Monday, November 06, 2006

Those pricey textbooks

Are you outraged at what your kids have to pay for their college textbooks? Do you feel as if the publishers are price-gouging? Do you rant about all those expensive add-ons and gewgaws that drive up the price but don't add value? Does it make you nuts that a new edition comes out every two years, even though ninety-eight percent of the material is historical and unchanging?

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.
What do we learn from these facts?
  • 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.
When you hold a textbook in your hands and see how slick and professional a production it is, your assumption is that the production expense was amortized over many thousands of copies. But as you can see from this example, production costs can actually represent a significant fraction of the retail price of the book. Add in the author's desire to be compensated for the time spent developing the book and the publisher's understandable desire to remain in the black, and you can easily see what goes into the retail price of the book.

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.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. I hadn't really thought about the cost of college books as being inordinately expensive because my perception has always been that they contained a concentration of knowledge (as opposed to say a newspaper or a magazine that contains tidbits of information or a novel that is a fiction written around facts-sometimes).

One of the dreams I have is to do design for textbooks or say books like "Photoshop Artistry" and any of the other computer/technical/text books out there. I've always enjoyed their layout and design but haven't figured out yet how to break into that type of design work. Many of the publishing houses use their own in-house production teams as I understand it.

Dick Margulis said...


I've heard a fair amount of bleating about the cost of college textbooks, principally from parents who remember what textbooks cost back when they were in college, or who at least think they remember and who do not account for inflation. News media have picked up on the story and looked at the relationships among tuition costs at public universities, financial aid, and textbook prices. But, like you, I see it as a problem of perception, not something real.