Why Are Textbooks So Expensive?

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The beginning of a freshman’s college experience is an exciting time. Dining halls! No bedtime! Taunting your RA! Exorbitantly expensive textbooks!

Wait, that last one is no fun at all. It’s hard to make that first trip to the college bookstore for required texts without leaving with a bit of sticker shock. Why are textbooks so astonishingly expensive? Let’s take a look.

Publishers would explain that textbooks are really expensive to make. Dropping over a hundred bucks for a textbook seems like an outrage when you’re used to shelling out $10 or $25 for a novel, but textbooks aren’t made on the same budget. Those hundreds of glossy colorful pages, complete with charts, graphs, and illustrations, cost more than putting black words on regular old white paper. The National Association of College Stores has said that roughly 33 cents of every textbook dollar goes to this sort of production cost, with another 11.8 cents of every dollar going to author royalties. Making a textbook isn’t cheap.

There’s certainly some validity to this explanation. Yes, those charts and diagrams are expensive to produce, and the relatively small print runs of textbooks keep publishers from enjoying the kind of economies of scale they get on a bestselling popular novel. Any economist who has a pulse (and probably some who don’t) could poke holes in this argument pretty quickly, though.

In the simplest economic terms, the high price of textbooks is symptomatic of misaligned incentives, not exorbitant production costs. Students hold the reasonable stance that they’d like to spend as little money as possible on their books. Students don’t really have the latitude to pick which texts they need, though.

Professors pick the course materials, and faculty members don’t have any strong incentive to be price sensitive when it comes to selecting textbooks. Their out-of-pocket expense is zero whether the required texts cost $100 or $300, so there’s no real barrier to heaping on more reading material. If a student needs Class X to graduate, they’ll likely need to procure the required texts. This lack of cost-control incentives for professors is a major reason that at some point in college, everyone meets the expensive textbook’s even more maddening cousin, the Expensive Textbook You Never Even Use.

Moreover, many students aren’t all that price sensitive themselves. While the broke college kid is a beloved caricature, many students’ parents may still be footing the bill for school materials like books. Unless their parents raise a stink over a semester’s book bill, it’s easy to see how the textbook market could be one where none of the players actually have any strong incentive to be sensitive to prices.

Publishers also counter that widespread sales of used books cut into their bottom line. As eBay and Amazon have made the market for textbooks much bigger and more flexible, publishers lament that they’re losing out on sales, which necessitates higher retail prices for the new books they do sell.

Is there any truth to this argument? Maybe, but the effect may not be as great as the publishers claim. As economist Hal R. Varian wrote in The New York Times in 2005, it’s not totally clear that used textbooks are perfect substitutes for new ones. (Finding this piece absolved me of any residual guilt I may have had over selling Varian’s own excellent graduate microeconomics text on eBay last year.) As Varian puts it, used book sales probably cannibalizes less of the new book market than one might imagine.

Luckily for students, some external forces are placing downward pressure on textbook prices. Last year a new federal law went into effect that requires publishers to notify professors of textbook prices and schools to inform students of necessary course texts during registration. Online textbook rental companies could help replace outright ownership, as could electronic reserve programs. It may take a while, but in the future college students may be able to do the required reading without emptying their wallets.

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September 2, 2011 - 10:22am
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