Book Value versus Market Value – The High Cost of University Textbooks

With the exams ending students across Canada are desperately trying to resell their used textbooks. Fulltime students are expected to budget around $1000 a year just for assigned reading, but will be extremely lucky to recoup even half that value. SMU’s library offers a buy-back program, but in my three and a half years attending Saint Mary’s they’ve not once accepted my used texts. “Our quota is full,” or “We’re phasing out that edition,” are the usual excuses. Kijiji Halifax has over 10 textbook listings in just the last 24 hours.

Studies of the North American market have consistently found that since the mid-80’s textbook prices have increased at more than twice the rate of inflation, accelerating since 1999. I learned this the hard way, but since my first year I haven’t bought a textbook over $60 dollars, opting instead for a combination of online used book sellers and digital bootlegs. Next semester, for example, I have the choice to either buy a textbook for over $200, or simply type “basic econometrics 5th edition pdf” into Google. I have a suspicion I won’t be the only one doing the latter.

Publishers claim that prices have been increasing to recover revenues lost from this explosion in piracy, as well as book exchanges and online re-sale markets. But that begs the question of why students have sought out these alternatives in the first place. Common sense suggests high prices lead to the search for alternatives, not the other way around.

When people are driven to piracy it is usually an indication that the market or prevailing business model is seriously out of whack. Businesses from Netflix to Valve Corporation sell easily pirated content by offer convenience and fair pricing. The success of these companies proves that people will pay a premium to retain their status as honest consumers. The textbook market, on the other hand, makes liars out of all of us.

On the supply side, a University of Michigan study has identified the shortening of revision cycles as a major contributing factor to price increases. The most widely purchased textbooks have new editions released within three or four years on average, and rarely because of changes in the field. Rather, they consist of updated “case studies” or expensive CD packages that no one uses. On the demand side, those choosing which textbooks to assign (the professors) are not the same people that have to buy them (the students), leading to price insensitivity. Textbooks writers: that’s a fact to use the next time you’re rehashing case studies on moral hazard effects.

Our captured regulators share blame, too. The 1999 Book Importation Regulations, enabled by the Canadian Copyright Act, gives publishers exclusive book distribution rights, including the rights to import the much cheaper international editions. Indeed, the Canadian Publisher’s Council lobbies incessantly for increased trade and intellectual property protection, as recently as their whole-hearted endorsement of 2011’s Bill C-11. The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations has fought against these anti-competitive regulations for years, but to no avail.

When industries secure their market control through the fed it can be next to impossible to reverse. Yet the present state of affairs is not sustainable, and publishers are feeling the pressure. Pearson and McGraw-Hill have bet big on creative digital textbooks, but they are missing the point. The textbook medium isn’t the problem – students even prefer paper copies. We just don’t want to be price gouged!

Crowd-sourcing is the best candidate for innovations that will supplant the textbook industry once and for all, just as Wikipedia did for the encyclopedia business. It may be true that traditional textbooks are expensive to write, but could that be a symptom of making the authors highly paid Professors who compete for the status and prestige? I’d much rather learn from anonymous authors writing for mere enjoyment.

Crowd-sourcing is driving down the costs of information as the cost of textbooks continues to climb. At some point this divergence with reach a breaking point. This long run vision will benefit student’s wallets and consciences, but may result in the end of Pearson, McGraw-Hill and others. It is said that businesses need to adapt for the 21st century. Sometimes, however, extinction is more appropriate.