Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Publishers shift blame for high book prices

The A-T ran this article last Thursday--I just spotted it on-line this morning.  The bold headline, "Publishers: Professors drive up book prices," leads us to a story about the publisher's attempt to blame someone besides themselves for textbook prices.

There was a forum somewhere on campus last week that discussed textbook prices.  Apparently, representatives of the textbook companies claim that we are driving the prices of books up by reselling the copies that they deluge us with.

It looks like a tactic to try to get the students to look away from the other, much more significant issues in the textbook market. 

Let's start with unnecessary new editions.  Companies produce them on average once every three years--obviously in order to undercut the used book market, not because basic knowledge in any discipline is changing that rapidly.

Next, we might add unnecessarily elaborate printing--do we really need glossy paper, color on every page, exaggerated graphics, to get across the essentials of our discipline.  How much does that raise the cost?

How about profit?  According to the National Association of College Bookstores, 32% of the cost of each book is profit for the publishing company.  How much could we add to this for marketing costs? 

These are just a few elements that pop to mind. 

What we really need is a textbook service that looks like PloS.  Lets make the textbook knowledge available for public use and find a publishing track that can eliminate the worst excesses of the academic book market.


Anonymous said...

I agree. When a company uses the U.S. Mails to send me a book I did not request and have no interest in, I am morally and legally free to do as I damn well please with it. It would be different if I were requesting them just to sell. But if they want to send these things out in the hopes of making a sale, it is disingenuous of them to turn around and get sore if I make a sale!

Anonymous said...

Huh. It never occurred to me to sell my sample books. Every book you get either comes with a return mailing label or a phone number/web page where you can ask for a label so you can send the book back for free if you are not interested.

I'll either send mine back untouched, or if I do go through it and not adopt it (at which point the publisher can't reuse it if I send it back), I'll give it to some student who's interested in the subject and who will promise not to sell it.

Selling it may "morally free" but I do not believe it is the moral path. That money is coming from your students.

Anonymous said...

It's "coming from our students" only because greedy publishers persist in their avaricious approach to marketing.

If I want to look at a textbook, I will ask. If I ask, I will return it if I don't adopt it.

But when greedy corporate suits looking for more students to overcharge dump unsolicited books on my lap, I will do as I damn well please with it, if only to punish them for their approach to marketing.

They want us to stop selling the junk they send us unasked? Then STOP SENDING IT!

Anonymous said...

Yup. You are really sticking it to those publishers by selling those books for cash. And I'm sure you ad insult to injury when you share your windfalls with your students instead of just pocketing the money...

Please, don't insult my intelligence or your own. To think your actions make any difference in the publisher's bottom line is deeply ridiculous. They pass those costs on to the students and you're OK with it. What with sticking return label on a book being kinda hard and that email thing you can use to tell your regional representative you don't want any more samples is just so tricky to figure out.

Yeah, just take the cash. That'll teach'm.

Anonymous said...

Obviously it DOES hurt them in some fashion (hegative PR more likely than bottom line), or they wouldn't be squawking about it, now would they?

Anonymous said...

The article also suggested that selling books might actually be illegal--or at least a violation of Wisconsin Ethics Rules.

Does anyone know if this is true?

Anonymous said...

One might argue that accepting sample textbooks is an ethics violation. See UWS 8.03(1)(b):

"No member of the unclassified staff may solicit or accept from any person or organization anything of value pursuant to an express or implied understanding that his or her conduct of university business would be influenced thereby."

But I believe the practice doesn't violate the spirt of the statue, i.e., you won't adopt the book for a class simply because you were given a sample.

The other point might be UWS 8.03(1)(a):

No member of the unclassified staff may, in a manner contrary to the interests of the university of Wisconsin system, use or attempt to use his or her public position or state property, including property leased by the state, to gain or attempt to gain anything of substantial value for the private benefit of the staff member, his or her immediate family or any organization with which the staff member is associated.

But the out on this one is "in a manner contrary to the interests of the university of Wisconsin system." Clearly evaluating textbooks is not contrary to those interests.

So I would imagine you're OK with the ethics statutes as long as you are not soliciting books solely for the purpose of reselling them.

Of course that doesn't make selling your samples a good moral choice...

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Interesting link. Interesting in that what the textbook companies are doing is treated by the Post Office under the heading of "FRAUD"!