Friday, August 17, 2007

Textbooks and the almighty dollar

I'm sure that most of us have noticed that textbooks costs are out of control. Though my suspicion is that costs for philosophy textbooks have not risen as quickly as they have in other disciplines (the sciences, business), this is a pedagogical issue in philosophy as well: Students certainly won't do the reading if they don't have the reading material. So what can be done here?

I'm particularly sensitive to this issue because our institution is on a 10-week quarter system. Since most textbooks are produced with sufficient material for a 14-week semester, I tend to assign an even smaller proportion of the texts I ask students to buy than I would were I teaching on a semester calendar. In some cases, I can only reasonably assign one-quarter of the readings in a large anthology. Furthermore, because of the quarter system, students take half again as many courses as they would on a semester system, which means half again as many textbooks.

So I'd be curious to know if others are sensitive to this issue, and if so, what you do to try to keep students' costs in check. I'd also be interested in learning from those involved in the production or authoring of philosophy textbooks why costs are increasing and their views on the matter.


  1. Three comments.

    For my intro to philosophy course, which I teach historically, I use 4 primary sources. Three of them are by Hackett, and the forth is by Eerdmans. Students can pick up all four used for about $30, and new for less than $50. One of my reasons for using these texts, as opposed to other similar ones, is the cost factor you mention. I don't think I've had a course where the books would cost more than $70. Granted, that's still a lot, but compared with $130 for other intro and logic textbooks used by my department, I think it's a start.

    Another of my colleagues teaches only from journal articles, and just links to them (via JSTORE and such) on the class website. She requires no books. Of course, not all courses can do this, but the amount of materials in the public domain and available through databases (which libraries often pay the subscriptions for) is increasing.

    Finally, I'm in the process of editing an anthology to be used as a textbook. It's going to be in Routledge's "Arguing About Series..." Though most of the current volumes in this series are >500 pages (mine will likely be about 700), they all sell for $35 in paperback. The editor for the series at Routledge said that they keep the cost this low on purpose. I'm not sure how they do it (verses other similar volumes that sell for double or more), but kudos to them. There are only 3 or so books in the series now (aesthetics, metaethics, and mind I think), but others are in the works (metaphysics, philosophy of religion).

  2. The cost of textbooks and the ethics of selling and reselling them are important issues. For many years I have tried to keep costs down to @ 20.00 per course. This year in my intro courses I have kept it to zero. I am utilizing material from and other sites that have made complete texts available for free. Other material I am keeping on e-reserve at the university library. I have utilized these options whenever possible in the past and I have found that students will download and read this material.

  3. I have become more conscious of this issue in recent years. Many students on my campus are first-generation college students from rural areas, and so I try to avoid the expensive texts. I also have many single parents and older students. I've used You Decide! Current Debates in Contemporary Moral Problems by Bruce Waller and The Story of Ethics for my intro to ethics course. Together they cost $50 new, and less used. I find the need to supplement with JSTOR and other online readings. I would like to make more use of the online and reserve options, but just haven't done the necessary work that this would require.

  4. One solution if your school library can handle it is online course reserve. It's like having a course reader that the students don't have to buy. They can read everything online if they want, or they can print it out if they want to use up their print quota. One place I teach allows me to increase their print quota if it's a high-print course.

    The downside is that it may reduce student reading, as any online source solution would. Students who have hard copies are much more likely to read. It's so much more convenient.

    A second difficulty is that copyright requires using less than 10-20% of the book (apparently there's some ambiguity in the law, and different libraries interpret it differently). So selected articles from several anthologies helps (or perhaps from several different translations of the same classical work), and using long works like City of God makes things easier too, since a higher page count is a smaller percentage of the book.

    When I use books, I tend to choose anthologies or texts that cost much less than average (like Pojman's Hackett Moral Philosophy for $20) and supplement with online readings or online course reserve where necessary.

  5. Related information:

    Textbook costs inflated; blame used market

    Published on: 08/20/07

    In the Aug. 16 Atlanta Journal Constitution, Kenneth Saladin argues that the cost of new college textbooks is appropriate ("Why textbooks cost so much," @issue). A new copy of his textbook, Anatomy and Physiology, retails for $160. If the average cost of a textbook is $150 and a student, Tim, takes a normal college load of five classes per semester for two semesters, then he would pay $1,500 per year for textbooks.

    Saladin misses the real reason for the dramatic increase in the cost of new textbooks. Technological change that has resulted in an explosion in the used textbook market. As politicians, educators and students grapple with the issue of the rising cost of new textbooks, it is crucial that we all understand the real cause and the real effects of the cost increases.

    Saladin argues that the high cost of new college textbooks is justified by four factors: the time it takes to write textbooks, the fact that these books are "lavishly illustrated," the use of ancillaries (such as DVDs, Web pages and instructors' manuals) and the increase in human knowledge that requires new editions to be produced every three years.

    The first factor cannot explain the recent rise in textbook costs because technology has greatly reduced the time and effort it takes to write a textbook. I wrote my first textbook in 1993. I am now in the process of doing the final edits on my second textbook. Advances in computer technology have made the process of writing a textbook much less difficult. When it comes to the effort professors put into writing textbooks, one should expect textbook costs to fall. The same is true of illustrations. Changes in technology have greatly reduced the cost of producing illustrations.

    The increase in the bundling of ancillaries, in contrast, has increased the costs of textbooks. But apart from instructors' manuals, the vast majority of these ancillaries go unused. The main function of these ancillaries is to keep books from being sold on the used book market. Suppose a student buys a book that comes with a DVD that is not used in her class. She has no reason to keep the DVD, so it gets lost. When Madeline tries to resell the book on the used market, she will find that she cannot resell it without the DVD. This is one less book on the used market and, therefore, one more sale for the book's publisher.

    Why do most publishers produce a new edition every three years? Human knowledge does not move forward at a constant pace. The three-year cycle is another effect of the used book market. Publishers have found that this market means that they will sell about half as many books in one year as they sold in the previous year. If they sold 1,000 copies of a book the first year it comes out, then they will sell 500 copies in the second year, 250 copies in the third year, and 125 copies in the fourth year. After three years, a publisher is selling few new books because most students can find a used copy. Publishers and authors only make money when a new book is sold. So publishers push authors to produce a new edition every three years.

    Before the Internet, buyers and sellers of used books on different campuses could not find each other. Now the Internet allows a student in Boston to sell a used book to a student in San Diego.

    So we need to look again at Tim. Is he really likely to spend $1,500 per year for textbooks? Only if he isn't very bright. I was able to find Saladin's book on the used market for $43. When a student buys used books, he will not only be saving money on the books he buys, he will also be contributing to the high cost of new textbooks.

    The amount of money students spend on textbooks while earning a college degree has not gone up as much as the cost of new textbooks. Technology has produced an explosion in the used textbook market.

    This, not the factors cited by Saladin, is the main reason for the recent rise in the cost of new textbooks.

    • George Rainbolt is a professor of philosophy at Georgia State University.


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