Say what you want about WalMart. They deliver low prices.

Maybe Walmart should do health care. I took my son to university today and bought the books for his classes. I buy lots of books. In my experience, a good hardcover book costs around $20. Not textbooks. One small book, called “Modern East Asia since 1600” cost $81.60. You would expect at least to get the whole history of East Asia for that kind of money. It is expensive because you need the latest edition. That is the trick. The editions keep on changing. Not much changes inside, but the pages are different so students can’t properly use the old ones in coursework.

I could well understand if professors were getting kids to buy classics that would be of lasting value. It might be worth it to pay big money for a good copy of “the Iliad,” “Wealth of Nations” or “Paradise Lost”. Not that the kids would always actually read all of them, but at least they could legitimately grace their bookshelves for the next decades. Ironically, the classics are usually inexpensive. But the books the kids are asked to buy are rarely classics or even candidates for being classics. Don’t take my word for it or rely on my judgment. The authors obviously don’t think their tomes have any staying power, or else they wouldn’t keep on making minor alterations that require endless new editions.

So let’s talk about how WalMart is different. After buying the textbooks at a total cost of more than $300, we went to WalMart to buy a mini-refrigerator for my son’s dorm room. It cost $99. How does that work? Maybe we should put WalMart in charge of the textbooks.

Actually, I have to admit that I have been paying too much because I was stupid. The kids bought the books they needed and I paid for them w/o thinking much about it. I remembered that when I was in school books were expensive, but used books were usually a decent deal.

Things are different now. Used books are not that much cheaper and even when the discounts are steep they start from such lofty heights that it still is outrageous and there are fewer used books because of all the new editions and fewer classics. Even the classics are constantly updated, although usually w/o much value added. I found that private markets can indeed help, but not always and not that much. The books are still really expensive because they start off really expensive.

IMO, the problem is precisely that those making the demands (i.e. the professors) are not those making buying the books (i.e. the students) and those buying the books are not the ones paying the bills (i.e. the parents or government). It gets worse. Professors often write the kinds of books that nobody reads voluntarily. (Those professors who do write books that sell (usually for around $20) are disparaged by less popular members of the professoriate as popularizers.) Even if they didn’t write the assigned books themselves, many professors feel a kind of solidarity with their colleagues toiling in the narrow fields plowing up the dirt that where only specialists are allowed or willing to tread. Nobody spends other people’s money as carefully as he spends his own and some people seem to think that it is a virtue to be generous with other people cash. You can imagine a professor saying to himself, “Scholarship is more important than money anyway and if I can help deserving but poorly remunerated fellow professors make a little extra money, who does it hurt?”

Some things get cheaper over time, at least in real dollars. These things include computers, laser eye surgery, electronics & small appliances. Other things get more expensive. These include university education, medicine besides laser eye surgery and public transportation. How are these things different?

IMO, things that people use their own money to buy get cheaper and better. Things that the government manages, subsidizes or pays for outright get more expensive and less useful. We might think about that as we continue the health care debate and ask the government to do more for us than we are willing to do for ourselves.

Posted by Christine & John at January 9, 2010 10:38 PM
Comment #293533

It’s a completely monopolistic system. It should be broken up, but schools seem immune politically. It was that way when I went to school. Some professors are cool and don’t require you to buy the books, I always bought used books, but kept them all. I usually waited until the first class or until a syllabus was issued, so I knew what books were actually required, but that can mean the used books are gone.

Some people are putting them online(illegaly). Screw DRM. Yeah, freedom.

I’m reading about John Adams and the Sons of Liberty. They would have been for illegal downloading.

Posted by: gergle at January 9, 2010 11:02 PM
Comment #293534

Oh, by the way, Chinese slave children don’t write text books, but they make great refrigerators, and $7 shirts.(I just bought some)

Posted by: gergle at January 9, 2010 11:03 PM
Comment #293538

I do recall wondering if textbook publishers kickback to professors. This should be stopped, but then again the publishers and authors are bound to a generally limited market. They are alsoBTW,not part of the government. I fail to see your correlation with health care delivery.Perhaps public colleges should be required to negotiate book prices and make sure the books required are actually needed. Hmmmm…that is getting closer to the health care proposal,after all.

Posted by: bills at January 10, 2010 4:26 AM
Comment #293544

The extraordinary inflation in higher education is more akin to that of the housing bubble over the past twenty years. Cheap credit, easy access, relaxation of underwriting standards, securitization of student debt, overzealous marketing, etc., have all contributed to a full blown bubble in higher education. Universities have responded to the abundance of student credit by building the equivalent of the developers’ McMansions. But much more insidious. You can’t walk away from student debt. It is non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.

Posted by: Rich at January 10, 2010 9:08 AM
Comment #293548

The trick with textbooks is that they have, by nature, a limited market. How many people buy a Calculus textbook for fun?

I see the same sort of inflated prices when it comes to professional books, to my chagrin. I’d love to learn plenty of programs, but the cost is a major limiting factor. Fact is, most people aren’t going to buy a book on Lightwave 3D or Solidworks, or on Network Administration.

And this may simply be the way it is, so long as we’re killing trees to make books. The market, left to itself, does not always create ideal circumstances, nor does it always lower prices. Walmart may not truly be the fulfillment of the market you think it is. Maybe paying a bit more for products would be the norm, if things were left to themselves, if you didn’t have Walmart and those trying to match its prices sitting on so much of the market. Perhaps, to offer such low prices, Walmart has to distort market dynamics elsewhere, with attendant problems for the overal market.

The market, and the efficiency people generally seek is neither simple nor monolithic.

