Arnold Kling  

Why No Cheap Textbooks?

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Timothy Taylor writes,


When it comes to textbooks, all choices are equally "free" to the actual decision-maker, who in this case is the professor rather than the student. If students at the college bookstore could choose among equivalent books by price, the outcome might be rather different. Indeed, professors who are interested can get a few free lunches, a conference or two, and a few hundred dollars for reviewing intro econ textbooks.

When professors choose a textbook, they are spending other people's money. If a portion of textbook costs were deducted from a professor's salary, the results would be different.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Andreas Moser writes:

And surprisingly often, the professor has co-authored the textbook he recommends. It's a bloody cartel!

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Do you think that this has an economic explanation? It could be that it is primarily a sociological problem. Are you familiar with the textbooks on the college textbook industry told from the sociological viewpoint?

The classic is Lewis A.Coser, Charles Kadushin, and Walter W. Powell: Books: The Culture and Commerce of Publishing. New York: Basic Books, 1982.

Walter W. Powell, the economic sociologist, has also written on this -- Walter W. Powell, Getting into Print: The Decision-Making Process in Scholarly Publishing (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985),

There are numerous other studies as well, all with a sociological bent.

I have to admit that I know of no economic studies that are anywhere near as illuminating. What am I missing?

Luke G. writes:

True story: I teach some literature survey courses at a small, private college. I figured out that all the works I wanted to teach were public domain.

So a few years back I made a packet of works and author bios available at the bookstore for about five dollars. It was also online, making it essentially free.

I got called into the dean's office to explain my actions. After a long silence, the dean told me to go back to using my expensive Norton anthology. "It looks better to the college's accreditors," he explained.

Adam M writes:

Fortunately, students can mostly just ignore their professors' recommendations and pick their own textbooks. I sure did. Simply attend the lectures and follow along with the topics; the body of knowledge is the same. If questions are assigned from the textbook (which is actually rare), photocopy or photograph the needed pages from a copy at the library or bookstore.

Jack writes:

I agree with @LukeG. As a university professor, I have found there is resistance from admin to the use of low-cost or free textbooks or compilations (call it signalling, or avoiding the appearance of being heterodox). As a professor, it is true I am insulated from the consequence of my choice, but since I do care about my students, I try to find the best textbook for the buck. Note also that if students can easily sell back the textbook after the semester (e.g., to the students taking it the next time around), the real cost is just ``rental'' of the textbook, which is must less than the full price. Lastly, I encourage students to get the previous version of a text when possible, because used copies tend to be much more affordable.

Jack writes:

I agree with @LukeG. As a university professor, I have found there is resistance from admin to the use of low-cost or free textbooks or compilations (call it signalling, or avoiding the appearance of being heterodox). As a professor, it is true I am insulated from the consequence of my choice, but since I do care about my students, I try to find the best textbook for the buck. Note also that if students can easily sell back the textbook after the semester (e.g., to the students taking it the next time around), the real cost is just ``rental'' of the textbook, which is must less than the full price. Lastly, I encourage students to get the previous version of a text when possible, because used copies tend to be much more affordable.

Babinich writes:
Why No Cheap Textbooks?

Because there is no competition in the college textbook market. (Some retailers are trying to break through. Amazon comes to mind, but colleges just withhold textbook requirements up to the very end.)

Aeon J. Skoble writes:

You're presupposing that it makes no difference which textbook is used. That's false. It does make a difference, and it's the professor, not the student, who knows which.

David Friedman writes:

In response to Adam M:

My son just took, and enjoyed, a quarter of econ at Chicago from a good teacher. I noticed, however, looking at the practice exams he showed me, a number of questions of the form "which of these subjects was discussed in chapter X of Mankiw" (the textbook).

Presumably the teacher was trying to make sure the students had read the text, which isn't entirely unreasonable--but in my view one ought to test what students know, not how they learned it. And one effect of such questions is to make it harder for the students to substitute an alternative textbook.

Rachel writes:

My husband is a college professor. He very rarely has ever required college textbooks because of the high costs. When he has required books, they were paperbacks for under $20. He uses, you know, knowledge he gained from working in his field for years to teach students.

Yup, the textbook scene is a HUGE racket. In college I photocopied all textbooks and then returned them. Took a bit of time, but I found the savings to be well worth it.

Ed Dolan writes:

There is one publisher whose practices and experiences partly contradict and partly confirm the story about why there are no cheap textbooks.
BVT Publishing, a small, relatively new, and highly entrepreneurial entrant into the textbook field (disclosure: publisher of my own principles of econ text http://tiny.cc/nqpk3 ) publishes full-package university textbooks in most major fields, and prices them at about 25% of the list price of standard competitors. They have been in business about 10 years, and they very explicitly push the low-price marketing strategy. That is the good news: They are out there.

The bad news is that their market penetration is very disappointing, only around 1% market share for many titles, even after 10 years of trying. Partly that may show that their smaller margins allow them to spend less on non-price marketing efforts, but I think what it really shows is the validity of the hypothesis that price elasticity is low because most professors just don't care about how much their students pay.

In fact, BVT has come to believe that there is perverse price elasticity, at least at the lowest end. When they first published my text 10 years ago, they priced it at $19.95 for the one-semester micro or macro print versions. They also called themselves Best Value Textbooks at that time. Now they have changed their name to BVT Publishing, because 'best value' sounded like they were selling an inferior good, an the price of the one-semester book is now $39.95 (still not bad compared to $159 at Amazon for Mankiw).

Panha Y.Khem writes:

It would be better if a professor uses many, say 3, textbooks in one course. Each parts of all the books should be used. By doing so, students tend also to learn from various Schools of Thought in economics. For me, when I was a sophomore, I studied Mankiw's Principles Economics and Mankiw. Automatically, I tended to favor Keynesian until I get myself exposed to others such as Milton Friedman and Hayek.

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