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Published: Saturday, 8/14/2004

The Internet could force down the high cost of college textbooks

BY RICHARD L. WEAVER II

EXPENSIVE textbooks are one of the most common complaints on college campuses, especially at the beginning of a new term. A visit to any bookstore close to a college campus will confirm the complaints.

What is it that drives up the cost of college textbooks? Three factors: competition, production costs, and turnover.

First, competition. In any given subject area, there are a large number of books published each year. In speech-communication - my area of expertise - there are hundreds.

With so many books competing - especially for the introductory-course where the market is largest - it is essential that books remain competitive if they are to see future editions.

If any one of the competing books offers a unique perspective, new element, or feature that creates sales, any company with a competing book will try, if possible, to incorporate that perspective, element, or feature in its next edition.

If not, the new entry will take away sales, especially from a well-established book or author.

Authors, of course, want their books to survive and continue; thus, they not only have to be aware (along with their editors) of every unique perspective, new element, or attractive features that sell. This helps to explain some of the bells and whistles.

But why so many bells and whistles?

When it comes to competition, whether or not instructors use the book or anything that accompanies it is irrelevant to book preparation and sales. If another book in the same market has the perspective, element, or feature, and if it can be incorporated, publishing companies and their authors include it to continue to be competitive.

Publishing companies are always looking for something new, such as a different angle, an unusual selling point, a fresh feature, or something attractive to sell the next edition.

I had one company ask me to use a different and unusual format for organizing my instructor's manual, or IM.

The new format would require hours of additional preparation for me, since I write my own IMs, so, I simply asked the editor, "What evidence do you have that this new format is actually desirable, being used, or is even instructionally advantageous?"

He had no evidence. They simply wanted to use it as a new selling angle for the next edition. I chose to stay with my well-established and accepted format rather than break with tradition.

The second reason for the high cost of textbooks is presentation and publication costs.

The illustrations, charts, and high quality color reproductions required in college textbooks (required because everyone is doing it) are expensive.

Many of these features are not found in books produced for the general trade market. Also, printing is more costly because a higher quality of paper is used, and the cover and binding are more durable than most general trade market books.

There are other costs as well.

Supplementary teaching materials, such as course outlines, test banks, answer keys, video clips, and computer-based aids, add to the cost. Complimentary desk copies supplied to instructors, teaching assistants, and others once a title is adopted must be figured into the costs.

Also, the print runs for college textbooks, particularly the highly technical or specialized books, are often considerably smaller than for general trade books which increases the costs of those books. Sometimes the sale of basic-course books subsidizes more specialized ones.

When a textbook is selected for use in a course, it is not a single book but a package. The textbook is "bundled" or shrink-wrapped with additional instructional materials such as CD-ROMs and workbooks. It may contain access to websites, additional course materials, and a complete IM.

Few competitive textbooks today are not part of a package of materials, what some call bells and whistles.

With respect to the shrink-wrapped CD-ROM: I can't speak for all other companies or for their textbooks, but I can speak for my own.

A great deal of time and effort is put into this product. Whether an instructor chooses to encourage its use, or whether students explore it on their own is, of course, a series of choices that must be made.

Mine includes crossword vocabulary exercises, vocabulary flashcards, multiple-choice, true-false, and essay-type questions for each chapter to assist student comprehension and to help them review material and prepare for class examinations.

It also includes real-life video-clip examples with questions to help them apply the textbook material.

The third reason for the high cost is turnover.

Why does a new edition of a textbook appear every three or four years? Immediately when a new book or edition is published, the used-book market shifts into high gear.

Authors and publishers get nothing when their books are sold used. Some books are sold as many as five or six times before a new edition renders that edition obsolete.

Turnover is what keeps authors and publishers in business; without it, the market would be dominated by used books alone.

It is true that publishing companies are at the top of the college textbook feeding chain, but the only way they can remain there is to encourage their successful writers to make revisions and spin off new books.

With competent reviewers insightful editors, and ever-vigilant authors who have a true desire to improve, enhance, and truly keep their material immediate, relevant, and interesting to students, a new edition can significantly enrich, modernize, and update a former edition.

The Internet alone - along with other technological advances and changes - pressures authors and publishers to update their information.

Will the high cost of college textbooks come down? Possibly.

Textbooks, it is my guess, are likely to become accessible via a publisher's website using a special code, paid for by credit card, non-printable, and ordered "a la carte" (unbundled).

It will eliminate turnover, and with publishing costs substantially reduced, it may make them more affordable.

Richard L. Weaver II is a retired professor of speech communication at Bowling Green State University. He has published 16 textbook titles.



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