I’ve never been involved (other than marginally) in textbook publishing, so I’ve tended to keep pretty quiet about it. Some cynics (not me of course!) might caricature it as a conspiracy between professors and publishers to extract money from the taxpayer or the parents of students. Professors get paid handsomely (over and above their regular salary which in effect pays them to gain the expertise needed to write a book) to produce these books, and then they require their students to fork over large sums to buy them. (This point has analogies with the open access issue.) I know there are all sorts of good arguments about the cost of developing a textbook and getting it into the market, but there can be no doubt that cases of excess can be found. Take two different books both same size, same page count, similar complexity, published in paperback, one intended as supplementary student reading for the college market, and the other making its way through the usual trade channels. The book for college students may be priced at $35, while the one intended for a retail audience might sell for $19.95. And the difference is not necessarily explained by the quantity printed — the “guaranteed” sale to students may actually lead to a higher print run for the $35 book. What it does mean is that the college publisher is used to pricing books higher. Whereas the trade book has to compete in a retail environment, and so cannot afford to price itself out of the market when compared with other similar volumes, the college students will buy the book recommended by their professor without regard to the price of other books on the same subject: this is the book they “have” to buy.

There are certainly high costs involved in developing a textbook. They tend to be big books and so the cost of authorship, editing and copyediting are correspondingly high. The copyediting needs to be greater than for a “normal” book — not only are we trying to educate, so need to be clear and accurate, but we have to get the facts right, and will be introducing features like text boxes, internal quizzes etc.. There will tend to be large illustration programs, leading to permissions charges or a lot of redrawing. To compete in the marketplace the books have to be attractive, so they are heavily “designed” and increasingly printed in four colors. And then they have to appear on time: you can’t be a month late, or you will have missed the entire year’s sale, and will of course have a relatively out-of-date book on your hands in 12 months time. It is common to print a small first printing to test the market — sample copies are sent out to professors who will consider the book for their next year’s classes. As many as 5000 copies may be dedicated to this task, and then when the responses are in, and you can guess how many adoptions there may be, you go back to press for the “real” first printing. Not every book makes it this far, but if it does, you can look forward to a couple of years sales before you need to update the material and publish a second edition, starting the cost process and schedule jamming all over again.

Publishers tend to talk up the way that textbook market is becoming electronic, but all along I have been dubious. The work is undoubtedly being done, but the payoff still looks remote — every student I’ve spoken to or heard about (not a large sample I confess) continues to buy print textbooks despite their high cost. The key explanation I suspect is that the customer is not really the student: it’s the professor who assigns the books. I dare say it’s easier for professors to be able to say “Turn to page 198” than to get the class to find a particular place in an e-book being accessed on various different e-readers. This Fast Company Labs story suggests that the solution is adapting the product to the market by offering customizable textbooks. Maybe; but embedded in their story are two crucial objections: first, students are wary of doing anything which might put them at a disadvantage, and are in any case often using a parental credit card anyway, and secondly, just like pharmaceuticals industry, the person making the buying decision is not the person paying for it, so there’s no real incentive to economize. Of course we should perhaps not assume that a sudden switch over to digital textbooks would result in a reduction in retail price — the high costs of developing a textbook would still remain.

Some altruistic professors are fighting back by compiling open-source textbooks. The Digital Reader brings us a story about an initiative at the University of Maryland. This initiative does on the face of it appear to make sense, but it will require a lot of work by faculty. Perhaps after slaving away (for free) making sure your open-source textbook is up-to-date and as good as can be, the exhausted professor might reflect that he/she could have been getting a healthy royalty from a publisher for doing much the same sort of task.