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August 16, 2005



When a undergrad, we used to weigh books and then make a little
chart of price per gram. If I remember properly, books like baby Rudin cost more than crack per gram (this came from the media estimates of drug prices).

I think the going price is 143$....


new argumentaion trope: appeal to Mussolini

Request for next rant: tuition


I, too complain about the cost of technical books, because small run art books like the Taschen series don’t cost as much as texts, but are full of color illustrations that the publishers needlessly add to technical books, partially in order to justify the prices.

But looking at it from the other side, of course publishers are interested in making money. These books form a very small print run compared to say, a Grisham novel. Cost per book is higher. (Heh, and the price per book for grad textbooks I still use like “Spectroscopic Analysis” is friggin’ astronomical). So textbooks are always going to cost more to print on a per page basis than mass-market books. And the price will always be correspondingly higher. The question is, how much higher? I don’t want to interfere with free markets or tell publishers what is a “reasonable profit” – I lived in the USSR for a while, and I saw the results of that kind of thinking.

On the other hand this market is semi-monopolistic because the consumer isn’t free to choose their books: the University or prof chooses for them. There is no viable substitute to the required text, in many cases, making supplier power supreme in the Porter 5 Forces model. There is the used textbook market, but only some students sell their books back for any given class (I happen to have kept all of mine, but I have a horrible case of biblio-OCD), so there are not enough in each round to keep the next class supplied.

There are some possible remedies from within the current system, in the absense of rival small publishing houses such as are found in the UK. First of all, University book stores could refuse to purchase new editions in the absence of major curricular overhaul, forcing publishers to plan a little better and make bigger print runs, then store the copies for a few years, or pass the burden of storage onto the Universities with a demand for multiple-year contracts. Neither party is going to do that, because the Universities don’t give a crap about the costs to the student either. Nor do many profs, or they would make hand-outs of their problem sets instead of assigning problem numbers from the books, and would not keep asking for stupid crap like color illustrations. (Some of my best math texts are Soviet books with B&W illustrations). But make no mistake, less money flowing into this business arena is going to mean fewer choices, as some houses withdraw from the market.

I think the solution is going to come from info…(Ernie breaks into coughing fit) – er, it’s going to be a computerized solution: perhaps Web based texts to download – each student pays the author a direct royalty fee or some such, and the middleman is eliminated. This probably won’t completely eliminate the textbook market, but it will present enough of a substitute to drive the locus of power away from the publishers. It will also reverse the trend of reduced diversity in the physical book arena as some traditional publishers withdraw from or curtail their activities in this market.


Perhaps we can convince Taschen to publish textbooks (masquerading as art books).

Yes, of course publishers want to make money; if they don't make money, they die. But it's frustrating to see other similar markets (like art books and UK textbooks) with many of the same constraints, where the same hyper-inflation hasn't taken place. Why are there so many more rival discount publishers in the UK? Is the system that different? Do students have more choices about the books they buy? Do instructors pay more attention to prices, perhaps—he said while holding a knife to his own throat—because they're paid less than in the US?

"Universities" don't make textbook decisions. Most of the responsibility, I'm afraid, lands on the shoudlers of us tenure-stream professors, sometimes in committees (especially for intro courses), and sometimes individually. University book stores (usually) order exactly what they're told to order. The administration can't impose constraints on textbook choices without the faculty crying about the loss of academic freedom. TAs, lecturers, and adjunct faculty often have no choice but to follow the choice imposed by the course coordinator, invariably a tenured professor.

(Do profs really *ask* for color illustrations in their textbooks? Or is the popularity of color illustrations more the product of effective marketing of a higher-margin product—like SUVs, or beer in plastic bottles, or not "pirating" music?)

If music downloads are any indication, authors and publishers could make more money simply by making PDF copies of textbooks available on the web for free. In the few instances I know of—Hatcher's Algebraic Topolology, Wilf's A=B, everything by Cory Doctorow—putting books on the web actually increased hard copy sales, perhaps only because of increased publicity.

I'm afraid there will be no solution until more textbook authors start to value fame/reputation/karma/whuffie more than money, or at least realize just how much money fame/reputation/karma/whuffie is actually worth in the long run.

Do profs really *ask* for color illustrations?

According to this guy:


I'm afraid they do and more. However, he seems to think that the color adds little to the cost.

Looking at his explanation of the Tragedy of the Commons, I now realize that more than half of my comment post above was full of crap. If used texts circulate that widely, then most students are returning their books. Maybe the UK kids keep their books? Or Uni bookstores don't sell used texts? That would explain why small houses could exist there and not here.

Massive reselling gives new meaning to the Chinese saying "gave it back to the teacher" about forgotten subject matter. No wonder my students didn't remember stuff they learned two semesters ago.

Other than non-science books, did you ever sell back your books? I didn't, but now I realize I'm even less typical than I'd thought.


"According to this guy (http://www.uwgb.edu/dutchs/PSEUDOSC/TextWars.HTM) I'm afraid they do and more."

I'm not sure how much to believe this guy. He presents no evidence (or links to evidence) for bald statements like "After the first semester, used textbooks account for almost all sales." Given all his talk of refutability and pseudoscience, I find his lack of data disturbing.

Now, maybe he's right. But maybe students ditch their books so quickly because they know they're full of useless fluff. Maybe small presses in the UK survive becuase they produce smallerr, tighter books that students actually find useful?

Oh, right. I forgot. Most students don't find books useful.

That's depressing.

To answer your question: No, I never resold any of my books, even the non-science ones. Some years after college, I got rid of most of them, but it was painful. I still have most of my undergrad math textbooks.

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