Thursday, September 1, 2011

3 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the High Cost of Textbooks

Man, are textbook publishers getting a bad rap nowadays, or what?

There's even something now called the Textbook Rebellion Cross-Country Tour, and no, I'm not giving you the link to the tour, you'll have to find it yourself. The "tour" features two so-called mascots: "Mr. $200 Textbook and Textbook Rebel," according to a Flat World Knowledge press release, "in spectacular larger-than-life costumes, who will help local volunteers distribute cost-saving tips and collect petition signatures."

Seriously? I mean, look at this:

A SpongeBob wannabe being chased around campus by a snarky smoker in a bad suit? And the snark is supposed to be a publisher? Grrrr.

Yes, I'm a little peeved at the moment.

The main issue, of course, is the rising cost of college textbooks. I understand that, I really do, and yes, some publishers are jacking up their prices unnecessarily. I wish they wouldn't, but they do.

The rest of us, though, are getting a bum rap, and here are three reasons why.

Reason #1: The "Just Gotta Have It" syndrome

Years ago, before e-mail, the internet, and iMacs, before Amazon, e-books, and even Angry Birds Halloween, there was a time when textbooks came with nothing for faculty but an instructor's guide. In it you got some lecture notes, quizzes, tests, and maybe even a few classroom activities.

Today, if a publisher even thinks about offering just a measly instructor's guide with a textbook, nothing else, we would get run out of Dodge on a hardcover rail. Today faculty just gotta have at least:

  • Full set of lecture notes in PowerPoint format, one or more PowerPoints for each chapter

  • Instructor's guide, yes, but with dozens of classroom activities; various syllabi for an 8-week, 10-week, 12-week, 15-week, 18-week, heck, even a 23.7-week course; even more test items, and don't you dare repeat the test items in the electronic test bank, they all have to be different; images for coloring, step-by-step guidance for teaching every piece of information in every chapter; indexes that coordinate every piece of information with every other piece of information in all the various ancillaries

  • Electronic test bank with a lot of test items, a real lot, hundreds—no, make that thousands of 'em, more than any instructor could ever dream of using, because, after all, it's about the numbers

  • Interactive software—not that students ever actually use the software, it just needs to be available, is all

  • More, more, and more, stuff we don't even know about yet—yes, we want that too.

Some publishers have started to charge for some of those ancillaries, but most of us still give them away as an incentive for faculty to adopt our books. And because we've always given them away (I'm smacking my head with my hand, now, can you see?), faculty expect they'll always be free. And know what? They probably always will be.

Reason #2: Increasing costs

With faculty demanding more and more content, publishers have to find ways to get that content in a cost-efficient manner. Authors at one time had to write all of their own ancillaries—test banks, PowerPoints, and so forth.

More and more, though, publishers are finding that they can't burden their authors that way, that they need more content than can reasonably be expected from the authors (who have already written an entire textbook, by the way) in the time frame they need it in. So we turn to outside vendors.

Fees for writing, say, 750 test items can run in the $15,000–$25,000 range. Do you know how many books we would have to sell to make that money back? A boatload.

A big boatload.

A big, honking, lumbering barge of a boatload.

And software? We're talking $50,000 and up to develop some fairly straightforward activities.

Video? Everybody wants video, how cool. We're at, what, somewhere in the $1,000–$1,500 range for finished video per minute, sometimes even more.

Whether we charge for these items doesn't matter, the costs have to be borne somewhere, and in the end, that somewhere is the student.

Reason #3: It's health care, after all

Don't get me wrong, I get as steamed as the next guy about, say, college history books costing exponentially more each new edition when history hasn't changed all that much since, well, since it was made.

So for publishers who play that game, just slapping a new cover on an old book and then charging $30 more per unit for the "revised" version, I say let 'em have it. SpongeBob yourself senseless.

But in health care the content changes all the time. New procedures, new drugs, new philosophies, even. All of that new stuff needs to find its way into our books.

So when we revise a book, our authors have to make sure all their content is fully up-to-date. That takes time and effort, and I think authors and publishers ought to be compensated accordingly. We do that in part through price increases. Not big ones, but increases nonetheless.

So if you happen to see a publisher-type with a ginormous head and a cigarette hanging out of his sneering mouth, chasing around a lumpy sponge with a bullhorn and an ugly belt, tell them I said to go home. Some of us publishers don't need no stinkin' rebellion.