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.

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11 Responses

  1. bill says:

    actually, you can get it for less than $125 on Amazon.

    given that 15 years ago, books like this cost $60, that doesn’t seem unfair.

    think about how much prices of other things we buy over that time period have inflated:

    houses

    gasoline

    milk

    bread

    I’m not sure that all of this whining over textbook prices is so warranted. I wish that the prices of these other goods would only “creep” as opposed to rocket upwards.

  2. If you don’t squint as hard you see an important difference: drug manufacturers turn a not-insignificant part of their revenues back into fundamental research. Textbook publishers do no such thing.

    More and more academic fields are coming to see publishing companies as a once-necessary evil, if not an outright cancer, which we now have the technology to do without. More and more online journals are replacing print journals that charge exorbitant fees not just to purchase them, but for the privilege of publishing in them, and which already operate entirely on volunteer labor.

    Textbooks are just the next step in the fight to get rid of these robber-barons entirely.

  3. Joe Miller says:

    Sarah,

    I think your questions are excellent. One assumption that underlies them is that a traditional casebook publisher actually adds editorial value with a “rigorous” editorial process. I have heard that the casebook publishers do not actually add much rigorous-editorial-review value; and that the contract copy editors they hire introduce errors (rather than eliminate errors) at a distressing rate.

    In any event, again, I think you’re asking important questions here.

  4. Eric Goldman says:

    A first step is for us as professors to *find out* how much we are asking students to pay and considering if they get commensurate value from the assigned materials. Because we don’t bear the economic consequences of our assignment choices, many of us don’t have a pressing motivation to reflect on the students’ buying experiences. Eric.

  5. none_ says:

    i took a civ pro class where the prof didn’t use a textbook, but instead assigned a list of cases per topic, and we’d pull them on westlaw or lexis. since west and lexis both provide free printing of cases, it basically made the class free, and it also freed us to pick and choose what to cover and what level of detail to go into.

  6. It is hard not to agree that the textbooks are quite expensive, but given how much law school tuition is at most law schools, is an extra $500-700 a semester really that onerous by comparison? Law schools could offer “free textbooks for all students” by just raising their tuition by 1 to 2K per year and then buying the books to provide to the students. It wouldn’t seem like such a big expense then.

    That said, I certainly agree that professors should do anything they can to keep book costs down for students.

    One unfortunate development that has students paying a lot more is that many academic publishers are charging high fees for using excerpts of books for supplemental course packs. This inflates the cost to students of materials professors prepare and have copied at copy centers.

  7. Bruce Boyden says:

    I worry constantly about how much the books I assign cost students. It’s always been a factor in my textbook selection, but I’ve been frustrated by the fact that most textbooks cost roughly the same — I suspect because not enough profs are doing price comparisons. However, price is much more of a factor in my choice of supplemental materials, because there you can see some real (and puzzling) differences. I.e., the same set of statutes sometimes costs twice as much.

    Dan, I agree it’s not that large compared to tuition, but many students cover tuition from loans, whereas textbooks come out of their lunch money. 4 x $140 plus supplements adds about another $700 per semester.

  8. reader says:

    As a law student, the high casebook prices are a killer but what’s worse in my view is when the professor assigns additional texts that we barely ever use. Please don’t assign a book unless it is integral to the course. $40 statutory supplements that have one tiny section on the course topic (and that are listed as “required” in the reading list) don’t count. Students will generally buy whatever is listed as “required,” so please think hard about those extra books.

    And Professor Solove, your comments perfectly illustrate the moral hazard and price creep issues. I’m already paying $20,000 a year, what’s another $1200? Any price increase can be justified if you frame it like that.

    Bill, your analogies don’t hold. House purchases are negotiated real estate transactions. Gas prices are determined by global markets and the availability of a finite resource. The consumer price index shows that $60 in 1993 equals $90 today.

  9. so a Law School Bookstore charges $142 for a textbook that, let’s face it, only has value as an intro to helping wealthy people keep their money from going to governments upon their death (i.e. Ted Kennedy, Jay Rockefeller…).

    Meanwhile, that same $142 would buy over a 35 month supply of many prescription drugs at WalMart….so which is the more evil enterprise?

  10. Gene Koo says:

    I have high hopes that our eLangdell project will, through open-source/remixable materials, help bring the costs of these vital resources down to something more reasonable. Not that we are opposed to profit, just that there seem to be high inefficiencies in this market that I’m not even sure the publishers benefit from

  11. bill says:

    @reader

    Your critique of what you call my analogies (I might call them suggested data points) would be more valid if you had picked something other than the laughably low CPI as your measure of inflation.

    Even Bloomberg has published explanations on how fraudulently low CPI is as a measure of inflation.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=a2SUCQ3Bslk0

    The CPI essentially omits important things like housing and medical care and pretends that all it needs to count are things like canned peas — and if canned peas double in price, it omits them and counts cheaper canned beans instead on the assumption that the consumer will switch.