Taming (or Not) the Textbook Market

Mark LongBy Mark Long, Publisher, TSTC Publishing

A recent article at Inside Higher Ed, “Taming the Textbook by Market” by Steven J. Bell, takes yet another look at the ever-increasing price of textbooks and posits yet another solution to the problem. As he writes: “What if instead of being forced to buy a $160 textbook, your students had access to a compendium of online resources handpicked and customized by you [the instructor], and available at no cost to them, unless they preferred to purchase a low-cost, print-on-demand copy?”

What if, indeed?

Typically these discussions about textbook prices take place around the beginning of the fall semester and in the past have focused on a couple of standard, ever-recycled solutions:

  • Legislate textbook prices (good luck with all that!)
  • Require teachers to use any given textbook for at least three years before adopting a new one/edition (doubly good luck there!).

But Bell is onto something;: with the proliferation of digital content online it seems reasonable to assemble Curricular Resource Strategies (CRS), a term popularized by Mark David Milliron, that would allow more flexibility in the classroom for teachers while offering reduced costs to students. I mean, really, what’s not to like? After all, as Bell suggests, textbook publishers and college bookstores will still have a piece of the instructional material revenue stream via students ordering print-on-demand copies of books as they feel the need.

Well, as an old college English teacher—that was my previous incarnation in my ten-year run-up to being a textbook publisher—I do have some thoughts on all this, much like many of the people who commented on Bell’s article upon its publication.

The Quick Math Review By Diana Gafford and Dr. Mike HosseinpouFirst, most faculty members want to spend their time actually teaching as opposed to assembling an ever-evolving set of online materials for use in their classes. Bell does admit that is a certain allure for teachers in being able to select a textbook and then move on to other more pressing concerns—grading papers, prepping for classes, endless committee meetings—but he feels a couple of hours effort by a faculty member should prove worth the effort.

The reality is, however, that the actual amount of time it takes to assemble solid instructional materials is not hours but, rather, weeks or months.

Also, there is a permanence in hard copy texts that isn’t available when a) hooked to an electrical outlet or b) on a Web site that can be here today and gone later today. Finally, one reason textbook publishers exist is because they are vetting the material included in any book, and that keeps instructors from having to find and check every single source of information from scratch.

Second, Bell also supposes that textbook publishers and college bookstores will have a place in his envisioned CRS world via selling POD copies of textbooks for $25-$30 each when individual students feel the need to buy a hard copy. The simple truth is that neither publishers nor bookstores can survive on the margins from selling POD books, especially given the significantly higher unit cost for a POD book vs. one produced as part of a larger offset print run. (Plus, the greatly reduced margins from selling POD books guarantees that publishers would have no money at all the develop digital materials in any way, shape, or form.)

Sure, Flat World Knowledge is trying something exactly along these lines—digital editions of books are free while POD copies are available to buy along with study-guide ancillaries—but, to be honest, a close look at their business model just doesn’t reveal it to be self-sustaining. To me and my textbook publishing colleagues, they seem more like a start-up designed to get a visible name in the market before being sold out to an established publisher to flesh out their own digital offerings.

Third, there is also the tacit assumption that publishers and bookstores work together to set the obscene prices that students have to pay. Unfortunately, publishers have no control over what bookstores charge for books . . . so any book, even a short-run POD edition, can have the price jacked up once it reaches the bookstore.

For example, we recently worked with a local college to produce a textbook bundle—textbook plus date planner—that would have a retail price of $60. This means we would discount the book 20% to their on-campus bookstore (owned by a national chain) to $48 which they would turn around and sell for $60. Instead, the bookstore immediately marked up the retail price to $82, 70% more than wholesale and 30% above suggested retail. So, really, everyone in the chain here got the short end of the stick except for the bookstore.

Fourth, Bell suggests that both scholarly publishing and textbook publishing are a process by which faculty give away their content just to buy it back via periodicals in the library or textbooks in their classes. Now, I would not argue that periodical subscription rates are a problem almost as great (or even greater) for university libraries as textbook prices are for students. However, the payoff for scholarly publishing while not financially-based in the short run is exactly that in the long run as it allows professors to earn tenure (that is, keep their job). And, as well, in textbook publishing instructors are paid on either a work-for-hire or royalty basis, the return on which—even when selling several hundred or more copies a year—is a real incentive to develop these materials but not give them away.

Altruism tends to work on a haphazard case-by-case basis whereas instructional materials and/or curriculum need to be done with a comprehensive scope and scale on an ongoing basis.

Finally, one last thing I have to ask is, what’s so wrong with the individual voice of one subject matter expert?

