The Book Price Enigma

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If you read an article about textbooks, chances are it will mention one (if not all) of the following words: cost, editions, margins, expensive, profits, rising, up, sticker shock, inflation. And if those words show up, chances are you’re reading an article about the rising cost of textbooks, and if that’s the case, then it’s probably trying to answer the question “why are textbooks so expensive?” And if that is indeed what the article is trying to do, well look out Sally because the accompanying commentary will echo this enigmatic question over and over again in an obsessive, almost vitriolic way that secretly reveals that this question isn’t really a question at all, but rather a rallying cry for outrage, cynicism, and misplaced frustration…. “Textbooks are so expensive! Textbook publishers are evil! Aaaarrrggghhh!!!”

Ok, so that is a bit of an embellishment on my part. Certainly as textbook publishers we seem to be constantly digesting editorials, infographics, commentary about how textbook dollars are spent, how much textbooks have gone up in price over the years, where textbook costs fit in terms of overall higher education costs, the effects of the used book market on textbook prices, new models for textbook pricing, alternatives to buying textbooks, the possibility of cheaper digital textbooks, and the list goes on and on. As a not-for-profit university press, our awareness of the delicate issue of book pricing is vast, and our efforts at addressing it are conscientious and realistic. And I would venture that a multinational-deep-pocketed-beholden-to-share-holders-textbook publisher is also acutely aware of this issue.

Contrary to what my flippant blog opening might suggest, textbook prices deserve discussion, especially in relation to the changing nature and costs of higher education more generally, and there are many worthy examples out there. We also applaud the important work being done by the U.S. Congress to legislate the disclosure of textbook pricing and the way textbooks and supplemental materials are bundled. I do sometimes just wish that the question on everyone’s mind was actually “are all textbooks really this expensive?” UTP Higher Education’s answer to this question would be an enthusiastic “no!” and I hope that this blog post, written in celebration of our first five years at UTP, helps provide some context for that response.

Borrowing from our time at Broadview Press, we have been upfront about our prices and commitment to cost-effectiveness in the hopes of challenging the negative perceptions of the industry. We are publishing books with a point of view, scholarly merit, and useful pedagogical apparatus, while still keeping things affordable. Because our focus is history and the social sciences, we are fortunate not to be competing in a market like engineering or hard sciences, where textbooks for introductory courses run upwards of $300. That said, not every book can cost $29.95, particularly a longer, survey-like textbook, with lots of images, colour, text boxes, and a testbank, and therefore some of our books do run into the $60-$70 range. We do research on our competitors and on what a particular market is looking for in a textbook and we try to develop content that fulfills the learning objectives of a course while still offering pedagogical add-ons that are most useful and—importantly!—actually used by professors and students.

This last point is important because the college and university landscape has changed, and even though students and professors bemoan high sticker prices, they want books that have colour, images, a glossary, suggested activities for the classroom, a list of relevant video links, study questions, and sometimes a testbank, and all of those additional learning tools—linked, of course, to a well-written, thoughtful, engaging narrative that judiciously uses humour, references social media, and pushes students to think critically about the material at hand and the world around them—cost money. As we have suggested in our short Q & A on textbook pricing, a very significant determinant of a book’s price is its development costs: research, editing, design, typesetting, permission costs for the use of images or copyrighted material, the development of instructor support materials and student aids, and the use of colour in the book. Printing the book is a small percentage of this; for us it’s about 20-30% depending on the print run and use of colour (if a book is intended for use in courses with larger enrolments, we can sometimes justify a larger print run, which helps us get a better per book unit cost from the printer). This is why an ebook still bears significant content development costs, not to mention the additional expenditures: converting to epub format; ensuring the new version of the book is included in all bibliographic data feeds going to wholesalers, bookstores, online retailers, and ebook retailers; IT support; buying a massive server to house all the new ebook files that we hope to sell; and training staff on how to work with this new technology. Phew!

So ebooks will provide some savings to students, hopefully closing the price gap between new and used books (more on how the used book market affects new book prices here), but I don’t foresee them ever being free or radically inexpensive. Selling new books and selling new ebooks means that we publishers can continue to develop content with our authors and provide new materials to our various course markets. It’s those markets that we listen to when we do research for new book ideas, when we have our proposals and manuscripts peer-reviewed, when we look at buying trends, and when we look at where learning at universities and colleges is going. It seems that right now a true introductory overview text needs some supplementary materials to even be considered in the running for course adoption, and we have done our best to develop useful add-ons while still maintaining competitive prices when publishing books for these kinds of courses. For example, we are very excited about our latest edition of Larry Johnston’s Politics: An Introduction to the Modern Democratic State, which incorporates more visuals, colour, and sidebars in the text itself and has a companion website with self-study questions for students, case studies, quarterly reports on current events written by the author, a testbank, and links to further resources like web links, podcasts, and videos that can be used in lectures or assignments. This book costs $70, and is approximately $30 cheaper than its competitors.

While we do publish a handful of full-colour textbooks with a small battalion of student and instructor support, most of our books are straight-up, well-written texts with no bells and whistles; they are designed to supplement big textbooks or to be one of several books assigned in a course. In other words… smart, affordable books. This balance of titles is both challenging and rewarding to sign as editors and sell as reps. We have glossy, resource-supported introductory books that are moderately priced and sell very well for us; we also have low-tech, expertly-written, affordable overviews that should sell better than they do. With modest financial and human resources (when compared to the large textbook houses and their armies of “learning sales specialists,” books, and the heaps of stuff that goes with their books), we continue to seek out those instructors who are interested in our approach and in creating and supporting thoughtful, affordable course books. When we connect with an instructor perfectly suited to one of our books, particularly one who might not have seen us coming (or who “doesn’t use textbooks”), it’s amazing! Really.

Books add meaning to our lives. They are avenues of learning, research, escape, empathy, and connection, and this is a wonderful thing to support and nurture. This is why people work in publishing—to help build and shape intellectual and creative endeavor. Most of us aren’t here to make piles of money, but rather to contribute to an industry that is ultimately about ideas and narrative. Add the word “text” in front of “book” and most of this (cheesy?) romanticism fades. Perhaps it’s because textbook consumers—students—are seen as a captured market, or because most professors have shelves of unsolicited, unopened examination copies of new textbooks, or because introductory courses that use introductory books are primarily taught by adjuncts, or because textbooks are part of a higher education system that sometimes seems to favour research over teaching, or because we forget that difficult concepts can be comprehendible and that textbooks do that.

Not all textbooks are expensive. With new areas of study come new course markets, and with new course markets come new course material options, and with new options comes choice. Choose to support those publishers who refuse to be squeezed into simply toeing the line put forth by larger textbook houses. Students, scholars, and the market as a whole will be far better for it.

-Michelle Lobkowicz, Sales Manager

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