Why Textbook Publishing Makes Me Sad

It’s that time of year again! As we get closer to the start of a new semester and a new school year, various lists of sites are going around telling you where you can find cheap used copies of textbooks, or even free downloads thereof. Many of these posts also paint textbook companies as greedy, scheming monstrosities whose sole goal is to fleece hapless college students of their paltry, desperately-needed-for-other-things funds. I’m not interested in commenting about the legality or ethics of these sites (broadly speaking, the cheap used ones are legal and the free downloads aren’t, tho there may be exceptions to that for individual cases #IAmNotALawyer), but I do want to address that portrayal of publishing companies.

My mom works as a production editor at one such company, you see, and from hearing her talk about her work, I have a bit more of an insider’s perspective on the industry. And I’m here to tell you that it’s not full of self-satisfied moguls patting themselves on the back for putting broke students thru the wringer.

It’s much worse than that.

Consider, for a moment, Finishing the Hat, Stephen Sondheim’s first collection of his lyrics, along with anecdotes, historical tidbits, and philosophical musings. It is, in many ways, not so unlike a textbook: It’s big, it’s bulky, it’s got a lot of information in it, but it’s not something you’re going to read all in one sitting. In fact, it may not be something you read at all.

I have a copy of this book. Someone gave it to me as a present back when I was in high school. To date, more than half a decade later, I have read, in total, about five pages of it. I’d very much like to read it, I fully intend to read it, I just haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. Let’s say, just for fun, that this fall I really get my life together, start living as my best self full-time, and read the entire thing. At that point, having finished it, I’ll put it back on my bookshelf, where it will sit until I pack it up and take it with me to grad school. It is very unlikely that I will ever get rid of this book.

As a result of this, my copy of Finishing the Hat is out of circulation; if someone else wants to buy the collected wit and wisdom of Stephen Sondheim, my copy of it isn’t available to them; they can’t buy it from me. Now, not everyone holds on to their copies of autobiographical lyric anthologies as tightly as I do, so there are used copies out there, but the chances of there ever being basically enough used copies to entirely satisfy the demand of people wanting to buy this book (at least until Stephen Sondheim’s cultural currency fades) is pretty low. In practical terms, this means that the publisher has years to make a profit on this book. Even if they don’t make bank the instant it hits the market, they know they’re likely to have a pretty steady stream of sales for quite some time, and they don’t have to invest in anything beyond paper, binding, and ink to meet that demand. So they can price it reasonably. On Amazon, you can pick up a new copy for $26.22 — Not exactly pocket change, but not a preposterous amount for a sizable new hardcover from a famous person.

Now consider Edward Aldwell and Carl Schachter’s Harmony and Voice Leading (4th Ed), the standard text for Yale’s core music theory curriculum*. The number of music majors at Yale is pretty constant from year to year, which means about the same number of students need to buy this book every fall. But, crucially, it also means that about the same number of students (having finished the core theory requirement) no longer need their copies of this book every fall. Sure, some students are going to hang on to their copies, but most students aren’t particularly attached to their textbooks, which means that there’s an on-campus market of used copies of Aldwell and Schachter that’s almost exactly the same size as the market of people looking to buy copies of it. At Yale, there was even a dedicated website for people looking to sell their old textbooks to incoming students taking the same classes.

This creates a problem for the publisher. Even if students were selling our used copies at the full list price (which we definitely aren’t), the publisher doesn’t see any of that money — The only time there’s a large market for new copies directly from the publisher is the very first term the book is on the market; after that, new sales shrink to a trickle as used copies start to fill the demand**. Instead of having years to recoup their costs and turn a profit, they have months. Instead of being able to defray the costs of researching, writing, editing, securing photos, printing (often in full color!) and the like over years of steady sales, they have to cram them all into a minuscule timeframe, resulting in the preposterous markups we’re all too familiar with. A new copy of Aldwell and Schachter’s theory text costs $225.64 to buy new.

This is why textbook publishing is so depressing. Sure, there may be some firms that are greedy racketeers, but by and large the people in this field are driven by a genuine desire to help students learn. Given the way the system is set up, tho, the only way they can afford to do that and also eat is to charge usurious prices for their work — if they don’t, the used market comes along and causes them to lose money. It’s a vicious cycle, too. The higher the price of a new textbook, the more students are going to look for ways to get used (or illegal) copies, and the more students find ways to avoid buying new copies from the publisher, the higher prices have to be for publishers to stay solvent.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are other ways of structuring this industry that allow textbook makers to still make a living without also forcing textbook prices into the stratosphere.

To take just one proposal that I’ve seen floated: Imagine if, instead of the current model, textbook publishers adopted a licensing model, charging a small per-student fee for professors to assign their texts (I’ve seen $5 per student per year floated, but I don’t know exactly what a reasonable figure would be). So for the 40-odd students enrolled in Music 210 at Yale, the publisher of Aldwell and Schachter would get a lump sum fee, regardless of how we all got our books. Even if every single person for the rest of time used the same 40-odd books, the publisher would still be making money, and thus wouldn’t have to cram their entire profit margin into the first semester that the book is on sale. (This would also free publishers from the expense of having to issue new editions of everything every three years or so. Fast-developing fields like molecular biology probably need regular re-writing, but let’s be real: Calculus is not in a perpetual state of overhaul, and nor are the rules of 18th-Century European part writing***.) The precise mechanics would need to be fine-tuned, but in principle it seems like an elegant solution that would leave everyone better off than they are now.

The problem is that this requires systematic change. It doesn’t work if just one professor or school does this, everyone has to do this together. This kind of collective action is hard, and humans have, historically, been pretty bad at coordinating it. Individual choices aren’t going to fix this problem, and if only a few people switch, they could very well end up worse off than they are now. Until we can come together and re-structure the textbook industry from the ground up, we’re likely to be trapped in this ruinous state of affairs.

So by all means, scrounge around for cheap used copies to make your education more affordable! But maybe save your invective for the larger system that brought us to this pass.

*When I took these courses, we were still working from the 3rd edition even though the fourth one was out at the time. I’m honestly not sure whether they’ve made the switch at this point, but I’m using the most recent edition to illustrate the general point.

**The publisher my mom works for estimates that sales of the books they put out for non-majors drop by about 80% from the first to the second year. Dedicated majors tend to hold on to their books a little more tightly, but even for those titles sales often drop by a good 60% or more.

***The re-writing cycle is actually a major cost for publishers, given the amount of skilled labor involved. Even with this kind of licensing scheme in place, the VP for marketing where my mom works estimates that, since they only publish science books, prices for new books would be unlikely to fall below 40% of their current list price. Then again, crunching some of the numbers, this puts them in the $40 - $70 range instead of the $90 - $175 range, so I'd still consider that a win. For things like Calculus or introductory music theory, this revision cycle is much less of a concern, so prices could possibly come down even further.