Thursday, February 12, 2009

Textbook prices

I'm not trying to pick on Kevin Drum; it's actually a measure of my respect for him that I read him so closely (he was, perhaps, the first political/economic blogger I read regularly). In general, we have similar views on things, and from what he has written, our backgrounds are not so different.

He posed a question yesterday that he spent too little time thinking about. He's wondering why textbooks are so expensive, even comparing one of his from 1976 to the current price, finding that it's more than doubled in real dollars. The book is, apparently, pretty much identical to the 33-year-old version:

This, then, is obviously a book that ought to be cheaper today than it was three decades ago. The costs of production have long since been paid back, there's a ton of competition from the used book market since the book hasn't changed in 30 years, and I imagine that author royalties are the same as ever. For reference, a similar size commercial hardback would run about $40 these days.

So what is the deal? Why are textbooks such a ripoff?

Drum points us to the Andrew Gelman post that got the topic started, and to Henry Farrell's effort. Farrell takes us a little closer to some part of the truth as he mentions the "captive market" of students, who are pretty much at the mercy of whatever whim the professor uses to make a choice.

But none of the three mention the larger reason, that book publishers are under the same pressures to bloat profits as any other company. In many cases, they have become subsidiaries of conglomerates, and the book publishing division is as much on the hook as is any other corporate piece. They see a monopoly situation, they're pretty much bound to jump on it and milk it for all it's worth.

Add to that the low profit margins found in their overseas markets. In India, textbooks that are identical except for some cover art and the binding cost maybe a tenth of what they cost here. Much like the prescription drug market, the book publishers are going to get their money somehow. If they can't get it at the Indian Institute of Technology, they're going to get it by soaking the "rich kids" of America. We, in effect, are subsidizing the foreign textbook market.

So it is no wonder that textbooks cost so much - they're being used to advance social objectives that have nothing to do with educating American students. They are a hidden form of foreign aid.

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