The Price of Knowledge

Let me let you in on a little secret: college textbooks in the US are grossly overpriced. It’s been shown time and again that the same books can cost much less in Canada and the UK, and can often be ordered for less even after adding the cost of international shipping! Because they’re constantly revised (at least in part — most publishers won’t put out a new edition if it’s more than 30% changed from the last ones, because they have to lay out the whole thing over again!) it’s hard to get rid of textbooks, so you end up stuck with Introductory Chemistry when all you really care about is 17th century poetry.

A coule years ago, I found a flyer in my campus mailbox, from one academic publisher or another telling me how to respond to students’ complaints about textbook prices. The thing is, publishers want you to buy textbooks new, at full price; if they could, they’d outlaw the trade in used textbooks altogether. Even the Text and Academic Authors Association, of which I am a member, takes a strong stance against the sale of used textbooks which, after all, mean less royalties for authors.

But that’s not fair. Our audience as academic authors — and the clientele of academic publishers — are college students, many of them struggling to keep their heads above water. I teach some of my classes at a community college, where tuition is low — it is the cost of textbooks that causes many of my students to drop or to fail (because they try to go without books). If you’re writing for or publishing for college students, you have to respond at least a little to their needs — not act the role of the self-righteous victim because students naturally try to find the best deal they can, and not push unnecessary books into circulation when the ones published last year, or even 10 years ago, are still perfectly fine. How much does Introductory Physics change in the 2 years between editions anyway?!

I make sure my textbooks are available in the bookstore, but I also try to find links to discounted or used copies online, and encourage students to find the cheapest textbook prices they possibly can. And I feel fine about that — my job is to teach social science, not to market the bookstore. At the end of the day, fairness counts.

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