What I’d look for is the advent of relatively inexpensive e-book readers comparable to the Kindle or Nook. You give a kid or a college student that, and it changes the economics completely.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at January 10, 2010 11:50 AM
Comment #293552

Can I say as a current student that this textbook pricing is mainly a U.S. thing? I have friends in Europe that buy the EXACT same texts for 1/4 of the price and it’s even cheaper in Asia.

For example, this book I got last year online, a 400 page text that I needed for a class, costs in a retailer here about $120, in Europe the same book costs about 45-50 (tax included).

On the cover of the text I have it says in big bold print:

“This book shall not be sold nor distributed outside of India, Bangladesh, China, Thailand, Malaysia.”

The price I paid for the USED “illegal” version that I’m NOT supposed to have in the US?

30 USD. including shipping.

So what kind of sense does it make to have a math textbook sold to university students here in the US for $120 while the same students in India get it for less than 30 for a new book.

Posted by: Jon at January 10, 2010 4:03 PM
Comment #293559


So what kind of sense does it make to have a math textbook sold to university students here in the US for $120 while the same students in India get it for less than 30 for a new book.

The same kind of sense it makes to rewrite a calculus book every year. I don’t think the subject has changed much since Newton.

Posted by: gergle at January 10, 2010 10:36 PM
Comment #293570

No, the book from India is from the same publisher, same Numerical Analysis book, everything, but it’s just illegal for to sell or distribute in the US.

That’s my point, here in the US, we always say we have the “best” but in reality we don’t unless you’re very well off, which in any country then you’d have “the best”.

Another example, I had a friend who studied in Finland, she was French, a foreigner, yet she paid little tuition, mostly just room & board, 60 euros a month. In the US I would have to take out a student loan and pay thousands to stay in a dorm and in debt to my eyeballs.

It’s a complicated subject, but honestly I cannot for the life of me understand why I NEED to go into 50k+ debt in order to learn, while in most European countries learning is seen as something that benefits society as a whole, so why make in inaccessible and expensive.

BTW, As far as I know there are no stores in Europe like Wal-Mart, and I have some family in Syria, my uncle has had a washer & dryer he bought from Turkey in the 1970s, they still work like brand new (aside from being a little loud), but I bought a toaster from Wal-Mart last year, it stopped working after a week.

Posted by: Jon at January 11, 2010 10:24 AM
Comment #293593

Ronald Reagan and Sam Walton , Sorry Hans, wrong guess. Would you like to go for Double Jeopardy where the scores can really change? said Bruce Willis and do you remember the 1988 movie Beetlegeuse he said “Attention K-Mart shoppers!!!” Wal-mart was the Bill Clinton And Hillary and the free trade congress and the family of Sam Walton show ..

Posted by: Rodney Brown at January 11, 2010 3:30 PM
Comment #293655

“… We might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books, so that every member of Congress and every man of any mind in the Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them.” “A government big enough to supply you with everything you need, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have….” “The policy of the American government is to leave their citizens
free, neither restraining nor aiding them in their pursuits.” ” No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of
freedom and happiness… Preach a crusade against ignorance;
establish and improve the law for educating the common people.
Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us
against the evils [of misgovernment].” “” I hope we shall… crush in its birth the aristocracy of our
moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our
government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of
our country.” - Jefferson was right then and right NOW.

Posted by: Rodney Brown at January 12, 2010 1:36 PM
Comment #293663


You said, “What I’d look for is the advent of relatively inexpensive e-book readers comparable to the Kindle or Nook. You give a kid or a college student that, and it changes the economics completely.”

I’m not sure that is going to do much. The text books aren’t expensive because of production costs as much as they are for the ideas within them and the limited marketplace for those.

In my most ridiculous class in college, I had a reading list with 28 books on it. The cost for books for that class for one semester was nearly $300. One book was a paperback of 250 pages, it was over $50 because I don’t think anyone except for our class was buying it.

Posted by: Rob at January 12, 2010 5:06 PM
Comment #293697

They aren’t expensive because of the ideas, but because of the limited market, the strong IP interest of the authors, and the constant revision.

The revision in particular means that whole bunches of textbooks can suddenly become worthless for those selling them, if the professors all decide to adopt the new ones.

But if you’re selling e-books, you can just update software. No need to deal with a supply chain’s worth of troubles in getting paper and ink volumes out, or dispose of that mass of outdated texts when the next edition is adopted.

The risks and materials, warehousing and whatnot do not figure into the costs of an E-Book.

That’s what will make them less expensive as time goes on.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at January 13, 2010 11:10 AM
Comment #293768

You want to know a great way Walmart keeps your prices down? As a policy, they have workers work just under the amount of hours that qualifies them for federal assistance. Of course, your supplementing their workers pay with your taxes, but… hey, that’s cool, right? Of course, most of the people they hire are Chinese anyway.

How this company has managed to convince people it’s “American” is beyond me.

Posted by: Max at January 14, 2010 11:43 AM
Comment #293815


I think you are vastly over estimating the cost of production for the books as opposed to the content. I completely agree with your statement that, “more expensive…but because of the limited market, the strong IP interest of the authors, and the constant revision.”

However, I don’t see software changing this. You lectured me a while back when I stated that the new economy would change things drastically saying that just because you put a web site in front of something doesn’t make it different.

In this case, I think you were right on. The textbook market is a strange one. Software alone won’t do it.

Although, I will agree that students will get great benefit from e-books (I’m looking forward to seeing what the iSlate is all about), I don’t think the cost savings for content will be significant. If you go to buy a book on a Kindle today, it’s $10 or about half of what it is in print for a best seller. I can see maybe that much savings in the text book industry ($10 - $25/ book). The content cost will still be the predominate one.

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Comment #414364

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