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On My Desk: Why are textbooks expensive?

Tom Laichas
Crossroads School

    Full-service world history textbooks aren't cheap. Though no world history text has yet crossed the $100 line, it's getting crowded in the mid $90s. 1
    A thorough study of textbook costs structures does not, to my knowledge, exist. Such a study would have to start with the larger context: the book trade in general. Paper bound academic titles, the kind published by university presses and certain specialty houses such as M. E. Sharpe, typically sell for $25 to $45. Given the rising cost of these volumes, a $95 world history text just might be a bargain, offering the buyer a thousand pages of text, a comprehensive website, and a big fat box of ancillaries.
     Any examination of textbook prices would also have to undertake international comparisons. According to some sources, textbooks (like prescription drugs) cost less in Canada and Europe than in the United States, and less in the U.S. than in, say, Mexico. If such differences really do exist, what explains them?
    Absent rigorous study, readers wishing to apportion blame may choose from four possible culprits: publishing costs, textbook resellers, faculty, and publishers. (College students would no doubt add college bookstores to the list. Naturally, bookstores defend their that their markups. Rather than get into that argument, we will stick here to the publisher's retail price). 4
Publishing Costs  
    Many (including publishers themselves) point the finger at unavoidable increases in the price of a textbook's many components. The cost of paper, ink, ancillaries, editors, authors, and consultants all add up. 5
     One frustrated student pursued the question and reported that:

Fixed costs were the number one reason for staggering book prices.  Permissions and copyrights to reproduce a single image or short story can cost as much as $58,000 dollars.  If a book contains several hundred images, these costs can amount to millions of dollars.  The amount of time and effort spent creating one textbook also contributes to high costs.  For example, the Sixth Edition of Biology by Neil Campbell and Jane Reece required over 9000 hours of work by 210 biologists to review the content for errors.  The drafting and editing stages alone took a total of 15,780 hours to complete.  As far as material resources, just one of the seven total printings took 517,708 pounds of paper and 5,330 pounds of ink; the press ran for a total of 151 hours.1

Similar stories help account for the high price of world history texts.

     One would think that costs increase in direct proportion to the length of textbooks. According to a US Department of Labor study, however, "the price for books with more pages seemed to steadily rise with the page range until around 1000 to 1100 pages. At that point, there seemed to exist a condition of 'diminishing returns' where more pages did not cost more money, and in many cases actually cost less."2

Thus, longer books are not always the dearest.

     There have always been local markets for used textbooks. These markets were woefully inefficient; prospective buyers and sellers had very a difficult time finding one another. Needless to say, the internet has changed that, creating national markets that are (for publishers) frighteningly efficient.
    Let's say a publisher brings out a new book (at substantial cost). The publisher sends free examination copies to professors and teachers. A few ethically-challenged faculty members, having decided against the book, will then sell it online, undercutting the publisher's price by 10, 20, or 30%. But this is a mere trickle. The tide of used copies truly begins rising after the first year, when second-hand copies flood into eBay, ABE books,, and other web-based resellers.
    The Text and Academic Authors Association (TAA), estimates that the average textbook is bought and sold four to five times. Only the first student pays full freight. From the remaining transactions, publishers and authors see not a penny. Says TAA executive director Richard Hull, "Publishers would respond positively to a plan that would return some of these resale profits." That is no doubt true, but it is difficult to imagine how such a plan could work.3 9
    Within a few years, used books overwhelm sales of new books. Publishers respond, of course, by offering new editions. There is, often enough, little truly "new" about the new editions. However, by reorganizing a couple of chapters here and adding a few supplements there, publishers can squeeze from a textbook a bit more return on investment. As a result, new editions may appear once every two to three years rather than the seven to ten years customary in more civilized times.
    Like prescription drugs, textbooks serve a captive market. Few patients would risk self-prescribing medications for a heart condition simply to save a few bucks. Students feel even less freedom to choose their own textbooks. If the teacher or professor wants the Fourth Edition, do you really want to buy the second? Thus the only real consumers of textbooks are instructors and textbook adoption committees.
    So: what do consumers want? Judging by the books themselves, they seem to want four color separation, acid-free paper, online supplements, and at least three packaging options (that is, a complete version, two-volume version divided at 1500, and a three-volume version cut at 1200 and 1750). They want truckloads of ancillaries as well as comprehensive websites.
    In making textbook decisions, do these consumers take price into account? The answer is often no. Though publishers certainly face consumer criticism, the critics usually slam a textbook's alleged political or scholarly deficiencies, not its price.

The fault, perhaps, is in ourselves.

