It’s a racket: Publishers throw a few bucks at a professor, who requires the book for his class, and ka-ching:
As the semester ends, instructors at universities and community colleges around the country will begin placing their orders for next year’s textbooks. But not all professors will pay enough attention to something that students complain about: the outlandish prices of the books we assign. Having grown at many times the rate of inflation, the cost of a leading economics book can be over $250; a law school casebook plus supplement can cost $277. Adding to such prices is the dubious trend of requiring students to obtain digital access codes, averaging $100, to complete homework assignments.
The root problem is that it is just too easy for us, the professors, to spend other people’s money. Just like doctors who prescribe expensive medicine, we don’t feel the pain of buying a $211 book of uneven quality and no real use when the course is finished, or a digital access code that costs $100 and is designed at least in part to disable the used-book market. The fact that professors choose and students buy destroys whatever power a competitive market might have to keep prices lower. That, and a touch of greed — the author of one successful book has earned an estimated $42 million in royalties — is why textbook prices have increased over 1,000 percent since the 1970s.
Teaching is a profession with its own ethical duties; students are both our charges and a captive market. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with assigning an expensive book if it is really worth the money and the alternatives are inadequate. (It helps if there’s a good used or rental market). But we at least owe our students the time to make sure we aren’t just absent-mindedly ripping them off.
Across the economy, over the last few years, there’s been a backlash against exploitative pricing, headlined by the condemnation of figures like Martin Shkreli of Turing Pharmaceuticals. Textbook authors and publishers may not be selling necessary medicines, but the practice of exploiting market power to its fullest raises similar ethical questions. The old-fashioned phrase is “price gouging,” and we shouldn’t be a part of it.
I’ve felt this way since I was a college student.