustration over the fact that rental prices and digital casebooks are not much less expensive than new ones. The students heartily condemned the widespread practice of changing a few pages in a casebook and then trotting out a new edition to avoid cannibalization from the secondary market.  

I had pushed the case study author to address the professor's role in all this--not the casebook authors, but the professor selecting a casebook.  Because, as the students are all too aware, this isn't a pure market, it's a mediated one.  Students enrolled in a course are captive to their professor's textbook choices.  Which brings me to my ethical question: what responsibility do I as a teacher have to my students in selecting a casebook?  Should I pick the cheapest one?  How much, if at all, should price matter to me?  Some of my colleagues have even developed online casebooks, that are either free or available at a very low cost.

I can't go that far. I switch Corporations casebooks every year because 1) I'd get bored otherwise and 2) the students would have the notes from prior years and they would phone it in.  And, frankly, I'm not excited about the prospect in compiling and editing a bunch of cases--there are plenty of people out there who have spent a lot of time thinking about how to structure a casebook, and they've done a better job than I could.  The compromise I've currently struck is never to select a casebook in the first year of a new edition.  That way at least the students have the choice of buying used.  I'm not sure this is the right balance, but it's one I can feel okay about, at least for now.   More deeply, it seems like as we move to digital publishing something has got to give. 



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