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of WorkAs Matthew Crawford notes in his Shop Class as Soulcraft there is this ever-popular idea that the collective wisdom of the crowd—such as having a million snippets of information bundled together—is inherently preferable to one well-versed subject matter expert who has spent his/her entire life immersed in a particular subject. You know, when higher education costs as much as it does, I don’t particularly want a “guide on the side” who “facilitates” my teaching of myself as opposed to the “sage on the stage” who provides a depth and breadth of knowledge that’s taken a lifetime—not an afternoon browsing Google links—to gain command of.

This is also one of my gripes with one of the central ideas of Disrupting Class which thinks the textbook industry will be unraveled by teachers/kids/parents generating tutorial apps for students to use: just like posting a rant to a blog doesn’t make you a polished writer, thinking your child isn’t getting a good (enough) education doesn’t make you an expert in either a given subject matter or pedagogy or digital instructional design.

Look, hats off to Steven Bell for attempting to formulate a solution to a real problem and start a new conversation using his outsider’s perspective as a librarian. (And I would highly recommend his blog The Kept-Up Academic Librarian.) However, it’s that same perspective—one that is not versed in the realities of book publishing or the quotidian realities of instructors—that has led to some errors in analysis in his argument.

So what do I think is going to happen?

First, the big textbook publishers have too big a financial interest (and too many resources and too much leverage) to just watch their market (and $$$) evaporate right in front of them. Rather, I think enhanced eBooks—there’s a phrase that’s all the rage these days!—will allow publishers to keep their market share while doing something that they’ve craved for a long time: cut bookstores out of the equation completely by way of having students buy directly from publishers themselves.

Will prices ultimately go down? Not a bit . . . but profit margins, once again, for publishers will go up.

And hey, why not?

That’s just Economics 101.

This post was originally published at TSTC Publishing’s Book Business Blog, and has been reprinted with Mr. Long’s permission.

Mark Long is the Publisher in charge of TSTC Publishing, the publishing arm of the Texas State Technical College System. A long-time college English instructor, he oversaw the formation of TSTC’s book publishing division in 2004 whose charge is to produce low-cost (and high quality) technical and academic textbooks, technical career guides, and emerging technology forecasts in areas projected to impact higher education in Texas.

6 thoughts on “Taming (or Not) the Textbook Market

  1. Stephen Tiano

    That all sounds pretty sensible unless and until one realizes that there’s more to making books than writing and printing them.

    I realize, for instance, that there are some who believe a seasoned professional should know his or her subject and be educated and literate enough to write correct and clear sentences. But the truth is every authore needs an editor and copy editor, if only to confirm their perfection. Then, too, believe it or not, professional design and production are necessary to make a book at least less than a chore–and, hopefully, a pleasure–to read.

    Again believe it or not, those of us who do that kind of work well–I am a book designer and page compositor–do this work professionally, not as hobbyists or unpaid bibliophiles. We have households and families to support. And as sympathetic as I am to students who must pay for textbooks–I did time in those trenches, too, more years ago than I care to admit and I remember cursing at college bookstore bills–bargain basement textbooks are not a satisfactory answer.

    Mr. Bell may have struck a chord with student-consumers, but he really isn’t taking account of the whole picture.

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  3. stevenb

    I’m not surprised that a representative of a textbook publisher organization would find some holes in my ideas about using CRS to improve things for students. I’m not suggesting the CRS model isn’t without some challenges, such as how to provide a sufficient revenue stream to publishers and bookstores – but there’s no saying those entities couldn’t evolve and develop other ways of bringing in revenue – look at how university scholarly presses are working to adapt to a new digital environment. I could refute some of the points made here, but I believe the original piece does that well enough. (e.g., the tenure piece – lots of folks are calling for change in the way P&T works). But ultimately CRS is about bringing big change to the way we communicated, deliver and share learning resources in higher education. And as we know, change is hard – but we have to start somewhere. Thanks though for taking the time to read the piece and share your thoughts. Any new idea must stand up to these sorts of challenges. In time, I think the CRS model will.

  4. Mark Long

    I think Steven is correct that, as per the points made in his original article at Inside Higher Ed, he and I can agree to disagree on the scope of (and the driving forces behind) the evolution of higher ed instructional materials in the coming 3-5 years: CRS advocacy groups or textbook publishers. In the end, though, textbook publishers have such a significant vested market/financial interest in exerting (undue or not) influence/control over this process that I don’t see anything on a large scale happening that will negatively impact–as opposed to increasing–their profit margins. (If anything, college bookstores are the ones who are going to squeezed out in this equation and will be reduced to selling t-shirts and coffee cups with school logos on them.) He is also correct in that this is all a work in progress . . . once that will be interesting to watch as it plays out.

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