Matt Listener (mattlistener) wrote,
Matt Listener

Textbook publishing

I received a private Rubenfeld session yesterday, at the end of which I came to the conclusion that I wanted to find out more about the social goods and social ills of the textbook publishing industry.

It's always been important to me that my employer was a *net* social good -- education needs textbooks, and we make good ones. I've also been aware as well that there's an ugly underbelly to the textbook publishing industry. eg new editions printed for the sole purpose of getting students to buy new books rather than used. I've thought that I had integrated that knowledge in my deciding to work where I do, but I don't have an explanation for why I'm always a little late for work rather than simply *on time*, which would would be easy, honestly, and more in accord with living in integrity. I also know I don't contribute my full potential while I'm there. It's certainly more than enough to stay employed amidst staff cuts, and I get a lot of positive feedback, but honestly it would be easy for me to do a lot more, even bearing in mind being a sysadmin is not my calling.

So, I decided I should find out even more about the industry, and make a freshly-informed decision to work there -- or not, if what I learn is too smelly.

I did some fresh research last night and learned the following:

-The economy of textbook publishing has similar distortions to the economy of pharmaceuticals. For K-12 the consumer, the person selecting the product, and the person shelling out the money are three different people. Therefore price factors only weakly into selection decisions. (For college the payer and end-user are the same, but it's still your professor who tells you what to buy.) This predicts that increases in price will only weakly impact sales.

-And indeed, the price of textbooks has been growing at a rate of 2-3x inflation for decades. As a result the cost of books has been taking up an ever greater percentage of the total educational expense borne by students.

-Increasingly, supplemental materials are bundled with textbooks, adding 10-50% to their cost. 2/3 of the time only the book is needed, but there is rarely a retail buying option that leaves out the rest.

-Games are being played with ISBNs to make it harder to find a used version of a book based on an ISBN printed on an example book you've found.

-I saw several references to people calling for the "organized resale" of used textbooks to be made illegal. Illegal! Two of those people actually said that the rise of used textbook sales was directly to blame for the rising cost of new textbooks. Because competition causes higher prices?

-Identical, cheaper versions of a textbook are often sold overseas, with the cover art and ISBN changed. Publishers have been taking steps to beat down the mass-reimportation of the cheaper books. The same dynamic exists in the pharmaceuticals industry.

My starting point for the above was the "Textbook" wikipedia page. Overall, I know more of the wrinkles of the ugly underbelly now, but I didn't find anything that seemed game-changing. It's still a net good. TBD whether this makes a difference with how I am about work.
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