My $140 Textbook
A recent article in the New York Times prompted me to make an inquiry at my law school bookstore: How much do the textbooks I’m using this semester actually cost? Now I have the answer: $139 for Dukeminier’s Wills, Trusts, and Estates and $142 for Dukeminier’s Property. A student who buys them used will save about $35 on each book.
It’s more than a little disturbing that I’ve never asked this question before, but perfectly consistent with what economists might predict:
Squint hard, and textbook publishers can look a lot like drug makers. They both make money from doing obvious good — healing, educating — and they both have customers who may be willing to sacrifice their last pennies to buy what these companies are selling.
It is that fact that can suddenly turn the good guys into bad guys, especially when the prices they charge are compared with generic drugs or ordinary books. A final similarity, in the words of R. Preston McAfee, an economics professor at Cal Tech, is that both textbook publishers and drug makers benefit from the problem of “moral hazards” — that is, the doctor who prescribes medication and the professor who requires a textbook don’t have to bear the cost and thus usually don’t think twice about it.
“The person who pays for the book, the parent or the student, doesn’t choose it,” he said. “There is this sort of creep. It’s always O.K. to add $5.”
Professor McAfee has published his introductory economics textbook on-line, where students can freely download it. Professor McAfee also is allowing two companies to sell printed copies of the book, with prices ranging from $11 – $60.
I have never written a textbook, so I cannot speak from first-hand experience. But whenever I talk with people who have, they say that they expect or have received an inconsequential financial return. Perhaps they have all been lying, because Professor McAfee reports he most likely would have received a $100,000 advance for his textbook. But let’s assume the authors I know are truthful, and that most economics texts are more lucrative than legal texts.
The authors I know usually say they wrote their textbooks to influence the way in which their subject matter is taught. I suspect that some of them (okay, all of them) also wrote their books to gain prestige and increase their name recognition within the academy. The ability to accomplish these goals on-line depends on whether (1) the rest of us will adopt a self-published on-line textbook; and (2) what sort of punch such a textbook will have on a curriculum vitae. There are many reasons why both authors and textbook adopters might hesitate to consider a book that bypassed traditional outlets. Here’s just a couple: Will the textbook be subjected to an editorial process rigorous enough to pick up inaccuracies (or any editorial process at all)? Will a colleague who talks about her contract with Aspen be seen as achieving more than the author who provides a web address?
But a challenge to the traditional law school textbook market may nonetheless be in order. An average law school student takes between four and five classes per semester, for six semesters. Most, although not all, of these classes will require at least one textbook. Many of our students borrow to be able to afford the cost of education, which means some students will pay interest on the cost of the textbooks we ask them to purchase. As such, perhaps the legal academy should steal a page from Professor McAfee’s book.