We live in the greatest information age ever. Bandwidth, storage, data, smartphones, and computers are cheap! With a carrier contract, you can have your first Android or iOS phone for free. For as little as $200, you can buy your first computer – brand new. These devices used to be expensive and less powerful – a luxury for the wealthy, subject of study in academia, or business tool.
The decline in prices is largely attributable to Moore’s Law, which asserts that the number of transistors on circuits doubles approximately every 2 years. These advances have contributed to the accessible age for information – spanning vast income demographics and socioeconomic factors. Unfortunately, college textbooks haven’t seen these progressive declines that could attract larger audiences.
Information Is Stuck Inside A College Textbook
Major publishers of textbooks (i.e., Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Reed Elsevier) have long held dominant control of the industry. Despite vast sums of encyclopedic information moving to free sites like Wikipedia, these publishers have courted the strongest academics to publish on their platforms. With this control and profit model come crushing prices for students.
Academics, largely coming from older generations – before the popularization of the Internet – are content with this publication model (or, they must be if they keep hawking them at the beginning of every semester). When they are recruited to write for these publishers, their knowledge is condensed, controlled, and synthesized. Unlike the Internet’s anarchic flow, an elite few choose what is shared.
Most businesses follow free market principles of supply and demand, but the textbook industry doesn’t follow those same rules. Their supply is infinite and their demand is solely based on their marketing tactics to professors, and the network that professors have with authors. In turn, this stifles competition for pricing – making every book unique and “worth” a premium price.
New College Textbooks Are A Small Fortune To Buy, Make
Publishers use rich text, color, paper, and often publish in hardcover. All of these materials are beyond necessary and contradictory to the principles of progress that are present in this information/Google age. The quality materials give even more reason for publishers to charge more for the college textbooks, but oftentimes you won’t ever reference the book again.
If you are unlucky enough to buy a textbook during an edition update cycle, your $200+ purchase price may lead to an abysmal resale value. New editions are constantly released, usually with minor changes that are imperceptible to the casual reader. This forces students to buy newer and newer texts, and professors are encouraged to hawk these latest editions because they are given free instructor copies. Effectively, this artificially manipulates the supply for certain level textbooks.
When new textbooks come to market, they can easily fetch nearly $200 or more. That’s 1000% more than most popular hardcover novels at Amazon.com. While the Internet has made for more free stuff than ever, textbooks seem to be stuck in the three-decimal price range. Technological advances seem to be overlooked when it comes to price considerations.
Online, Electronic Platforms Were Supposed To Bring Price Declines
Despite the significant, onerous budgetary demands that these expensive college textbooks place on students, professors seem happy to assign them as “required” for the course. Every class I’m taking this semester emphasizes the need for certain textbooks. It seems like professors willingly participate in this complicated price fixing.
While technologies have improved, the prices of textbooks haven’t fallen. Moreover, even though ebooks and online books are becoming more popular, they are usually the same price or a smidgen cheaper than their concrete brethren. Unfortunately, this small price decline (sometimes) does not account for the fact that the digital textbooks cannot be resold. By purchasing an online book, you are limited to that world and restricted from recouping some of your losses.
A Plan Of Action Going Forward
This semester I refuse to buy a single college textbook. It’s not that I believe we should abolish them, but make them more accessible. Even though I won’t purchase one this semester, I use every campus resource I have to get access to them. Thankfully, as part of the Big 10 system, I can request books from every library within the network.
Next time a professor says a college textbook is required for ask, it’s worth asking them:
- Did you get a free instructor copy of the text?
- Why are you promoting this particular text and edition?
- Are there any free methods (i.e., Wikipedia, online editions) to getting access to this information?
- Would you buy this textbook if you were taking this class?
- Will we actually reference from this throughout the semester?