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I am an instructor in a medium-sized state school in the USA. The price for the textbook to the introductory math course that I teach just increased. Again. A new, paperback copy costs 170 USD. I want to put pressure on the publishers to reduce their price, but I am not sure what the best strategy is.

Has anyone had any success in such an endeavour? Any ideas? A strongly worded letter, signed by the faculty?

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    It seems like it would be a lot easier to change the textbook. Or is there some good reason why it has to be that specific book? – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 27 '14 at 17:55
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    @tobias That is a good option, but it only works if I am the course coordinator. This changes frequently. If I can get the price of the textbook down, then it won't matter who the course coordinator is. – David Steinberg Sep 27 '14 at 18:06
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    Well, you need it to at least be an option somewhere or you will have no leverage at all (not to say that you will have much anyway). If the publisher tends to increase the price occasionally, then any lowering will probably only be temporary and will need to be fought for again later. – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 27 '14 at 18:09
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    @MassimoOrtolano: Check out the price for Thomas's calculus, which seems to be the standard around here. ($US 233!) – Bob Brown Sep 27 '14 at 18:22
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    A lot of people seem to be aware of the used book market on Amazon. It is to be found in small print directly below the retail price for the new book, a link "used from $xx.xx". It is not unusual at all on Amazon for common $100 textbooks to be found in good shape, used, for under $20. I'd say more but this will start to sound like spam. – Paul Sep 28 '14 at 8:35
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If you don't have the authority to change the textbook on your own, at least for your own section, then your target should be, not the publisher, but the person or committee that does have that happy power.*

Show them this: http://aimath.org/textbooks/approved-textbooks/ and propose that you teach a section of your course using the appropriate open access textbook. (Edited to add: Pick out the appropriate book and an alternate before you talk to the committee or coordinator and be prepared to defend your choice vs. the approved text.) In the following semester, compare how well your students did in the next course in sequence vs. those who used the standard text.

Your secret weapon: work like hell to be sure your students are well prepared for the next course.

In the comments, Ben Crowell has said: "Here is a catalog I maintain of free books, including many open-source textbooks: http://theassayer.org" I've edited it into my answer so it doesn't get lost. Thank you, Ben.

* Hat tip to Professor Severus Snape for "happy power."

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    I strongly suspect that IRB approval is not necessary for textbook selections. Departmental approval, perhaps, but not a central university board. – aeismail Sep 27 '14 at 18:49
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    Institutional Review Board: Certifies experiments on human subjects. It absolutely should not be necessary in this case because selection of a new textbook is not an "experiment" in the sense that IRBs have in mind and checking on the progress of students in next courses is a secondary use of their grades. – Bob Brown Sep 27 '14 at 19:00
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    And another hat tip to Professor Gilderoy Lockhart for requiring a complete set of his expensive books. – Micah Walter Sep 27 '14 at 19:03
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    @aeismail: Correct; no IRB approval for textbook selection. But I also suggested seeing how students taught from the alternative text do in the follow-on course. Someone who wants to throw up roadblocks might call the two items together "an experiment." It's not, but OP should be prepared to address the objection. The answer, of course, is "secondary use" of the grades in the follow-on course. – Bob Brown Sep 27 '14 at 19:11
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    @emory: At this point it is unknown whether the expensive book has pedagogical properties that the OA book does not. David Steinberg has a desire to reduce the financial burden on his students from the current, expensive textbook. I have suggested an experiment (although we won't call it that) which would test whether an OA book, provided he can find a suitable one, is equivalent to the expensive book. Changing textbooks in an established course involves a certain amount of working like hell no matter how good the replacement is. – Bob Brown Sep 28 '14 at 7:38
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I suspect—although I don't have actual proof for this—that the number of textbooks being sold has been rapidly declining, forcing upwards pressure on prices as publishers try to maintain their profit margins.

That said, I fully understand why teachers are reluctant to ask students to spend hundreds of dollars on a textbook. (Books that I spent $50 on as an undergraduate less than two decades ago now regularly sell for $150-$200!) I think this has also led to more and more instructors providing alternatives:

  • Having departments order limited quantities of texts, and depositing them as "restricted reference" materials in the university library.
  • Producing their own reference materials, either by making lecture notes and slides available online, or producing "prepared" materials closer in style to a textbook.
  • Reducing the reliance on individual textbooks, so that students can choose whichever appropriate reference they wish.

I know from personal experience that all three approaches are useful (and I've used them in different classes, depending on the nature and structure of the course).

