Parent (and UW professor) blasts high textbook prices

The following is a redacted version of an email dated 18 August 2010 sent by a UW-Madison faculty member who happens to have a daughter starting school this fall as a UW-Madison freshman.  In addition to being sent to both the course instructor in one of our largish science departments and  its chair, it was copied to Vice Provost Aaron Brower and a number of other recipients.

The letter is long, but the message is simple:   textbook prices have been rising out of control only because we let them, and it is time to stop letting them.

Date:  18 August 2010

To:    Professor X, Instructor of ABC 1xx
Professor Y, Chair, Dept. of ______

CC:    Aaron Brower, Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning
Members and associates of the Committee on Textbook Affordability

Dear Professors X and Y,

I am writing both as a parent of a UW-Madison student and as a fellow faculty member.  My reason for writing is the discovery this morning that my daughter, an entering freshman, has been assigned a textbook for ABC 1xx that costs about $190 new, roughly $150 used.  This, to my mind, is an outrageous price for any freshman textbook.  To be fair, I realize that outrageous textbook prices are the norm, not the exception, in 2010.

But unlike most students, parents and instructors who bemoan high textbook prices but don’t know what to do about them, I am fairly familiar with the inside workings of the textbook industry, and I have come to understand that $190 for a freshman textbook in a non-niche field like ____ is blatant price gouging, pure and simple, and needs to be called out and dealt with as such.  It goes on only because publishers can set the price to whatever they want, and students have no choice but to buy the books that are assigned for their courses.  Shopping around doesn’t help much, because publishers still have a worldwide monopoly on any particular title, and they control the wholesale price which drives everything else, including used prices.

My purpose in writing is to respectfully suggest that it doesn’t have to be this way, and that price gouging on textbooks is possible only if students, faculty, and university officials continue to assume, incorrectly, that high textbook costs reflect economic forces beyond our control.  They don’t.  I know this because I have a small side business as a publisher, and I know the wide latitude I have to set the retail price for my textbooks.  I choose to charge far less than the market would bear simply because I don’t wish to gouge students.  Large commercial publishing houses don’t have the same scruples.

Introductory textbooks in required large-lecture subjects like ___ and ___  are an especially lucrative industry with huge potential profit margins precisely because demand is large and rigid and normal market controls on prices are broken.  That’s why there is such a glut of glossy new textbooks (and never-ending revisions) for large courses — every publisher is fighting to get even a small but still lucrative slice of a very, very large pie by persuading professors to assign their books.

I don’t know how many students take ABC 1xx and other freshman ABC courses each semester, but I would guess that it’s a number in the many hundreds, if not more.  Multiply that number, whatever it is, by an estimated publisher profit margin of maybe $80-$100 on a $140 wholesale price, and you’ll see how publishers are fattening their bottom lines on the backs of our students (and their parents).

The only way to restore sanity to textbook prices is to push back.  I’m doing it with this message, and I have urged my daughter to push back when she is assigned expensive textbooks and to encourage her friends to do so as well.  I respectfully invite the _____ department and, for that matter, the entire University to join us all in pushing back against publisher gouging.

Here’s the most important point: it IS possible to negotiate prices significantly downward.  I had a publisher sales rep in my office a couple years ago trying to get me to adopt their textbook for my single 300-student freshman course.  I asked her whether she could arrange a 20% discount off the retail price for books sold through our bookstore.  She said yes without even hesitating, because she knew that my decision to adopt would still be worth somewhere approaching $10,000 in net profit for her company for just that semester, even at the discounted price.  Next time I will ask for 50%.

If I can do that as a single professor with just one 300-student lecture, think how much more negotiating power we would have if entire departments or, better, the University, took the same hardnosed position.

Thank you for your attention.



PS:  Because the issues I have raised go beyond just one department’s textbook policies, I am cc’ing Vice Provost Aaron Brower and several individuals associated with a new campus committee on textbook affordability.

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