NBFC Discussion of Cost of Textbooks

The meeting of March 4, 2005 included a report by Jillian Curtis, Chair, Acad. Affairs Comm., RCGA on the cost of textbooks. A lively discussion followed. This page has been created to continue this discussion. The Faculty Council does not endorse any of the claims, opinions, or suggestions made by contributors. The Faculty Council urges contributors to adhere to all copyright policies related to fair use. Unless demand becomes overwhelming, contributions to this page should be sent as plain text to bumby@math.rutgers.edu using the title NBFC Textbook Dialog. The webmaster will update the page.

In anticipation of a breadth of topics, several subheadings have been created with a seed comment to start discussion.

Old wine in new bottles

From: R. T. Bumby
Date: March 16, 2005

It was noted in the Faculty Council discussion that new editions of textbooks often have very little new content. In modifying lists of suggested exercises for the mathematics department with old and new editions of the textbook open in front of me, I have found that most of the exercises that we use are identical, and in identical positions, from one edition to the next. Sometimes the exercise number changes when new exercises are added, but the old exercises continue to serve our purpose quite well, so I usually only change the number to allow our recommendations to survive the change in edition. Exercises are rarely dropped, and new exercises often add little to the core course, so new editions have only a minor effect.

The ancillary materials added to textbooks seem to have little educational value. Almost everyone knows what should be in the course and uses this to prepare a syllabus. The textbook is chosen to provide an attractive package of exposition, examples and exercises that isn't too incompatible with our needs. Mathematics courses do evolve, but very slowly. The current update schedule is at least two or three times as fast as we need.

Use of the Web

From: R. T. Bumby
Date: March 16, 2005

The Course Materials section of the Mathematics Department web site has pages for almost all of our undergraduate courses and many of our graduate courses. Individual faculty are responsible for adding descriptions of their own courses or lecture sections, so not all pages are updated as often as the course is offered, but a culture of using the web as a source for the recent history of a course is developing. We plan to remove archived information after five years, but other resources for faculty use will be kept longer.

This allows locally generated course materials to become a department resource, available to all faculty in a convenient location. Initially our material will be used to supplement a textbook, but it could grow to replace a textbook. We are probably a long way from being able to compete with commercial publishers, but the short-term effect is likely to lead to more attractive textbooks with more features that will be more expensive unless a greater effort is made to support high quality local products that are convenient for the students to use.

From: R. T. Bumby
Date: March 24, 2005

An electronic newsletter from the MIT Alumni Association included the following item: “OpenCourseWare (OCW), MIT's free, online educational resource covering 1100+ courses, has sparked an international open knowledge movement. Other universities are making their own course materials available, beginning with Johns Hopkins public health school and Utah State University. And more universities in the U.S., Europe, and Asia are creating OCWs based on MIT's model.”

It might be useful to have central support at Rutgers for all moves in this direction.

From: Anna Bystrik
Mathematics Department
Date: April 14, 2005

Electronic publishing may solve the problem, saving money both for the publisher of a text and for a student.

As of today, the existence of a hard copy edition serves as a quality seal. Once electronic-only publications gain compatible reputability, the switch will happen.

As a bonus, the forests will be saved and the clutter reduced (unless the consumers opt to print out their purchase :)).

From: R. T. Bumby
Date: May 17, 2005

Because I maintain a Master Textbook List on the Mathematics Department site, I get mail from people who have set up sites that aim to identify low prices for textbooks. I received the third such request this week and have links on the page. There are four such links on the page because I found a comparable service when I gave a search engine the word “textbook” to chew on. An ISBN number allows efficient access to information on these sites, so it is always included and checked for accuracy in the departmental list. I repeat the list at the end of this message to give it expose it to those who wouldn't dream of visiting a Mathematics Department site. Although I present this information without endorsement, it seems like a useful step in making the textbook market more open. This list may be added to other sites informing students about textbooks. In addition, I welcome contributions of other sites that may be added to this list. I present the list in alphabetical order.


From: Rudy Bell
Date: March 22, 2005

I use WebCT (and other course-support packages offer similar features) to reduce costs for my students. In my set-up, there is no sign-on by students; instead I control access by importing the roster from RUCS. At the end of the semester, access ends. This provides excellent evidence of my compliance with fair use provisions of copyright materials for limited educational purposes. For my large introductory courses I have nearly two dozen readings, each running anywhere from 5 to 30 pages, which would amount to an expensive book of readings or high costs for photocopy and permissions. The provision on WebCT is pretty much the same as would be the case with putting a reading on reserve, except that the access is much more convenient for students.

I also frequently check the Internet for high-quality editions of classic texts that are available without cost for students e.g. The Decameron, The Tale of Genji, and many Greco-Roman texts in good translations.

Working with publishers

From: R. Boikess
Date: April 05,2005

Custom Editions

Faculty can use their bargaining power to lower the cost of textbooks to their students in large courses. But because of legal restrictions the publishers can't lower the cost of the ordinary textbook., they must instead do a custom edition for Rutgers.

Publishers are now able to produce custom versions of regular textbooks very easily. Even the most minor changes in the regular textbook and a new cover results in a custom version, which the publisher can then sell for a substantially lower price. If a publisher must produce a custom version for your course and sell it for a much lower price in order to get a large adoption, the publisher will not hesitate. So if faculty are motivated to explore this possibility, they can help their students significantly.

