Those pricey textbooks
At lunch in St. Louis Saturday, the organizers had labeled the tables with a suggested topic of discussion. I sat at the "design" table (trolling for clients, of course, and there wasn't an "editing" table). The gentleman sitting next to me is a PMA board member and a publisher of over a hundred books a year. In the course of the discussion, he said he might contact me to bid on doing the design and layout for a textbook. This will be an expensive book (we didn't get into numbers, but I got the feeling it will be at the price level that people tend to complain about). I did not ask what field the book is in, but here are the salient facts:
- The author of the text teaches 300 students a year.
- There is no reason to suppose a priori that any other professor in the country will choose to adopt this particular book.
- The book has massive amounts of text.
- By two years after its introduction, most students will have sold their copies to one of the major national used-textbook dealers, thus reducing the opportunity to sell new copies in the out years.
- The print run will be 1,000 books. This allows for selling 300 copies a year to the people taking the author's course, for two years, with enough additional books for contingencies (sending samples to other professors, allowing for increased demand or the chance that a new edition won't be ready in year three).
- The layout will be complex and expensive (roughly six to ten times as expensive as producing a novel of the same length) because breaking up the dense, lengthy text into digestible chunks has been shown to be a necessity for such textbooks and because charts, tables, graphs, and images are expensive to produce.
Sure. If the book under discussion is a freshman survey text that is adopted at twenty or thirty large universities and is used by twenty thousand students a year, the production costs are not as big a price driver. But most textbooks don't have that kind of print run.
So dial down the outrage.