    Late 19th century school teachers muttered darkly of the "textbook ring," a cartel of publishers and printers who wickedly drove up prices and amassed profits. Evidence of such a conspiracy drove some states, notably California, to publish their own textbooks.4
    According to some muckrakers, the textbook ring has returned, and with a vengeance. Exhibit A: the dramatic consolidation of textbook publishing. In 1942, there were twenty-eight large publishers. By 1995, the number had dwindled to thirteen (owned by eight companies) and by 2001 to nine (owned by five companies). While profit has always driven publishing, some of the old line companies actually cared about books as such. As publicly traded companies, the corporate behemoths which own the remaining publishers answer to investors who value rate of return over public service.
    In short, these mega-publishers allegedly bloat prices and rake in the profits. This is the conclusion of a widely quoted California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG) report "Rip-Off 101: How the Current Practices of the Textbook Industry Drive Up the Cost of College Textbooks."5
What Can Be Done?  
    Some faculty and students have become so frustrated with textbook prices that they have demanded government action. One Massachusetts proposal, for instance, would require that "publishers give students the option to buy textbooks and accompanying materials separately, rather than requiring students to buy the items as a package." The bill would also require that publishers "disclose how long they intend to produce an edition and how a new edition differs from an old one." 17
    Naturally, publishers themselves would welcome laws empowering them to collect a share of every used book's sale price.6 Short of that, publishers could publish texts solely online. This has three key advantages. First , it eliminates the costs of publishing a physical book. Second, it cuts the used book sellers right out of the equation. Third, it lowers the costs of editorial revision.
    Meanwhile, publishers might rethink the entire idea of a hardbound, thousand page textbook. Complaints about textbook cost may signal the emergence of an under-served market. What does that market want? Simple: a 250-300 page world history, packaged as a trade paperback. The price say, $15-$20 would be low enough to staunch the bleeding of profit to the secondary market. Ancillaries would be available separately; buyers could purchase either individual components or the entire program. Such a product might even appeal to a wider audience. The recent success of inexpensive introductory texts (for instance, the Oxford University Press Very Short Histories, Routledge Key Guides, Modern Library Chronicles, Interlink Illustrated Histories and Harry N. Abrams Discoveries) demonstrates the promise of this approach. No need to find new authors; the crew that wrote the last big textbook can probably collaborate to write this one too. However, single authorship may better serve the text's internal coherence.

    None of this is likely to happen soon. Working through state legislatures will be slow and cumbersome. Any new textbook, no matter what its configuration, requires considerable development. And books that live only online still exclude the millions of students without regular internet access.

    In the meantime, textbook costs are burdensome; every year, college students can spend upwards of $1,000 to $2,000 for texts, while districts and states spend millions. Those of us with friends among textbook editors and authors people, not corporations, whose livelihood depends on the sale of new books are uncomfortable with the consequences of referring students to the secondary market. 21

   Still, where cost is an urgent issue, there are options:

1.     Don't resell examination copies. If cost is a moral issue, putting exam copies on the market earns the seller a long visit to one of the warm middle levels of Dante's hell.

2.     Teach without a text. Articles elsewhere in this edition of WHC show how this can be done.

3.     Adopt a mass market world history. J. M. Roberts' Short History of the World costs $14.00. Works by Fernand Braudel and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, to name two, cost substantially less than $30.00. Do such books serve high school and college classrooms as well as the standard hardcover texts? Probably not. Many are actually longer than the standard world history textbook. Maps and graphics are poor or nonexistent. Written, usually, by Europeanists, the books often lack an integrated global perspective. The idiosyncracies of their authors can irritate students. Still, for some classrooms, they're perfect.7

4.     Adopt a world history outline text. Barron's, Peterson, and HarperCollins are among the many publishers offering outline histories of the world. Though some scholars and teachers find such outlines appalling, they are very, very cheap as low as $10.

5.     Don't adopt the new edition. Why use the 5th edition when the 3rd is perfectly serviceable? Anyone with a class set of older textbooks can simply wait a year or two before requiring the new set.

6.     Require a full-service textbook, but allow students to choose the title and edition themselves. Many instructors could not care less about distinctions between one textbook or edition and another. There is no reason a syllabus can't give students the option of choosing among multiple editions of five or six different texts. Assignments would not require particular chapters, but particular subjects: comparing Rome and Han empires, for instance. Students could buy their texts new or used without regard to publisher. Most students would see a substantial savings.

7.     Have students use internet resources as a text. Lists of such resources abound. Among the more comprehensive and well-annotated of them is at George Mason University's World History Matters (

    For those who despair of textbook prices, there is hope. The existing system of textbook publishing (and, probably, of all publishing) is inherently unsustainable. At some point in the future ten years? twenty years? publishers will no longer deliver schoolbooks as thousand-page, paper-and-ink texts. Just how the market will shake out is anyone's guess. But at some point, much more of the world will be able to afford world history textbooks. 23

Biographical Note: Tom Laichas is co-editor of World History Connected and teaches world history at the Crossroads School in Santa Monica, California.


1 James Beach, "Who's to Blame for the High Cost of Textbooks," at Mark H. Shapiro, "The Irascible Professor." March 18 2005, at

2 Mike Reese, "Hedonic Quality Adjustment Methods for College Textbooks in the U.S. CPI". US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics: October 16, 2001, at

3 Richard T. Hull, letter to the New York Times, at TAA can be found at:

4 For an interesting foray into industry history, see Cameron Moseley, "US School Publishing: From Webster and McGuffey to the Internet," at

6 "Open Books: Cutting Cost a Goal of Bill" Boston Globe January 15, 2006.

7 J.M. Roberts, Short History of the World (Oxford University Press, 1997) and New Penguin History of the World, 4th edition (Penguin, 2004); Fernand Braudel, A History of Civilizations (Penguin, 1995); Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature (Free Press, 2002).


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