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    +1 for teaching without a textbook. I did my BSc in math at a top University in Europe and I didn't have to buy a single math book. There were recommendations and a library of course, but it was perfectly possible to do the undergrad courses with just the lecture notes and occasionally meeting for homework sessions in the library's homework room. – Sumyrda Sep 28 '14 at 13:10
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    Not an economist, but I don't understand your first sentence. Surely if the demand for something falls then the price should go down? – Flounderer Sep 28 '14 at 22:54
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    Surely if the demand for something falls then the price should go down? No, the normal logic of supply and demand doesn't apply here, because the person who picks the books is different from the person who pays. The extremely rapid rate of increase in textbook prices is simply a question of the publishers probing the limits of how exploitative they can be. – Ben Crowell Sep 29 '14 at 1:12
  • @Flounderer I am not an economist either but I know that this is not necesarily true. It depends on several factors. Two important ones are cost pr unit - Due to economy of scale this will tend to go up as volume goes down, and consumer response - while demand can be expected to go down with rising price this needs not be a linear relationship. – Taemyr Sep 29 '14 at 13:16
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    @Flounderer you are inverting the cause and effect. A buyer will certainly buy fewer of something when the price increases but a supplier's cost doesn't decrease when fewer buyers buy the thing. What could be happening with books is that fewer people buy new books because of other factors (perhaps the internet makes buying used books significantly easier and cheaper). A publisher might lose some economies of scale benefit and therefore raise their price. In response to that price increase, buyers will buy even fewer of the good. – Dean MacGregor Sep 8 '15 at 19:15
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At my institution, we asked a publisher to make us a "custom edition" of one of their expensive texts. The content wasn't really any different (I think we had them omit a chapter or two that wasn't in our curriculum) but they printed it in black and white, and it was somewhat cheaper than the four-color standard edition and still perfectly adequate.

We did encounter some difficulty in communicating to the bookstore what exactly they were supposed to order and stock.

I think the publishers like doing this because (a) it makes them feel more responsive to the needs of their customers and (b) it further fragments the used market. So I couldn't really say it turns the tables; maybe just wobbles them a little.

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    In my experience, this has not worked well when the course of interest has a low enrollment. Custom textbooks for small courses in some cases can be more expensive, if you can even get the publisher to make them. – Jeffrey Weimer Sep 27 '14 at 22:10
  • @JeffreyWeimer: True. The OP mentioned an introductory math course; those typically have large enrollments. The book I am talking about was also for an introductory math course, which is taken by perhaps 200 students per year, so the numbers don't have to be enormous. – Nate Eldredge Sep 27 '14 at 22:13
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    I should have mentioned: the $170 textbook is a custom edition. – David Steinberg Sep 27 '14 at 23:09
  • tbh manufacture costs should have little to no relevance on price otherwise why not simply provide it as a pdf? This is all about them setting an arbitary price for the IP. – JamesRyan Sep 30 '14 at 11:16
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Many publishers will publish the same book at a much cheaper price for sale in markets in the developing world. These copies will be exactly the same (even down to the typesetting and graphic design) except that the paper, printing and binding will be of inferior quality, and the cover will be a generic design.

I've bought the South Asian editions of third year physics textbooks for $20 from various sellers on AbeBooks, whereas these textbooks would retail for over $150 in my university bookshop. I've only done this on AbeBooks, but this might be possible on other websites as well.

Perhaps you could search online to see whether cheaper editions of your text are available, and if so, recommend that students purchase their copies there.

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    I have been able to purchase many if not most of my Computer Science text books on ebay as international editions. The material contained within the textbooks was identical to the books being offered in the school bookstore. Paying $20 for Modern Operating Systems instead of $180 is much easier to swallow. – Sarah Sep 30 '14 at 12:56
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I have never had to buy a book for a course¹. All the lectures were absolutely self contained, and I only used the books when I needed a clarification or a different explanation on a particular thing, in which case I borrowed it for a few days from the library. I did buy a few books, but only these that I though would be useful as a reference beyond the particular course.

The best way to reduce the impact on the student's pockets is not to require purchasing the book at all. The library should have a bunch of copies of different books, so the students can compare and choose what suits them best.


¹ Actually, once I did. It was not compulsory per se, but the professor was referring to his book every day. He was a bad lecturer.

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If there isn't too much of a difference, or if the differences aren't relevant, use the previous edition. This is always cheaper, and will be available second-hand.

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One "easy" way to pressure textbook publishers to reduce price for a textbook about a given topic you know a lot about is by writing a textbook yourself and giving it away for free. So you become the publisher.

I did so for a German lecture about Geometry and Topology. I am a student and the professor did not provide a textbook. So I create one from my lecture notes (he prepared the lectures very well; but it still was a lot of work).

Here is the result:

Students now have something that fits exactly what is taught in lecture (plus some very small extras I've added) together with training material. They can print it for less than 10 Euro. If they build groups / if the institute would decided to print 200 (which should not be a problem) I guess the price could go down to 5-7 Euro.

Another advantage of this OpenSource / science / education approach is that it gets easy to create derivates. In my case, another student asked me if it would be possible to create index cards for definitions. It turned out that it was quite easy to do so (index cards for this project). I could imagine that students or other teachers could come up with other variations of the text.

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Two comments here ...

I know a professor who once wrote a popular textbook. When he wrote the next one, which was expected to be equally successful, he asked several publishers who could promise him the lowest sticker price. It might even have been a smart business move, because the next textbook was another bestseller by textbook standards. The author had bargaining power and used it for the benefit of his students.

On the other hand, I know that some textbooks have relatively low print runs and complicated layout/typesetting. Computers can only do so much, a good textbook needs manual attention. These overheads have to be divided over the print run in order to make any profits, and they might dwarf the costs of paper, print, and binding.

  • > I know that some textbooks have relatively low print runs and complicated layout/typesetting. Typesetting is a lot of work. But with LaTeX people can do it pretty well. I guess most mathematicans know LaTeX and the rest can be asked on tex.stackexchange.com – Martin Thoma Oct 1 '14 at 8:48
  • Also, students can be paied to do the typesetting. (I did this once). – Martin Thoma Oct 1 '14 at 8:51

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