August 13, 2004

The Great Textbook Scam

Earlier this week I picked up my copy of the textbook for CSci2011 from the department office (thanks, Liz). I've paged through the book, the sixth edition of `Discrete Mathematics' by Johnsonbaugh, and it looks like a decent enough text in the MTV mode. The typography is colorful and somewhat sparse, with lots of white space on pages splashed with white-on-blue section headings and other multicolored marginalia. It weighs in at nearly 700 pages of flimsy varnished paper that might not be friendly for intertextual note-taking.

Because I'm a TA for the course, the department gave me a copy that I did not have to pay for. This instructor copy was, in turn, provided to the department by the publisher. This is standard practice in the textbook industry, and I am grateful for it: it would be a burden to buy textbooks for subjects that I already know. Imagine the predicament of a professor who teaches two or three classes a semester: the expense would mount up, high and quickly.

But consider the effect this regime has on the students who have to take the class. They have to pay for their copies of the book, which seems reasonable at first blush. But one of the principles of a market is a feedback link between price and demand: as goods get more expensive, fewer people buy less of them. The textbook scheme has thwarted that feedback: the consumers who specify the purchase (instructors) have no direct incentive to compare prices. We get ours for free. It's the poor bastards taking the class who have to pay.

Two additional tidbits in this case make it even worse. First is the price of the textbook, which costs $145. That (as Jeremy Martin says) buys a lot of ramen. The second aggravation is that the sixth edition just arrived from the publisher in the last few weeks. The standard student dodge of buying used books is not available here, because there are no used copies of the sixth edition.

With 100 students registered for 2011, that's almost $15,000 for Pearson/Prentice-Hall. This is not small change.

Posted by pete2791 at August 13, 2004 5:19 PM