Review Copies

The practice of selling the complimentary review copies that publishers send us indirectly raises the price of textbooks for our students. Instead, faculty members can easily arrange to donate these books to various agencies that will send them to Third World countries. Thus we can make room on our bookshelves and help students in these countries directly and our own students indirectly. Perhaps the students might make arrangements with an appropriate agency to facilitate the donation of our review copies.

Faculty Responsibility

Some faculty members need to educate themselves about the outrageously high cost of textbooks and consider those costs in their selection and use of required texts. If too many costly texts are adopted and then rarely used, many students will not buy a book at all and others will feel had. In particular the requirement of a text that is hardly used makes students especially angry, most of all when the faculty member or a colleague is the author of the textbook.

The effect of the resale market

From: George McGhee
Date: March 28,2005


I submit the hypothesis that IF the practice of reselling used textbooks were banned, THEN the high-cost-of-textbooks problem would be solved overnight.


The previous hypothesis of the high-cost-of-textbooks problem (variously expressed at the NB Faculty Council meeting) is:

High-cost-of-textbooks = f (greed of publishers)

Evidence in favor of this hypotheses include not only (1) the high cost of the textbook itself, but (2) the practice of the publisher in producing entirely unnecessary revised editions of textbooks, simultaneously with (3) discontinuing previous editions of textbooks which are not really out of date at all. Surely this has to be proof of greed, pure and simple.

I think not. I pointed out at the NB Faculty Council meeting that, typically, a publisher ONLY receives significant monies for a textbook the FIRST YEAR that it is released. In ALL subsequent years, bookstores (including the University bookstore itself), simply resell the used textbook, for which the publisher receives NOTHING. That is the reason that the initial cost of the textbook is so HIGH, because the publisher knows that it will ONLY be paid for the book in the year of its issue.

It is the reselling-of-used-textbooks practice, pure and simple, that prompts the publisher to then produce a new (unnecessary) revised edition of the textbook -- in an effort to make a profit on its intellectual property. Even then, the publisher knows that it will ONLY receive a significant amount of money for the revised textbook in the FIRST YEAR of its release -- in all subsequent years, the revised textbook will be resold over and over again, without one penny being paid to the publisher.

Thus I have proposed a different function:

High-cost-of-textbooks = f (reselling of used textbooks)

One might also ask the question: Is not this practice the theft of intellectual property? Who makes profit on ALL the subsequent resells of the textbook -- the publisher does not, and the author does not. They receive NOTHING.

I would be very interested in finding out two statistics:

(1) What percentage of the original cost of a textbook is PAID to the student who sells that textbook back to the university bookstore?

(2) What percentage of the original cost of a textbook is CHARGED to new students who purchase the used textbook the next semester?

That is, what PROFIT is our own university bookstore making on the intellectual property of others?

Is the university itself contributing to the problem of inflated textbook prices and the issuance of nonessential revised editions of textbooks?

(And last, before someone asks, NO, I have never written an undergraduate textbook, thus I have no personal royalties interest in the question.)

From: Jean Phillips
Date: April 13,2005

In follow-up to George McGhee's post, I agree that the resale market is largely to blame for expensive textbooks and frequent textbook revisions, and would like to submit that bookstore mark-ups may also be to blame. My general understanding is this:

1. That publishers make most of their revenue from a textbook the first year a new edition comes out. After that, the resale market is so efficient that some new textbooks are sold in year 2, and very few new books are sold in years 3+ because the resale market provides ample supply. This is why textbooks now tend to be revised every 2-3 years. If publishers did not do this, their incentive to supply textbooks, particularly for non-introductory courses or on topics that do not have the potential for a mass market, would be greatly reduced.

2. That campus bookstores' general practice in setting textbook prices is to roughly double the wholesale price of a new textbook paid to publishers. Although not an expert in this area, I am under the impression that the revenues/profits bookstores make through their initial mark-up of new editions and the revenues/profits generated by subsequently buying back and reselling used textbooks is greater than the revenues/profits made by the publishers of those textbooks. I think one factor that deserves further investigation is the profit margin made by bookstores, and whether an alternative model might exist that would result in lower prices for students.

Before jumping too quickly on the publishers, I think it is important to fully understand the textbook market, particularly in light of the used book market's effectively adding a profit-skimming layer to the textbook supply chain. The publishers may not be making any more money by frequently issuing new textbook editions than they used to because of the effect of the used book market (I don't know if this is true, but would not be surprised if it is). Because of the used book market makers there may simply be more hands now reaching into students' pockets. I do not think that the used book market is the money-saving panacea many students believe it to be.

Where's the crisis?

From: David S. Talaga
Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology
Date: April 13,2005

Textbooks still represent a small fraction of the total cost of education. Specialized texts will always be expensive for lack of economy of scale. Technical texts will be additionally expensive for the large amount of labor it takes to prepare them. Perhaps we can out-source textbook authoring and publishing to China and distribute them through Walmart so as to provide the lowest price possible for the commodity of education.

Commercial textbooks are extremely convenient for both the students and the faculty. The “problem” of too-frequent new editions of texts only exists for the used-textbook market. New editions carry the same high prices as the old editions. It seems sensible to me to frequently update texts — at least to correct errors and tweak language for clarity.

Sharing the cost

From: Manoranjan Dutta
Department of Economics
Date: April 13, 2005

I beg your indulgence to offer a simple two-part suggestion: