Ask a Scholar: Why Are College Textbooks So Expensive?

Gilbert T. Sewall

Dear Ask a Scholar,

The retail price for my math text is $170. Why are college textbook prices so high - why doesn't someone come up with much cheaper versions?   

Answered by Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council in New York City, www.historytextbooks.org.

College textbook publishers are not making windfall profits. But they are they are protected by their size and capacity, including their ability to field sales people and create distribution networks. The loss of dozens of small educational publishers and the rise of a few publishing goliaths, Pearson and McGraw-Hill in particular, reduce competition and make for sticky pricing.

There is little downward pressure on prices. The professor who makes the purchase decision does not care much about price. The students who cannot find lower-priced alternatives cannot complain to the publisher or vote with their feet. They are not part of the selection process.

For publishers, there is constant pressure to add material and be inclusive. This invariably results in expanded pages and size. Cost factors include showy, expensive production values with dramatic color and graphics on every page. Ancillaries and premiums -- the supplements that are expected and part of the program -- cost money to develop and provide. The size of the print run also counts, so basic calculus or U.S history texts tend to be priced more competitively than those in advanced or specialized fields.

Focus testing and marketing raise costs. Editors try to bring as many professor consultants into the editorial process as possible, to create stakeholders in the product. The well-known professors who create and sell successful textbooks are more like symphony conductors than solo players, but with mercenary intent.

There is the resale market. Students rarely keep books but sell them back to the bookstore. Several students typically use the same text. But publishers and authors only profit when new books are sold. Revenues from repeated sales go to whoever is selling the books, possibly on Amazon, where students can often find the book they need at steep discounts. The resale market is thus priced to some degree in the new book. The effort to combat the used book market results in absurdly frequent, constant revisions in new editions to try to protect sales. Publishers also include CDs, websites accessible by code, and other devices to try to ensure the sale of the new current edition books.

Some textbook reformers think college textbook purchases should be included in student bills along with a dorm room and meals so that the buyers have more price power and publishers have less ability to gouge. 

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Image: College Books by wohnai / CC by 2.0

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