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Summary (TL;DR): The following's biased; so are there any counterarguments? Please beware that this question concerns only authors who are professors and who also write textbooks.

Are authors truly helping students as much as possible? For example, are textbooks edited and revised every two years out of greed? Certain subjects tied to real-life reforms (like law) may require such turnover, but what of Economics (as below) or Calculus?

[Supplementary Context] [Source:] Ray Lopez December 16, 2014 at 12:22 pm

LOL from the comments section of the npr post:

Mankiw is the worst sort of economist. He’s a blatant liar. Why does his book cost $320? Because that’s how much the publisher, Cengage, has determined the market will bear. Why does he not advocate reducing the price of the book to make it affordable to more students around the world? Because he wants to make as much money for himself as possible. (This is also why pharmaceutical companies often price their newest drugs at outrageously high prices; to maximise profits in the short term, rather than to deliver the greatest public health good.) Mankiw does not care about the impact of his ridiculously priced book on the purchasers of his product, and he papers over any twinge of guilt he might otherwise experience by convincing himself that his personal brilliance is worth the extra money. Congratulations, professor, for playing your little part in the grand national pastime of burying America’s college students in debt.

(no sympathy from me as he dissed outrageously priced on-patent drugs, but it’s telling how people think education is a public good. Nothing can be further from the truth. If you can’t afford an Ivy League education you have no business applying to Harvard…)

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    I am personally familiar with at least two cases (in mathematics) where authors were angry that their books were expensive, and fought (mostly unsuccessfully) with the publishers to keep the prices down. Or, at least, this is what these authors claimed, and they seemed sincere to me. – Anonymous Mar 6 '15 at 2:20
  • Many textbooks, tend to be expensive to print, and manufacture. Large pages, colour, gloss. Hardcover and hundreds of pages long. Nicely layedout, and edited. I suspect you will find that the profit margins on many books are much smaller than one might think. Even just running the numbers to print-off a black and white textbook at the University printshop (from an electronic edition) may maths priced it at fairly similar to the cost to order the book from overseas. – Lyndon White Mar 6 '15 at 4:04
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    I don't understand what the question exactly is here, but in any case it seems subjective and argumentative. Both alone would be sufficient reasons for a closing vote, so I am casting one. On top of that, an additional -1 for using your username field for self-advertising -- that was unheard of for me. – Federico Poloni Mar 6 '15 at 13:48
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    Hardcover and hundreds of pages long. Nicely layedout, and edited. I suspect you will find that the profit margins on many books are much smaller than one might think. — Clearly you've never been to the discount section at Barnes & Noble, which is full of nicely laid out, glossy, full color, large-format hardback books priced at roughly $2/kg. – JeffE Mar 6 '15 at 14:24
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    @Oxinabox At my university we have very few textbooks printed inside, they usually run in the 20-50 bucks price range. An outside printed book is 100+. Don't compare the price you pay per page to print something to the cost per page to the University to print hundreds of books. – Nick S Mar 6 '15 at 15:50
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Short answer: both yes and no.

Partially, no they are not responsible, because some of it is a matter of costs and markets. You're never going to see textbooks offered for the same price-per-page as romance novels, because the cost of creating and curating the textbook is so different. So the base price of textbooks is expected to be significantly higher.

At the same time, however, authors have a lot of choice which publisher to work with, and some publishers are much more predatory in their pricing than others. Most significantly, there are a number of university and society presses that can give a book quite good promotion and also a reasonable price. Consider, for example, the MIT Press, and these widely used books: the CLR(S) Algorithms textbook ($70) and the SICP programming textbook ($49) and also free. Moreover, academic publishing is a seller's market, unlike fiction publishing: in my experience, big academic publishers are always soliciting for authors to create books for them, and so there is space for an author to select (if not necessarily negotiate).

I would say, than, that any author who has courage of their convictions with regards to education can make a publishing choice that keeps their textbook well under $100 US. Doing otherwise demonstrates either that the person is not caring about student costs or else that they think like an economist.

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    Ahem. – JeffE Mar 6 '15 at 14:28
  • @JeffE And I congratulate you, sir, for keeping your textbook well under $100, to the limit cost of $0. :-) I still hold that if you were distributing physical copies, you'd likely end up with a higher price-per-page than self-published romance novels. – jakebeal Mar 6 '15 at 15:00
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    @JeffE A $0 text AND you have a .WTF domain for it? Glorious. – BrianH Mar 6 '15 at 16:17
  • @Jeff - spelling mistake in the second sentence of the first page ("wtih notes"). Should charge more and hire an editor. :-P Just kidding. Love this! – RoboKaren Mar 7 '15 at 2:27
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Academic authors typically receive very very little, if any, of the cover price. And an author has very little leverage over their publisher. Many publishers would be either bemused or amused by an author telling them how to do their job. I expect to receive zero financial compensation from books, as that seems to be the going rate here. If the author receives 4-6% of a book's cover price, that gives the author scope to reduce the price by 4-6% by foregoing their royalties. But a one-off cost reduction of 4-6% is not really worth having the discussion about, is it?

Well-produced books take the time of many skilled professionals to do the work of co-ordination, editing, layout and printing; then there's the material costs, distribution and marketing, and overheads. Only a few dozen copies may get sold. So there are a lot of fixed costs to be distributed over a few sales.

It's rather different to an amateur publisher knocking out a pdf. (Not you, dear reader, if you publish your own books, do all your own editing and layout: I'm sure that's of the same quality as something from the OUP; here I'm talking about the other amateur publishers - the one's who think they're professional-grade editors and graphic designers, but, well, aren't.)

And it's a market. Supply and demand. If the book's worth $320 buy it; and if it's not, don't. Students still have a choice. They can choose the course with a $320 book, or a different course. If you're getting taught by Mankiw himself, I'd expect the $320 to be (1) a tiny part of your total costs; (2) tiny compared to your expected future earnings increment resulting from your education; (3) tiny compared to the value you get out of it.

The discussion about education as a public good, and the economic & social impacts of student debt, are a distraction, a red herring, for this particular question on this site. Those are important discussions; but we don't do discussion here, and book costs are tiny compared to tuition fees.

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    I think that in the internet era, if a professor is expecting to make no money out of a book and requires the material for a course, he/she may very well make it available on an online repository as a PDF. You can achieve very nice results using Latex. – Miguel Mar 6 '15 at 5:58
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    For instance, the answer here estimates that Springer authors get about 5-7% of the retail price. That may or may not meet someone's definition of "very very little"; on a $320 book we are talking $16-$22. Of course, authors of particularly lucrative titles might negotiate higher royalty rates. – Nate Eldredge Mar 6 '15 at 5:59
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    The problem with the "supply and demand" argument is that once a professor makes a textbook required, the students are a captive market. Even if the book itself isn't worth $320, passing the class probably is. It's a market, but not really a free one: the publisher has a monopoly on that title, the demand is highly inelastic, and there are no substitute goods. – Nate Eldredge Mar 6 '15 at 6:01
  • @Miguel we have other questions dealing with the ethics of pricing of books that are required reading for courses. This is a different question. – EnergyNumbers Mar 6 '15 at 6:03
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    For what it is worth, author royalties on an undergraduate textbook from a commercial publisher would tend to be in the range of 12%-20% of wholesale price. – Corvus Mar 6 '15 at 6:32

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